Commissioning an Institutional or Business History
1. Decide what you want
A professional, analytical history is a major asset to any institution or business and it makes sense to hire a professional historian to do the job for you. They are used to handling sensitive issues and commercially sensitive material and they can also advise you about establishing protocols for handling current and near-recent history.
Think about what you want. Although most institutions usually want a book, professional historians can also produce:
- Website histories
- Content for television/radio documentaries, DVDs or videos
- Oral history recordings
- Privately circulated typescripts
Before talking to your prospective historian, look around bookshops or the library. If you find something that you like, take a copy to the first meeting. It will help focus your thoughts.
2. Decide when do you want it
Time is precious. There is no standard time for a project and research, and writing will depend on a number of things. They are:
- Your budget
- Your archives and resources – long blind searches through newspapers take time (and money); before you go any further, survey your records. It’ll be a lot easier if you have all or most of the following:
- Minutes, letters, financial records, photos, ephemera (advertising material)
- Names of people for interviewing etc.
- The length of the manuscript that you require
- The time that your historian can commit to the project.
Remember that the project seldom ends with the delivery of the manuscript. A small book can take six months to edit, typeset, design, proofread and index. Obviously a very big book or one that is going to be printed overseas will take longer.
If your deadline is unrealistic don’t try to cut corners to meet an arbitrary date. Is it essential, or just desirable? Commissioning a book as a centennial year project is better than rushing out an inferior product that year; after all, this is not something that you will be doing again in a hurry!
3. What will it cost?
As with any professional job, be prepared to pay a realistic fee (the Rates of Pay section on this site will give you an indication of market rates). Remember, too, to allow for travel and accommodation costs, buying photographs and commissioning maps or other artwork.
Your historian will get you an estimate of production costs. The main components are:
- Format of book – page size, number of pages
- Paper quality
- Use of colour (if any)
Since paper forms a large part of the cost and you pay for what you use, set a realistic print run. Decide:
Will you give it away or sell it? If a gift, think carefully about the number that you will need for initial distribution and, say, five years’ worth of corporate gifts. Unit costs fall as print numbers go up, but it can be costly to be left with thousands of unwanted books. Think about storage, too.
Be realistic about sales potential. There are about 400 major libraries in New Zealand and the library/trade market for most commissioned histories is usually smaller than you think. And remember that someone will have to distribute those books!
4. Other matters
An advisory committee can be useful for some jobs, but it is best to have one person take responsibility for liaising with the historian. Ideally he or she should be senior enough to meet requests quickly but not so senior as to be inaccessible.
You may need to provide a working space – desk or office – as well as after hours access to files and archives.
Negotiate a written contract (see the contracts section on this site and the New Zealand Society of Authors has a model contract) or at least exchange letters.