Historical Fiction Preferences – Publishers vs Readers

Last spring’s historical fiction survey asked readers to specify preferred time periods. The column below on the far right titled ‘Survey %’ shows how readers responded. You can see quite clearly that the 13th to 16th centuries were favoured by more than 50% of participants.
But what are publishers publishing?

Time Period Count Percent Survey %
Prehistory 0 0 4.1
3000 BC to 1000 AD 18 6.32 20.2
2nd to 5th Century 1 0.35 5.7
6th to 12th Century 17 5.96 31.6
13th to 16th Century 39 13.68 52.3
17th Century 11 3.86 22.4
18th Century 16 5.61 36.5
19th Century 63 22.11 45.5
20th Century 120 42.11 25.7

Sarah Johnson whose blog Reading the Past is a favourite of many historical fiction enthusiasts is also Book Review Editor for the Historical Novel Society. Recently she released a list of historical fiction to be published in 2013. In the table above, the percent column shows forthcoming books by time period in terms of percent while the count column is my exercise in counting the number of books by time period. (Note: I have tried to eliminate duplicates and attribute the correct time period in all cases, but I’m certain to have missed a few.)
Clearly publishers are choosing the 20th century. Forty-two percent of forthcoming novels are situated in the first half of the twentieth century and there’s a substantial gap between that and the 19th century which is the second most popular time period chosen by publishers. I should add that the HNS list does not include many novels that might be categorized as historical romance.
Because I’m writing about WWI and WWII, I have some further stats on 20th century fiction. Please note that some novels span more than one of these periods and I have excluded them from the percentages.

  • 12.5% are pre-WWI
  • 5% are WWI
  • 26.6% are in between the world wars
  • 34% are WWII
  • 9% are post WWII

I’m curious. Are these percentages significant or an anomaly? Will readers be disappointed or are they ready to embrace new time periods? What draws writers and publishers to the 20s, 30s and WWII?

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41 Responses

  1. Hi Mary. These are interesting statistics. I love history of many periods, but for historical fiction reading I have always preferred ancient times (3000-30 BC) and Early-Late Medieval and Renaissance. As a reader thirsty for new stories, I have often wondered if novels in ancient times “suffer” in terms of both publication and reading audience, somewhat because they too often tend to be only about Caesar and Cleopatra, or are very military-themed (i.e. battles and legions etc).
    Readers preferring the 20th century–because of gangsters, Prohibition, and that WWII played some part in shaping the world we still know today, perhaps?
    Interesting questions, and therein lie some challenges for upcoming authors as well, I think.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Marie. I once referred to the World Wars as ‘distant but tangible’. We know people who lived through those times (grandparents for example) so that makes stories set in the first half of the 20th century quite tangible. There seems to be quite a fascination with the 1920s world as you point out. So much was changing then. When I first began exploring WWI, I was fascinated with the shifts in terms of fashion, women’s place in society, changing class structures and of course the incredible affects of war. Perhaps WWI is of more interest to people from Commonwealth countries – those in the US seem more interested in WWII. Regarding ancient times, I’ve just started Margaret George’s novel, about Helen of Troy. Looks good so far!

  2. In answering your questions,
    Are these percentages significant or an anomaly?
    The percentages relate to a specific population of people with a predilection for historical fiction. They know what they want and they seek it out.
    Will readers be disappointed or are they ready to embrace new time periods?
    Clearly publishers are not responding to the needs/wants/desires of the market, but are probably taking into account the overall population of readers. But still, 39 books that take place between the 13th – 16th centuries (even if it represents only 13% of the total number of books published) is still A LOT of books for the average book buyer. Clearly, when publishers decide whether or not to publish a MS, they take into consideration many other factors and not just the time period. If tomorrow Jeffrey Archer submitted a MS that takes place in Greenland in the 3rd century, there will be a virtual frenzy to acquire said MS regardless of the fact that nobody particularly cares to read about Greenland in the 3rd century. Heck, I would probably buy the book.
    What draws writers and publishers to the 20s, 30s and WWII?
    Probably the huge availability of research material such as memoirs and oral histories in the form of first person accounts of daily life during this period. In addition, newspapers and magazines from this period abound on Google Books not to mention there were a lot of interesting historical figures from this period that became pop culture icons: Trotsky, Stalin, FDR, Mussolini, Mata Hari, Greta Garbo, Lindbergh, Hemingway, Kafka, Picasso, Dali, Edward VIII, Wallis Simpson, the list is endless. You could spend an entire lifetime writing about the interesting historical figures from these decades of societal upheaval and turmoil.

    1. And if Jeffrey Archer came out with that book, others would try a copycat book to ride the wave! Agree with you on the materials available although if you follow someone like Elizabeth Chadwick on Facebook you will see what an amazing collection of research material she has amassed.

      1. I do agree about the copycat wave syndrome! The ancient and medieval worlds carry a rich wealth of research materials (many actually accessible also on Google books and libraries) and many in translation. While there are probably quite a few large gaps in those records, there are still ample pathways to telling a great story set in either of those periods.

  3. I’d be curious to see how these numbers might have changed in recent years. Is the publishers’ trend towards 20th century fiction new? As a reader who prefers 20th century fiction, it certainly feels that way. WWII fiction has always been easy to find, especially with stories leaning more towards thrillers or mysteries, but I’ve felt that there is more selection with pre-WWII 20th century novels. Though, perhaps, I’m just aware of a greater variety in that category.
    The one thing that I wonder is if there might be a difference between readers who consider themselves historical fiction fans and readers who would say that they read more broadly than that. My book club, for example, reads a lot of historical fiction (the vast majority of what we read), though the women wouldn’t consider themselves “historical fiction readers”. But, of the historical novels we read, most are 20th century, with a few 19th. I think it’s as you said, that these times are distant, yet tangible. They feel more contemporary than something set in a medieval castle. I wonder if that’s why the percentages don’t match up–the what’s-being-published numbers reflect a broader audience, which may not even think of itself as a historical fiction audience.
    Fascinating questions, Mary!

    1. Interesting thought, Jessica. I suspect many of the people who responded to my survey had a predisposition to historical fiction although 59% reported reading less than 50% historical fiction. As you point out, publishers look at the world differently. They want all readers to consider their books not just fans of historical fiction, enthusiastic though we may be!

      1. I found it interesting that my LETTERS FROM SKYE, which I always considered historical fiction, is being marketed as women’s fiction and commercial fiction (even the cover, to me, seems to reflect that). It’s WWI and WWII, so it falls in that category we’re discussing. I suppose while writing it I didn’t see my audience as broad as that!

  4. I agree with Jessica. Publishing books set in the 20th century is not targeting readers of historical fiction as such, but the general reading public or niche readerships within that, such as readers of literary fiction (think of Bird Song, for example, or Atonement). Technically it may be historical fiction, but people don’t necessarily see it as that.
    Great blog by the way, and your earlier analysis of the survey was really interesting. Thanks.

    1. Thanks for visiting, KMJ and for the encouragement. Your comment makes me think of Sweet Tooth which I finished a few days ago. Set in the 70s, written by Ian McEwan, many would consider it historical fiction – McEwan is such a wonderful writer, people read whatever he produces, regardless of whether it’s deemed historical or not. Historical fiction crosses so many genres, which I think is brilliant!

      1. “Historical fiction crosses so many genres”
        I think this is one of the key points here. Although some historical novels, especially those centering around marquee names, feel strictly historical fiction, it’s really more fluid than that. They can be literary fiction, mysteries, romances, romantic fiction, thrillers, etc. So many other audiences a given novel can be marketed to than just an audience with a love of history.

  5. The 20th century has so much going for it for the historical novelist – politically, economically, social and the upheaval went with it. I can understand why the publishers prefer this to say medieval historical fiction. Having said that there is much to be said about ‘older’ historical fiction. I am sure that all historical era’s will continue to be read but I do think there is going to be an upsurge in 20th century based historical fiction in the next decade. Which is good for people like me who not only like to read it but write it and edit it!

    1. Oh my goodness. What a lot of errors in my comment. And I am an editor lol. I blame it on being up too early this morning and in need of another coffee.

  6. I’m going to put on two different hats here. As a reader of historical fiction I’m interested in a broad range of periods from ancient to twentieth century. Having said that, the older the period the less like today it feels and I read historical fiction to avoid reading about today!
    As a writer of late medieval historical fiction, I’ve chosen to write about the period I happen to know best – no, I wasn’t growing up in it… but I think it’s a period that really interests readers at the moment. I might later choose a different period but only because it interests me and not because it might or might not be popular with readers. I don’t think you can predict that.

    1. Thanks for this, Derek. Most of the historical fiction writers I’ve interviewed would agree with your point about writing what interests you. I suppose the challenge is to do that AND still secure the interest of publishers and readers.

  7. I find these statistics interesting, particularly because most historical fiction readers seem to prefer to read about the distant past (19th century and earlier) rather than the more recent past (20th century). But 20th century historical fiction must sell quite well or publishers wouldn’t continue to publish so many books set during this period.
    As an avid reader of historical fiction I’ve always gravitated towards novels set in the medieval period and I can’t see this changing. Lately, however, I have been reading more novels set in the early 20th century, particularly those taking place just before and during WWI. I attribute this new found interest to my love of the TV show Downton Abbey, and I’m sure there are other historical fiction readers out there who are reading more WWI-era fiction for this same reason. I’m quite sure there are many authors and publishers out there who are trying to make the most of this increased interest in the early 20th century. The bookstore I visit regularly has a large display for books (both fiction and non-fiction) set between 1910 and the 1930, including many similar to Downton Abbey. The book display is very obviously trying to attract fans of Downton Abbey.
    I would think there are probably cyclical trends in historical fiction publishing. A few years ago it seemed every new book published was set during the Tudor period, which was great for Tudor fans but even the biggest fan can get tired of reading about the same period over and over. Now it seems as if the 20th century is the go to period for historical fiction. In a couple of years readers, authors and publishers will probably be ready to move onto a different time period and the trend will change again.
    Finally, I definitely think readers are willing to try different time periods so long as a novel sounds interesting. As I stated above, I prefer the medieval period but will read about just about any period in history if the book sounds good.

    1. Thanks Melissa … I’m sure if we did some analysis we would see an interesting correlation between Downton Abbey and published books. I also agree with the notion of time periods – or subject matter – being cyclical. Publishers and writers often climb onto a bandwagon that’s already moving – as with Downton Abbey, the Fifty Shades phenomena is a good example. Wouldn’t it be fantastic to be the writer that sets the bandwagon in motion, rather than climbing on board afterwards! Your final point suggests that story remains a critical deciding factor, bandwagon or not.

      1. Agreed, that there is a lot to help out a surge in 20th century fiction at the moment. Of course there’s the Downton influence, but there’s also the centennial of WWI approaching, we just had the Titanic centennial. It also seems like I’m seeing more novels set during the Great Depression; perhaps as a response to the economic situation of the past few years?

      2. Mary ,I wonder, do most people really search for books by time period? When you search on Amazon, for instance, it’s by category in a trail of key words (historical fiction/time travel/ fantasy – for instance) After that, I believe that story , if it sound interesting enough, is the key to everything and era cames second. A good story trumps all.

      3. Judith, Amazon does not seem to have sub-categories under historical fiction for different periods, so, as you point out, one must do their own searching (and I wonder how many books might be overlooked that way). Barnes&Noble’s website conversely offers those subcategories already–under Fiction is HIstorical Fiction, and under Ancient history for example one can find ancient Greece, Rome, or Egypt. I don’t know how Amazon decides to provide categories.

    2. I agree, Melissa. I also tend to read historical novels set in the medieval period, but Downton Abbey has made me more interested in pre-WWI England. We must not be the only ones since there does seem to be a lot more novels set in the Edwardian era lately.

  8. I agree with Jessica – novels with 20th-century settings are read by many who don’t consider themselves historical fiction readers, and publishers may be acquiring them as general fiction/literature and not considering them HF per se. For example, I was at the BookExpo America conference last June, speaking to one publisher about their HF offerings. They told me about several novels (19th-c settings) I might find intriguing, but when I pointed out a WWII thriller in their catalog, they were taken slightly surprised because it hadn’t occurred to them that it would be considered historical fiction!
    That said, I believe publishers are actively acquiring more and more WWI-WWII novels AND promoting them to historical fiction readers, esp with the popularity of shows like Downton Abbey that showcase not only the war aspect but the changes transforming society at the time. I’ve also been seeing many dual-period novels that are set both now and early-to-mid 20th-century, using a link between generations to tie the two plots together. That’s a good way of making history seem immediately relevant to the modern-day characters and to readers, too.
    I’d like to see more ancient world settings depicted in fiction outside of the blood-and-battle saga genre, but there aren’t many of them.

    1. Thanks, Sarah. Your point about the publisher being surprised to consider a WWII thriller as historical fiction is interesting. Since HF crosses genres perhaps there’s an opportunity for writers to position their manuscripts differently?

      1. I came across a novel earlier that interested me. It is set in ancient Rome. I noticed that of all things, it was described as the first of a “new sub-genre, the Roman noir. (the protagonist is apparently a “hard-boiled investigator in the Marlowe vein.” So perhaps positioning manuscripts can be a crucial factor.

      2. Mary, it’s definitely something to think about… any book that crosses genres has the potential to appeal to a wide range of readers. I was surprised the publisher was surprised – calling it historical fiction was a marketing angle they hadn’t thought of (and should have, imho).

    2. I don;t think Second World War as historical fiction, because it is contemporary still. First world war maybe is historical fiction, as it was one hundred years ago, but not the second.

  9. What interesting statistics! I’ve heard that historical fiction can be a tough sell in the YA market, but the trends seem to support your data. I immediately think of two YA historicals that have been very successful–THE BOOK THIEF and CODE NAME VERITY–both set during WWII. I enjoy this era, but wish Medieval, Renaissance, and Victorian had an easier time getting published. I agree that with the Downton Abbey craze we may be seeing more turn-of-the-century novels…which I’m excited about, especially since that’s the setting of my latest manuscript. 🙂

  10. Mary,
    I read the daily deals from Publisher’s Marketplace everyday, and I think it was after the success of Downton Abbey that I noticed an uptick in early 20th century being bought. Or it might have been Water For Elephants. Either way–good news for you! I also have a early 20th century piece that I’ve been writing and forming. After this last revision of Byron, I’m just going to change gears. No more granny gear. I’m going to crank the middle sprocket all the way up.

  11. I don’t know about novels — but if you ask almost any history department at a US university, you’d find that their courses on the early 20th c. and especially WWI and WWII are oversubscribed (as are courses on the Civil War, to which similar arguments might be applied). I think this has something to do with the period being “familar” to them in the sense that the History Channel and two decades of film history have been focused on these eras. And in looking for books to give my nieces for Christmas this year, I found just a ton of historical fiction for young readers on the Holocaust era. My guess would be that the general reader is more interested in stories that hang on historical eras that they already know something about.

  12. Thanks for broadcasting these interesting figures – especially as I write about the Late Bronze Age (c. 1250BC or so) which seems to be popular with readers but not publishers!
    Marie A Parsons wrote “I have often wondered if novels in ancient times “suffer” in terms of both publication and reading audience, somewhat because they too often tend to be only about Caesar and Cleopatra, or are very military-themed (i.e. battles and legions etc)”
    I think that is true, and you could add Rameses II and Akhenaten/Nefertiti to that short-list as they seem to attract disproportionate interest.
    Sarah Johnson wrote “I’d like to see more ancient world settings depicted in fiction outside of the blood-and-battle saga genre, but there aren’t many of them.”
    Some of us are writing them! It needs a stronger interest for and knowledge of archaeological findings to (literally) dig out interesting facts that have bearing on the lives of ordinary people rather than rulers and battles, but it can be done.

    1. Many thanks for your comment, Richard. Let us know when you’re published (or looking for beta readers). Sounds like you might have some interested folks here! I have no idea how you research that era. Impressive in and of itself.

  13. I plan to give Richard’s books a look see for sure 🙂 My own current WIPs take place in the ancient Roman monarchy, and in the late Roman Republic. There do seem to be far more ancient historical period novels than I certainly first realized, and I wonder if HNS or anyone has attempted a count of their subjects (e.g. % legion/military, % Cleopatra, etc)

  14. The thing that worries me a little bit about seeing such a concentration in one particular section of the historical fiction is the idea of burnout. Now I love books about WWI and WWII and other part of the 20th century, but I also love medieval and Victorian and books set in other countries. A few years ago every second book was set in the Tudor period (or at least it felt that way) and I know quite a few people who are all Tudor’d out, including myself. Are we in danger of following a fashion and then overdosing on it. I guess time will tell.

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