Publishing Industry Perspectives from #HNSNA

Every Historical Novel Society North America conference includes a panel of agents and editors discussing the state of publishing and historical fiction. HNSNA 2023 was no exception. Here’s some of what they said.

Introductory thoughts:

  • if you haven’t seen a novel from a particular era or topic, ask why. Is this an unexplored area of history and therefore an opportunity? Or is it an obscure area of historical fiction that’s unlikely to attract readers?
  • enduring popularity, for example Tudor England, are …. wait for it … enduring!
  • agents and editors are looking for fresh approaches that bring passion to an era or topic
  • some publishers are reluctant to go back too far in history … for example, prior to 19th century
  • chasing trends is a bad idea for authors
  • editors are fickle! [I had to laugh at this one!]
  • write what you want to write and write it well … this bit of advice is always given at these panels
  • a publisher from England, said that they don’t chase trends; for them, military fiction is big; in addition, contemporary relevance is important when considering a novel, with themes that resonate for modern readers
  • given what we’ve been through and continue to go through, many editors are looking for joyful novels not dark ones

What about WWII?

  • some publishers are saying that they want to ease up on WWII
  • which means that novels set in WWII have to seriously standout in some way
  • so much WWII creates fatigue with editors and publishers

Shifts in publishing and what it means for authors

  • fewer people to work on more and more books
  • authors and agents are to some extent picking up the workload
  • fewer marketing dollars means that authors need to build relationships, cross market their books, build author groups
  • your book has to be closer to ‘ready to go’ than in the past, and your agent needs to be convinced of that too
  • writing groups and critique groups are effective ways to get your book ‘ready to go’
  • smaller presses may have more time to help launch an author
  • the marketing you’ve done and the platform you’ve established are a factor in taking on an author

Response time to requests for partial or full MS

  • agents are so overworked, things fall through the cracks
  • variety of work taken on by agents and amount of work have increased exponentially
  • most agents and editors don’t have any time to give feedback when they decline a novel
  • most agents and editors are overwhelmed with work, feel like they’re doing the job of 5 people
  • agents have narrowed their interests

Cultural Appropriation

  • sensitivity is crucial – extensively research the experience you’re writing about
  • get the right readers to proof your work
  • be clear on why you are the right person to write this particular story
  • can a publisher get you on media appearances (radio, TV, articles) as the author of this particular book
  • and yet, isn’t all writing about putting yourself in the shoes of someone else?

Why do agent-author relationships break down?

  • when authors aren’t listening to feedback and advice
  • when authors go in a different direction than the agent works with
  • when authors express anger toward staff or assistants
  • you are entitled to information about your novel and where it’s at – yet you still need to ask for such information with courtesy
  • transparency of communication is important
  • as an example, an author brought her husband, who was a lawyer, onto a Zoom call with her agent; Agent severed the relationship
  • agents have preferences, authors should respect this

What about prologues?

  • some sense that using prologues is not a good idea
  • if you’re worried about it for your query, take it out, you can always put it back in
  • readers these days have no patience and a prologue can be seen as slowing things down or as a delay to the main story; readers want to know the stakes right away

Debut authors

  • agents and editors can get excited about a debut author – represents something new and fresh
  • agents and editors will want to hear what other ideas you have beyond your debut novel
  • a social media presence isn’t essential when first taken on, but it is once you’re accepted
  • you should be looking to build a brand, so don’t jump around too much in terms of your novels

As always, I hope these conference notes are useful. You can read an earlier publishing industry perspective from 2019 – The State of Historical Fiction.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel is THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, a dual timeline set in Hong Kong. Mary’s other novels, PARIS IN RUINS, TIME AND REGRET, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website

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