It’s been a while but Tommie Kidd wrote a post about whether historians need a literary agent to get published. The short answer is yes, if you want to publish with a New York City house.
It depends on what type of publishing you wish to do. For most academic publishing, you don’t need a literary agent, because academic publishers are not generally engaged in “trade” publishing, meaning the kinds of books that end up on the shelf at Barnes and Noble. Strictly academic publishing is largely directed toward an academic audience of other scholars in the field, or perhaps graduate or even undergraduate students. Many academic books are priced in such a way ($50+) that the publisher plans to sell relatively few copies, maybe a couple hundred, to academic libraries and a handful of specialists.
For trade publishing, however, you generally do need a literary agent. The large, New York-based trade publishers prefer not to interact with authors directly about contracts, not even established trade authors. For these publishing houses, literary agents are gatekeepers and filters – they let the agents go find and develop promising projects, and trusted agents can typically secure contracts for most of the projects they propose.
Surprising here is that Kidd, who is one of the younger evangelical historians with an interest in writing for people in the pew, neglected to mention religious publishers as an option for historians. Once upon a time the evangelical historical mafiosa (Noll, Marsden, Stout, Hatch) regularly worked with Grand Rapids publishers such as Eerdmans, Baker, Zondervan and (further away) InterVarsity. In fact, you could argue that the Grand Rapids publishers were partly responsible for the renaissance of writing about the history of evangelicalism from which folks like Kidd and me benefit. And yet, for Kidd (and his generation of evangelical historians) these publishers do not seem to be on the radar.
As I say, this is odd because of Kidd’s admirable interest in reaching a non-academic and believing audience, which was one of the reasons he wrote his biography of Whitefield the way he did:
Fans of Whitefield know that the chasm between the academic and evangelical approaches to Whitefield is best exemplified by the differences between Arnold Dallimore’s 2-volume Whitefield biography, and Harry Stout’s The Divine Dramatist. Dallimore’s is an explicitly Christian biography, and while Dallimore certainly criticized Whitefield at certain points, it was written primarily for a Christian audience and focused on the ways that God used Whitefield in the Great Awakening. Yale historian Stout (who, for full disclosure, is a friend and a mentor to me) placed Whitefield in the context of England’s theater culture, and focused much more on Whitefield’s worldly context and motivations. To many readers, Stout’s approach seemed overly cynical; indeed, John Piper has said that Stout’s biography is “the most sustained piece of historical cynicism I have ever read.”
I find myself in the strange position of being an admirer of both John Piper and Harry Stout, and a fan of Dallimore’s biography, to boot! In fact, I think that Dallimore’s biography has been one of the best choices for general readers who want to know the amazing story of Whitefield’s ministry, and many evangelical readers will understandably find Dallimore more congenial than Stout. But Stout, and other academic writers like Frank Lambert and Jerome Mahaffey, add a dynamic missing in approaches like Dallimore’s: a broader understanding of the culture and economy that formed Whitefield and made his ministry possible, in an earthly sense.
If Kidd wants to reach a middle ground, and I have no doubt that he does, I suggest that Grand Rapids rather than New York City (sorry TKNY) is the place to go to access it.