Another historical novelist was asking recently what historical novelists could do to market their genre. I’m not sure it’s entirely the right question. Is there really a genre of historical novels?
I keep reading that historical novels are madly popular right now. This seems to mean that there is a lot of enthusiasm for Hilary Mantel and Phillipa Gregory, partly because of success at the Bookers and on TV respectively. But an enthusiasm for what I (showing my age) still call mediaeval and Tudor fiction is not necessarily going to help me. I did hear on Radio Four that there is a fashion right now for what they called neo-Victorian books, which would help me if anybody had heard of this fashion outside the more aesthetic reaches of the BBC. But that’s not necessarily going to sell the books that friends of mine have written set in revolutionary Russia or on the old paddle steamers of the Mississippi.
My point is that because you like the Falco stories set in ancient Rome doesn’t mean that you’ll like Bernard Cornwell’s Napoleonic Sharpe tales. And you might think that a story based in the Korean War isn’t historical at all – although, according to many definitions, it quite definitely is. In fact, a recent survey suggests that readers’ favourite period is the 13th to 16th centuries (presumably the Mantel/Gregory effect) with the least favourite time periods being prehistory and the 2nd to 5th centuries. So I think we have to get away from the idea that there is one genre of “historical fiction” that people are buying into.
Apart from the whole question of period, there’s the issue of subgenres. With historical fiction, the subgenres are not a trivial or artificial distinction. There is a massive market for what is called in the trade “Regency Romance”. It is unlikely that a reader of Regency Romance is going to rush to buy my own The White Rajah, although it is set only a few decades after the Regency period. Some of Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe books actually take place during the Regency, but I think that Romance readers will not want to read his military fiction. Military fiction is, of course, another subgenre of historical fiction. Cornwell is a particularly strong presence here, but so are the naval adventures of CS Forester and Patrick O’Brian. But is it sensible to assume that same people that enjoy Forester’s Hornblower stories are going to read the Empire series about the Roman legions?
The problem is that genre fiction sells. It is much easier to market a book that can be presented as a “thriller”, “crime story”, “romcom”, or whatever than simply as a novel. In fact the books that are left over after genre fiction has been taken out tend to be lumped together as “literary novels”, which get far more critical attention but, usually, much lower sales. Unsurprisingly, people like me, who write books that are not set in the present day, would rather have ourselves described as authors of “historical fiction” than as of (in my case) authors writing novels dealing with issues of colonialism and exclusion but with some quite exciting bits in. But I suspect that for every Regency Romance reader who looks my book before recoiling in horror, there is another potential reader who never gets that far because they “don’t read historical novels”.
What’s the solution? I have no idea. If you have, please respond in the comments below and you will have my undying gratitude.