I am so very pleased to announce that Sarah Johnson of Reading the Past is the first historical fiction blogger to be interviewed. Reading the Past was listed as the number one site in my recent historical fiction survey.
I ‘met’ Sarah online some time ago and we have had several interactions in the ensuing months. I am very grateful that Sarah posted a link to the historical fiction survey on the day it went live.
Sarah has graciously offered to respond to feedback. Please use the comments feature (on the bottom left) to post your questions.
Why did you start blogging? Back in early 2006, some of the most in-depth conversations about the genre were happening on blogs, and I wanted to join in with my own thoughts. Reading the Past didn’t start out as a book review blog; I was already writing many reviews for the Historical Novels Review and hadn’t been looking for a new place to post reviews. The reviews I did for the site back then were of older, out of print titles, but publishers and authors found me, and many of the novels they offered me were hard to resist. This is one reason my TBR and house are so overcrowded at the moment.
Why do you review historical fiction? The majority of my reading material is historical fiction, and I enjoy sharing my thoughts about what I’ve read and recommending worthwhile novels to others. I don’t have any real preferences in terms of subgenre, time period, or setting, and I especially like informing readers about novels they may not have heard about anywhere else. It can occasionally be challenging to find something unique to say about each book; in the course of editing the HNR and writing my two historical fiction guides, I’ve written a large number of historical fiction reviews and edited even more, and I don’t care for repeating myself (or anyone else, for that matter). Coming up with original phrasing to describe an author’s strengths or writing style can sometimes be difficult for that reason, but I take it as a challenge.
In addition, one of the rewards I’ve found in reviewing historical fiction I’ve been assigned, rather than titles I’ve bought and chosen myself, is that I’ve been introduced to many wonderful novels I may not otherwise have read. Elliot Perlman’s The Street Sweeper is one of these; this assignment made me nervous not only because it was an enormous literary novel that came with pages upon pages of glowing praise, but also because I knew it would take me places I was very hesitant to visit (the Holocaust death camps). But although it had some scenes I found incredibly difficult to read, I loved the book and am so glad that I was asked to read it. I also review many “orphan” titles for the HNR, ones that for some reason or other (unpopular setting or theme, typically) don’t get chosen by reviewers. These often turn out to be excellent reads. This has taught me to read widely and not limit myself to novels set in certain eras or by favorite authors. In addition, I’m always looking to stretch my writing skills, and I find that there’s little new to learn if I only reviewed novels I would have read anyway.
What trends have you seen in HF novels in the past? What new trends are emerging? The famous-women-in-history theme has prevailed for the last decade but may have had its day; I’m still seeing new novels about royalty, but not nearly as many as before. If readers were to pick up one of these books at this point, they’re going to want to see a unique interpretation, such as can be found in the Tudor fiction of Hilary Mantel or Margaret George. Austen retellings were popular for ages, but I don’t see as many of these any longer. Trends come and go depending on the year; for 2012, it’s Titanic fiction, with novels like Katherine Howe’s The House of Velvet and Glass and Kate Alcott’s The Dressmaker. World War II settings are the latest thing, too, which I find interesting because just ten years ago, there was debate over whether WWII could be considered “historical” at all. It sat within the living memory of many readers. Now, many up-and-coming novelists (Kristina McMorris with her Bridge of Scarlet Leaves, for instance) are looking back to their grandparents’ lives and discovering sterling material for fiction. Multi-time novels are popular, as these books appeal to readers of both contemporary and historical fiction. Strong female leads are perennial hits – most fiction readers are women – but the field seems to be slightly more open to lesser-known figures or fictional characters. This will vary depending on the publisher or agent you ask, though!
Is historical fiction growing in popularity? If so, why? I feel historical fiction is holding steady. The big renaissance started in the mid-1990s and hasn’t slowed down yet. There are many readers who are being introduced to historical fiction for the first time – many of them are starting up new blogs, too – and this helps keep the market healthy.
Who are your readers? What do you know about them? Do you collect specific data about them? My blog stats program (Sitemeter) isn’t very sophisticated; it tells me that about 40% of my readership is American, while the remainder come from Canada, the UK, and various other countries around the world. I don’t keep data otherwise, although anecdotally I believe it has a strong readership among librarians and library patrons (my blog is linked from a number of library sites). One thing I’ve discovered is that it’s impossible to gauge readership by blog comments. Most readers don’t comment (I wish more did!) but I did a mini-survey along with my 6th anniversary giveaway contest, and many readers stopped by to tell me their thoughts about the blog. The majority were complimentary!
What features does your blog include? Are you planning to ann any features? I do visual previews of forthcoming books for each season; these have been among the most highly-trafficked posts. Another favorite feature covered examples of tacky vintage cover art from my personal collection, and I’ve also enjoyed reviewing obscure, out of print historical novels because they don’t get much press anywhere else. Sitemeter tells me that there are many people out there seeking details on these hits from yesteryear; there are at least a few people each week who find my site by googling for Diana Norman’s Fitzempress’ Law. I have no plans to implement new features, I have a hard enough time keeping up as it is, but this year I’m participating in the Chunkster Challenge. It pleases me that I’ve already reached Plump Primer level with eight chunksters (450pp and up) already read during 2012. Although this may explain why I’m so pressed for time now…
Do you think of yourself as having a brand? If so, what is it? This isn’t something I’ve thought about, other than in terms of my blog’s tagline: News, Views, and Reviews of Historical Fiction. That about says it as far as a brand goes. Or it could be restated as: All historical fiction, all the time.
What are your marketing strategies for the blog? I wish I could say I actively came up with one. I haven’t gone out of my way to publicize the site, but since it’s been around for quite a while and has many reviews linked from my review/interview index, it tends to come up highly in search results (It’s #2 in Google searches for “historical fiction blog” after Arleigh Johnson’s Historical-Fiction.com). I have a twitter account and cross-post reviews on Facebook and Goodreads, which adds some additional traffic.
How do your reviews for publications like The Globe & Mail enhance your blog presence? Or vice versa? Probably mostly in terms of adding variety and additional content. The novels I’ve reviewed for the Globe have predominantly been popular bestsellers, and if I repost them on the blog after publication (which I’m permitted to do) they draw a larger-than-usual audience to the site. For Booklist, I’m assigned a wide range of historicals, from epic bestsellers to small-press literary fiction and everything in between. Each place has different requirements in terms of style and word count, but I aim to keep to the same approach to reviewing regardless of the venue, whether it be a newspaper essay or a blog posting. I also tend to be offered different review copies for the blog than for professional assignments… for example, publishers and authors of literary historical novels don’t seem to have historical fiction blogs on their radar. (Hilary Mantel’s novels are the exception.) Some of the most impressive novels I’ve read over the last 12 months have fit that description, though, so I think some publishers are missing out on an opportunity!
How do you manage to review so many books, work full time and actively participate in HNS? I’m not sure myself. The pace has been pretty relentless; the other day I looked at my Goodreads account and noted that I’d written reviews for the last 15 books I’d read. That’s a lot. My reading schedule is planned out a while in advance, but I also have to make room for new assignments as they arrive. After I get home from the library, I spend a good part of each evening reading or answering email. I don’t have much of a life! One of these days/months/years I hope to read more books I’ve had on the TBR for a while. I have some conferences coming up that will let me get out of town, but of course they’re all book-related!
Why do you think so many people blog about historical fiction or participate in blogs about historical fiction? What are the implications for writers, agents and publishers? I imagine it’s because the genre has many enthusiasts and passionate readers, and people want to spread the word about good reads. That’s why I do it. If a novel is flawed, I’ll let readers know that too. Authors are under a lot of pressure nowadays (from their agents or publishers) to get reviewed by bloggers and get their novels mentioned on blogs, and from that standpoint, it’s good that so many historical fiction blogs have popped up in the last few years. On the other hand, bloggers have a limited amount of reading time, and I know I’m not the only one who’s been inundated with requests for reviews, interviews, guest blog spots, etc. It can be easy for bloggers to become overwhelmed; the key is to aim for a balance and realize that it’s your blog and you have the right to accept and review only what you want to review.
What do you see writers doing differently to market their books and build their platforms? What about publishers? Social networking of all types is the big thing, of course – tweeting, Facebook, blogging. But since everyone’s doing it, or strongly encouraged to do it, it can be hard for an author to stand out from the pack. I’m also not sure how effective it is at increasing book sales. I have author friends with websites but who don’t blog or tweet because it takes away from their concentration and writing time. As for publishers – it’s rare for readers to choose novels to read according to publisher, but I see them getting their ARCs online with sites like NetGalley in order to reach more potential reviewers. Sites like this give bloggers the freedom to choose their own review copies, too, rather than waiting for pitches to arrive in their inbox from publishers. Bloggers can always make requests directly to publicists via email, but it’s often hard to find exactly who to contact. The trend towards sending extra loot or holding contests just for bloggers seems to be a fading trend, which is fine with me. I never cared for these since I don’t feel right about accepting remuneration of this type from writers or publishers. Just the review copy is sufficient.
What advice do you have for writers? If you plan to request blog reviews, start as early as possible! Not long ago I was asked about reviewing a historical novel set to come out in winter 2013. This is so, so helpful. It was a sign that the writer was prepared, and it gives me nine months to look forward to the book. Oftentimes writers or their publishers don’t contact bloggers until after the book’s publication date, not realizing, perhaps, that many bloggers have very full schedules and might not be able to find time until 3-4 months later. Other than that: get to know the blogosphere and which blogs fit your novel’s topic the best. Start establishing relationships with the blogs you enjoy early on, and by the time your novel is published, you’ll have a built-in audience who knows about your book and will be willing to consider reading it or interviewing you. Personalize your requests; proofread your emails (and make sure you have the blogger’s name correct!). Keep it professional, and don’t take it personally if a blogger doesn’t have time to review your book or if it doesn’t fit her interests. Other than that, just write the best book you can, and if you’re going the self-publishing route, have your manuscript professionally edited before putting it up on Amazon or wherever. There will always be an audience for well-written historical fiction, and I look forward to reading more of it.
Thank you, Sarah. I’m sure both readers and writers will be fascinated to hear your thoughts.