From the World of Historical Fiction – Readers Share Their Perspectives (2012)

From March 14th to April 3, 2012, I conducted a survey of historical fiction readers. In total, 805 individuals responded. The data sheds light on preferences and habits of historical fiction readers and offers interesting insights to writers and others in the publishing world.

From the World of Historical Fiction – Readers Share Their Perspectives is the first summary of survey results. Over the next few weeks, I will dig deeper to provide further analysis and cross-tabbing of results.

I look forward to hearing your feedback.

Many thanks to Sarah Johnson at Reading The Past who posted a survey link on her popular blog.

51 thoughts on “From the World of Historical Fiction – Readers Share Their Perspectives (2012)”

  1. Absolutely fascinating responses. I note that there is a large amount of historical fiction set during the Tudor Era or Elizabethan Era right now and that correlates to the favorite time period chosen overwhelmingly in the survey. Makes you wonder if that is because there is such a fair amount of it available OR if there is so MUCH of it available that that is what people are reading. Hmm…

    I look forward to your further analysis!

    1. Good question, Melissa. Last week I wrote about 2012 historical fiction. That analysis showed 19th century and early 20th century being produced in higher quantities. Hmmm – I still have lots more work on the survey and perhaps that will illuminate further.

      1. I wonder if that’s because all things Tudor were popular for a while so publishers capitalized on that, and maybe some of the early 20th century books are a result of Downton Abbey (I wouldn’t be surprised!).

        1. You’re probably right, Rebecca. Downton Abbey was certainly on the list of movies/TV that inspired readers to read Historical Fiction. I’ll soon have a more comprehensive list of these 🙂

  2. Fascinating results! I found the answers to the question about geography to be especially interesting. I often hear people complain that there is not enough U.S.-set historical fiction published, yet the survey shows an overwhelming reader preference for novels set elsewhere. I do think that preference in setting probably ties closely to preference in era.

    Looking forward to seeing further analysis and discussion of these results!

  3. I’ve downloaded your report and I’m going to read it tonight, will let you know if I have comments – I’ll probably be overwhelmed by the amount of data you collected 😀

  4. Such a fascinating survey! Thank you so much for this:) It seems pretty accurate as well since I can identify perfectly . Will definitely continue to participate in your surveys- Thanks, Lucy

  5. Excellent information, Mary. I was especially interested to see what wide-ranging interests readers have as far as time periods and geography go. And, of course, above all, they want a good story!!

  6. Where are these responses, for I’m not seeing them, and would very much like too, particularly those concerning period and geographical location.

    1. Hi there … you need to click on the link embedded in the blog post under the text From the World of Historical Fiction – Readers Share Their Perspectives (it’s underlined). Then the full document opens up. Hope that works.

  7. Really interesting responses, and even though romance doesn’t rate highly it still gives a lot of areas for thought.
    I’ve blogged about it and linked to you and the blog.
    I’m looking forward to your further analysis.

    1. I think “romance” doesn’t rate high because it participants probably assumed it meant Historical Romance–which is a separate genre from Historical Fiction, though they share similar provenance.

  8. Fascinating is all I can say. Look forward to your further analysis of the write-in comments and the responses to the ‘Who are your favorite authors?’ query.

  9. Thank you Mary! I find this very fascinating, particularly the favorite time periods. I can’t help but wonder if Downton Abbey, the reboot of Upstairs, Downstairs, and the coming anniversary of WWI–and the subsequent books to be released in the meantime–will influence your next survey.

  10. Interesting that an early exposure to historical fiction increased the chances of continuing to read in the genre.

    Must have been a lot of work compiling the report, Mary.

  11. “To bring the past to life, appreciating how people lived and coped in very different times.” I hear this commonly from my readers when I ask them why they read historical fiction.

    According to this survey, introducing readers to historical fiction at a young age is crucial to developing in them a lifelong interest in the genre. I wonder if that carries over to a lifelong interest in history? When my children were young, we looked for but found little historical fiction that interested them. Authors didn’t seem to find writing historical fiction for kids sexy, and the genre always seemed like a stepchild among NYC publishers. I hope that changes.

    Thank you for compiling this report. I look forward to further findings.

    1. How interesting. I grew up in the 90s, and there were plenty of middle-grade and YA historicals for me to read. From the American Girl books to Ann Rinaldi to the Dear America series and beyond, I’d consider my childhood the “golden age” of historical fiction aimed at the under-18 crowd. Nowadays, it’s all vampires and teen angst, and the few historical fiction I have found merely mimics the trops found in Gossip Girl.

      1. Evangeline, my sons began reading last decade. Not only did they have to wade through the stacks of “vampires and teen angst,” but so much of what was published was targeted to girls and their issues. I feel fortunate that they found YA series like Redwall, Alex Rider, Percy Jackson, and Warrior Cats. Those series turned them into readers. But there was almost no YA Historical Fiction for boys.

      1. I’m thinking about it. 🙂 Especially if my efforts would pay off like Rick Riordan’s and Suzanne Collins’s. All it takes is one Historical Fiction YA author to find that kind of success, and the gold rush will be on.

    2. When I was young, I got hooked on historical fiction by reading mostly French swashbuckling literature – Alexandre Dumas, Paul Feval, Michel Zevaco. I think this is what children 12-16 like reading. Some start even younger.

      From the English historical fiction literature children my age loved (and I did too) I’d mention Walter Scott and Raphael Sabattini the most. Fenimore Cooper and retellings about Longfellow’s Hiawatha for children were the American love. Plus Mark Twain’s Prince and Pauper (I read it about 10-11 years old).

  12. “To bring the past to life, appreciating how people lived and coped in very different times.” I hear this commonly from my readers when I ask them why they read historical fiction.

    According to this survey, introducing readers to historical fiction at a young age is crucial to developing in them a lifelong interest in the genre. I wonder if that carries over to a lifelong interest in history? When my children were young, we looked for but found little historical fiction that interested them. Authors didn’t seem to find writing historical fiction for kids sexy, and the genre always seemed like a stepchild among NYC publishers. I hope that changes.

    Thank you for compiling this report.

  13. 50% historical fiction! And even more if you add up all those who read it more often. That’s exciting. I love reading and writing historical fiction.

    1. Thanks for checking it out, Deniz. I can’t imagine writing about 1492/93 – how do you find resources for that? I agree that the numbers are encouraging. Keep on writing!

  14. I’m back 🙂 I never thought I was going to write historical fiction, but then I found myself deep in Victorian research. I still don’t know whether I will keep in the field…and yet my second project is an alt history trilogy! I’m obviously more keen on history than I ever thought I was.

    However, while reading your results, I suddenly remembered: my first books were all YA* historical, one way or another! Julius Caesar’s life; 1800’s children tales of the Italian Resurgence; plenty of Dickens; Western adventures; the Verne and Salgari’s exotic adventures books. And more.

    I can see

    (*consider, however, the 45 years ago Italian version of YA, quite different from what’s available now)

    1. You are right, I read at that time Western adventures (mostly Karl May’s and other German writers’, besides Fenimore Cooper’s), Jules Verne (discovered at 8), and Salgari too. 🙂

  15. Argh, sorry, trigger fingers.

    I was saying, I can see how reading historical fiction may really have a significant influence in developing a taste for it. Again, I didn’t think I read much historical fiction, but looking backward…yes, I did and do. Also plenty of Sci Fi (history of the future, the way I see it).

    I also wanted to say, I think Americans’ predilection for European history

    1. Maybe you should resurrect these stories and find a YA publisher for them? If you build a body of work, they can follow you into adulthood just like JK Rowling. What do you think?

  16. ..and again! Sorry, don’t know what’s happening. Might be my connection or my computer misbehaving. Anyway, I was thinking perhaps Americans long for a more distant past than that of their country, hence the interest for European history?

    I’ll be quiet now 😀 Thanks again for sharing your results/research 🙂

    1. I think the scope of European/English history is so broad it catches the fancy of us North Americans. Also, many have roots in that area of the world. The US folks had a stronger interest in US history than those in the UK – not surprising. Many thanks for taking the time to revisit.

  17. Hi, Mary. Great survey!

    As I posted in a recent Comment over at Sarah’s blog, Reading the Past, back in 2000, I conducted my own highly unscientific Historical Fiction Survey via the pages of the pirate fanzine No Quarter Given. Then (unlike now) historical fiction was considered a hard sell in the publishing world, and I wanted to know if anybody was still reading it, and why.

    My small but vociferous group of respondents were only 45% female to 55% male (and, given the venue, most had a preference for nautical fiction). Back then, on the cusp of the digital age, respondents bought on the average 4 hardcover books a year and 12 paperbacks.

    As to genre, some respondents bristled at the very idea. Citing his favorite author, Rafael Sabatini, one male respondent asked, “Would you consider him mainstream or romance or thriller? I think he has elements of all.” Another participant insisted, “an author should not present a book as a work of ‘historical fiction,’ but rather as ‘a great story.'”

    What seemed overwhelmingly evident was that readers were less interested in a specific genre, locale, author, or time period, than in finding that elusive good story. As long as the story and/or characters captured their imagination, readers were willing to follow them into all sorts of unchartered waters, be it Romance or sci-fi, Shogun-era Japan or the Third Moon of Endor.

    I like to hope this emphasis on story is still paramount! I look forward to further delving into your results.

    1. Hi Lisa .. thanks for your thoughtful response. The concept of ‘a good story’ comes out loud and clear in those who responded to this survey as well. What might tweak the notion of a good story is different readers’ expectations of where they are most likely to find a ‘good story’. Someone who loves Bernard Cornwell might seek good stories with a military angle while another person might find their definition of a good story as one with a biographical focus such as the works of Margaret George. It’s interesting to find historical fiction described as a sub-genre, a genre and a supra genre. Clearly, it is many things to many people.

  18. I must be missing something. I found the survey but didn’t see the question about what detracts from enjoying historical fiction. What’s the link please?
    Also, doesn’t 3000 BC – 1000 AD include the 2nd-5th centuries? My new series [Rav Hisda’s Daughter – A Novel of Love, the Talmud and Sorcery] takes place in 3rd-4th century Babylonia, so one might expect that my potential audience would be very small. However, since I try to find other novels set in my time period, I can attest to the miniscule number of historical novels in this category, especially compared to those set in Elizabethan times. So maybe lack of readers is due to dearth of historical novels, not disinterest.

    1. Hi Maggie – thanks for your comment. The way I think about centuries is that the ones with BC mean they are counting down to the year zero according to the Christian calendar, in other words, 3000 BC would be 3000 years before Christ was born and hence well before the 2nd to 5th centuries. Interesting point about the connection between availability of novels and interest in a particular period. I did not ask the question that way so readers did not give us clues as to an answer. Have you had a chance to survey on this point? Well done on writing a series. It must take a lot of careful planning.

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