I’m trying to catch up on the hundreds of questions people have sent in. Someone wrote to say this: “The popularity in genres seems to go in cycles, with perhaps the exception of romance, which always seems to sell well. Where in this cycle do you see the historical fiction genre right now? In the near future?”
Fiction goes through a cycle with publishers: produce some, watch it grow, produce more, produce too much, cut back, start selling again, produce some, watch it grow, etc. Right now one could argue that there are more historicals being sold than there used to be, but I agree with you — that’s simply a cycle. People love reading about other eras, so while we may be trending down a bit right now in some genres, it will trend back up. That’s how fiction works. In a lousy economy, people want a book that’s an escape to a simpler time, so historicals were doing well. Now that the economy is brighter, we’re seeing a swing back to more contemporaries. Suspense, which also had an explosion with the growth of e-books, seems to have been waning a bit, but since it’s cyclical, they will come back.
Another reader sent me this: “Is there a certain sub-genre of historical fiction (fantasy, romance, thriller, mystery) that you think is selling best now? And is historical fiction fading out?”
A sub-genre that seems to be trending up is the romance novel with a strong suspense line. Another has been the romance with fantastic or supernatural elements. Some historical periods continue to sell, so there is renewed interest in the Edwardian and Victorian periods (thanks to Downton Abbey, an entire period of time that’s been overlooked is once again popular). And despite slowing, plenty of readers are still in love with the Amish and all things simple. Romance novels set in Texas seem to outsell other settings (no idea why — I find the state flat and hot and not terribly interesting… but I only say that to bug the people from Texas). But historical romances are definitely still a category that sell. Don’t give up on it.
One reader asked, “Since trends do seem to come and go, would you advise a writer of historical fiction to write in other genres as well?”
I don’t think that’s the right question to be asking. A better question would be, “What’s the right place for me to write?” If you have a particular voice for romance, you should be writing romance. If your voice is literary, you should be writing literary. Frankly, it’s tough to create any sort of brand for yourself if you’re all over the map. (And now the caveat… that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes you have to write cross-genres to make a living. Such is the life of the artist.)
And someone asked, “When we see a print run of multiple thousands of copies (for example, this week on Publishers Lunch I noticed a publisher announcing they’re going to print 100,000 copies of a book), where are all those copies going?”
A publisher is only doing a big print run when they’ve spoken to accounts and know they are going to see a lot of big orders for a book. So those books are printed and sent to accounts to fulfill orders, or they are shipped to warehouses in order to be ready to fill re-orders when the book starts selling quickly. In today’s publishing world, where you can go back and quickly reprint books, publishers don’t want to be sitting on tens of thousands of unsold copies — so a big print run means a big marketing budget and a probably bestseller.
And someone sent me this question: “As online retailers are selling more and more books, have distribution and ordering practices changed much? Are things different from when you started?”
Things are significantly different from when I first started in the book business. (Dinosaurs no longer roam the earth, for example. And the whole “movable type” idea has speeded things up.) In my view, the change in book distribution has been the biggest shift I’ve seen in my twenty-some years in book publishing. First, book readers moved from independent bookstores to mega-stores. That led to the decline of indies and created the rise of Barnes & Noble (and Borders, who didn’t survive). Second, they began buying books at Big Box stores, so Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club, and Costco suddenly become players in the industry (even though you wander through the aisles and can find few employees who apparently know how to read, let alone answer anything about books). Third, Amazon came along and created the online bookstore, so that now you don’t need to leave home to buy books. And fourth, the advent of e-books reshaped the patterns again, as Kindle and Nook and iPad owners simply have books downloaded digitally to their devices.
So the business isn’t the same at all. There are fewer people to ask about books, and more pooled ignorance on Amazon reviews,, and a far worse shopping experience than when you could wander the aisles and talk with salespeople who were readers. There’s much more of a willingness to order and wait for the books to be shipped to your home. Publishers are now selling directly to consumers, which they used to eschew, and they’ve had to realign their thinking about book sales. Some say there are fewer book stores (and there ARE fewer brick and mortar stores), but I would argue there are MORE bookstores than ever, since every computer is now a bookstore. Sure, those brick and mortar stores order fewer copies, and they can return the books they don’t sell (which is unlike just about every other industry), they have to still pay freight and stock inventory — making it an expensive business that’s hard to survive in today’s retail environment. For the consumer, your book can be delivered overnight to your door or instantly to your device through the airwaves (presumably by the magic of faeries). So… yes. The industry has gone through a revolution in the past ten years.
My question for you: What do you LIKE about the changes in today’s publishing world?