When I began reading romances in the 80s, they were almost all historicals. Books were set during the American Revolution, the early settlement days, the Gilded Age. They were medievals, regencies, and the old West. They featured horse racers, steel magnates, and pirates on the high seas. I read everyone from Phoebe Conn to Judith McNaught to Megan McKinney. Even my favorite contemporary authors wrote historicals like Jayne Ann Krentz (aka Amanda Quick) and Elizabeth Lowell. The variety in the 80s and 90s was tremendous and while it was largely Caucasion, there were the occasional portrayals of Native Americans (Susan Johnson’s Absorakees were the best).
Today’s historicals are largely rooted in the Regency era, with few deviations. The feel of the stories are largely the same, constrained as authors are by the standards and mores of the time. Some authors have tried for high concept such as Regency Bachelor (Vicky Dreiling) or Regency Charlie’s Angels (Shana Galen) or Regency Brady Bunch (Kiernan Kramer). And while there are a few really wonderful Regency authors, I cannot live on five or six historical authors alone and the genre cannot survive without a steady influx of new authors anxious to share their stories with the world. Self publishing isn’t likely to save us. Any historical author worth her salt is likely to be picked up by a publishing house in the last five years.
The historical romance genre is dying. We only need to look at the numbers to confirm this as a truth. In the end of the year summary of book sales, PW reported that the highest selling ebook historical was A Night Like This by Julia Quinn with 66,192. What’s even worse is that there wasn’t a new author on that list of bestselling historical ebooks.
It was all established authors with longtime fanbases unlike contemporaries like The Marriage Bargain by Jennifer Probst (72,686) or On the Island by Tracey Garvis Graves (in excess of 80,000+). The top names in contemporary such as Nora Roberts and Sylvia Day outsold Quinn by a factor of more than 10. Even an older title by Rachel Gibson outsold the highest ranking historical. Simply Irresistible by Rachel Gibson sold 74,687. Yes, this book was discounted but so was Devil’s Bride by Stephanie Laurens which sold 25,229. Not one historical romance made the top 100 (and to be fair, neither did Nora Roberts but Sylvia Day did). PW does not do a list for mass markets (see this list for hardcovers) but we know that the mass market sales have seen a steady and significant decline in the past few years. In 2012, unit sales of mass markets were down 20.5% from 2011 and down 38% since 2010. Any areas of growth in mass market has been for contemporary authors.
There are two things holding historicals backs. It’s authors and readers. Yep, that’s right. It’s partly our fault readers. On the one hand we want different but we are afraid of it too. In Charles Duhigg’s book “The Power of Habit” which I reviewed back in September 2012,
The book touches on the issue of familiarity and success of music which I think can easily be extrapolated to books. The example used by Duhigg is the success of Hey Ya by Outkast.
Everyone believed it was a hit. Executives at Arista had begun singing to each other the line “shake it a Polaroid picture.” Unfortunately it didn’t catch on with the public. It was so different than what was playing at the time, so unfamiliar, the listeners would reject it within the first few bars. The record executives got the radio DJs to play Hey Ya between songs that listeners were familiar with. Listeners would expect to hear song B after listening to Song A and then Hey Ya. Eventually Hey Ya took hold and became the hit that everyone expected it would be.
This explains, in large part, why “If You Like” shelf talkers and lists are helpful in selling books. Why publishers chase the next Twilight, Hunger Games, and Fifty Shades. Because readers are looking for familiar tropes with the same reward. It explains why category lines developed by Harlequin are so successful and why it is so difficult to introduce change or something new.
In some ways, publishers try to emulate the sandwich technique with anthologies but they aren’t doing it quite as scientifically. In other words, if I was packaging books at a bookstore, I would stick Meljean Brook’s The Iron Duke (a book that sells okay) in between two of Kresley Cole’s paranormals. Those books all have the same, familiar storyline. A possessive, jealous hero that pursues the heroine even when it seems she has no interest. The sandwiching of the new, unexpected storyline (steampunk) still can deliver the familiar emotional end result and thereby elevating a hard to market story that should be a hit.
Because the unfamiliar is hard for readers to swallow, we are likely contributing to the staleness in the genre. Yet, I actively look for new historical reads. When I heard Anna Randol was going to be writing a book set in Constantinople, I about swooned with glee. Yet the pacing, trope, storyline, and characters all read like they were from Regency England, only with slightly different costumes. It may be that readers are fleeing to the historical fiction sub genre because of the very staleness in the romance genre.
I’m not going to launch a historical romance campaign. I think I’m actively looking for the historical romance genre to die. For Regency dukes to molder into dust. For dashing earls to be crushed. Only then can the genre reinvent itself. I don’t want to save the historical romance genre. I want it to die and from the ashes, maybe then, a new and fresh historical voices will arise unconstrained by both reader, editor and agent expectations.