History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

10 May 2013

The "Death" of the Historical

There’s been a lot of buzz lately about the demise of the historical novel.  In fact, I’ve been hearing about it on a weekly basis. 

Three weeks ago, friends back from the London Book Fair informed me that the scuttlebutt there was that the historical novel was dead.  Last week, AAR posted “Where have all the Historical Romances gone?”  And just this week, Dear Author opined that the historical romance should be put out of its misery.

What’s going on?

I have a bunch of theories, none of them terribly coherent.  (I’m in the midst of revisions just now, so my brain is a sub-species of mush.)  But here they are, such as they are:

The market tends to glut.  Remember the rise and fall of chick lit?  A particular sort of book tends to sell very well, spawns a sea of sequels, readers eventually get bored, and the trend dies.  On the historical fiction side, we’ve seen this with the Other Other Other Boleyn Girl’s fourteenth cousin twice removed; on the historical romance side, with Regency rakes who really don’t want to get married until they meet that feisty miss who happens to be running a matchmaking agency/bake shoppe/ early suffragette bureau on the side.

But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t an appetite for the historical. Certainly, the popularity of Downton Abbey should be enough to show that people still hunger after stories set in the past.  Just as chick lit changed and developed, moving into women’s fiction, contemporary romance, and YA, the historical is seeking out new frontiers as well.  There are plenty of historical offshoots out there: time slip novels (like Susanna Kearsley's much anticipated Firebird), fictionalized biography (The Aviator’s Wife, Z), and historical paranormal (think Deborah Harkness or Bee Ridgway).  Certain types of historical novels and historical romances may rise and wane in popularity, but that doesn't mean the historical as a whole is dead.

I also wonder if we’re missing the forest for the trends.  In our internet age, we create odd echo chambers for ourselves; trends come and go at the speed of lightning and small shifts get blown out of all proportion.  Are the books we’re buzzing about on the internet really the books people are taking out of the library, or reading and re-reading?  For those of us wrapped up in the industry, it’s easy to only pay attention to the trajectory of new books (and often only in their first few weeks of publication), which might provide a misleading picture of what people are actually reading on the ground.

Which leads me to my next point.  The number of available books has multiplied.  It’s not just new fiction coming out in greater quantity than ever before.  Suddenly, we have access to authors’ backlists in a way that would have been unimaginable ten years ago.  I know people who have gone from The Other Boleyn Girl to discovering Jean Plaidy, Anya Seton, Kathleen Winsor, M.M. Kaye, and other classic writers of historical fiction for the first time, while, on the historical romance side, I’ve heard a great deal about a return to the classic historical romances of the 80s and 90s, both in e-book form and, in many cases, in mass market print re-issue with snazzy new covers and blurbs from more recent popular authors.  These books aren’t new, they don’t get buzz, and they aren’t hitting lists, but that doesn’t make them any less meaningful to readers or lessen their appeal.  What we’re seeing may not be so much a dissolution as a diffusion.

There’s no denying that paranormal, contemporary and erotica are enjoying an ascendance right now—but I wouldn’t write off the historical yet.

What do you think?


Blogger Landra said...

I read a historical every week. I purchase at least 1 every week. This week 1 purchased 2. I don't think it's going away and I don't think they need to.

As with all genres of romance Historical fills a need, one that can't be replicated. It can be compared to, I love a good steampunk, but they can't be replaced as a whole.

I agree that the backlists are definitely changing the landscape. Of the books I purchased one was released in 2012 and one was released in the 90's. My tastes vary. I think we need to quit predicting and just get to reading. :) Great post Lauren.

10:04 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

I can only speak to my own experience. The growth trend of *my* sales has been the direct opposite of a death spiral. Each book has outsold the book previous, and then the long tail kicks in and sales bump up for the earlier books. And when I talk to my friends, this seems to be the norm (and yes, there’s been lots of shop talk about this since the world can’t see to stop telling us our genre is on life-support).

So maybe there’s been a noticeable dip in sales for some of the major historical authors that makes it appear as if the genre is sinking across the board? I’m not sure. But back when I joined RWA in 2004, the historical had been proclaimed “dead”. And then everyone in my 2005 Golden Heart group promptly sold their manuscripts. In fact, we were the first group in our year to do so. The PNR writers (the supposedly “hot” genre” had a much harder time of it).

12:54 PM  
Blogger Evangeline Holland said...

I don't think the historical romance market is dead. It's holding steady, and remains the backbone of the romance genre.

That said, I hesitate to categorize the dominance of the Regency Historical as a glut or a trend that will change. It emerged as a juggernaut in the wake of the Jane Austen adaptations of the mid-90s and of successful traditional Regency authors moving out of that market to write single title historical romance. The Regency is here to stay because it can feed itself--top authors, Jane Austen's perennial popularity, and new authors expressing their enjoyment of the period.

I don't think the popularity of Downton Abbey, or even The Tudors, or Vikings, or Copper, or The Great Gatsby, or any other period drama that has emerged over the past two or three years will shake the Regency's preeminence in historical romance. Mainstream historical fiction and YA historical fiction pursue the trends--which, incidentally, is my bone of contention and my fear: readers who seek variety in settings and characters will find this outside of historical romance, and the next generation of readers won't ever need to turn to historical romance if mainstream HF and YA HF are meeting their needs.

6:38 PM  
Blogger Helena said...

I agree that the historical novel is neither dead nor dying. I think that you make very valid points about what people are actually reading and the extent to which the industry is (or can be) aware of that.

For me, the easy availability of backlists in ebook form has had a real impact on what I buy and read. I have always had a tendency to buy up backlists when I found an author I liked. Previously, this would have meant buying the books second-hand - which was made much easier by Amazon (especially when the author wasn't published in England and I had to get the books from the US). Now, if the author has got back her rights and self-published her backlist as ebooks or if her publisher has brought it out, I'll buy them that way. However, I'm very price-conscious and won't buy re-issued books if they're more than £2.20 or so.

Historicals will always be my first love, whatever I'm told that I should be reading! And for me that means Georgian and Regency, principally, with a few exceptions for Victorian and early twentieth century (naming no names!).

Can't help wondering if it's a conspiracy by writers/authors of contemporaries which has caused the sudden glut of articles...

11:07 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

For as long as I can remember, I have read historical. I'm drawn to it, can't get away from it. When I attempt to write contemporary, everyone's speech comes out historical. Just happens, no explanation. I will ALWAYS read historical, regardless what the market gurus say is on trend. THAT SAID--I do believe like any other genre, the historical author possesses the burden of creating new twists on old stories. Make it new, make it fun, but most of all, MAKE IT YOUR OWN. This is what will keep historical romance alive through the ages.

6:05 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

I couldn't have said it better than any of the previous posts. I have always read historicals. I will always read historicals - with Regency, Georgian and the periodic Victorian gracing entire walls in my house.

I write Regency historicals because I don't have a desire to write anything else. That's my voice and those are the stories that come to me.

I just don't see this market going away.

8:32 PM  
Blogger Karin said...

I love historicals, and if they ever go out of style I hope there are enough books on authors' backlist so that I don't run out of reading material during the rest of my lifetime! I've noticed the trend towards the early 20th Century; I'm not sure if that's the Downton Abbey effect or just the fact that it's now 100 years ago, long enough to be considered "historical". The late 18th and early 19th centuries will always be my favorite though.

4:22 PM  

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