Former Riskies,  Regency,  Writing

One day, After All the Editors Went Home, the Slush Pile and an Abandoned Marketing Research Plan Partied Hard

I’d like to continue Diane’s discussion about Historical Romance. I’ve now been writing long enough that I have “survived” cycles. At least twice since I published my first novel (a historical romance!) the Historical has been declared dead. Vampires have been dead. (BWAHAHAHAHAAHAH! Ohmygod you have no idea how fun that was to write!) Westerns: Dead. Contemporary Romance: Dead. Romantic Suspense: Dead. Zombies: The Walking Dead.

What I have continued to hear throughout my writing life is that Regencies sell and sell a lot. You can’t sell Victorian! ::::Courtney Milan:::: You can’t sell Edwardian ::::Sherry Thomas:::: You can’t sell Georgian ::::Jo Beverly:::: No more Scotsmen! And for God’s sake, not Culloden! ::::Monica McCarty::::

For a long while, the Angsty Historical was IN IN IN!! Right now, they’re a hard sell. Oh my GOD!! Nobody tell Cecilia Grant!  And what about lighthearted historical romances? Are they In or Out? The answer is yes.

Publishers will always buy more of what’s sold in the past, and they will keep doing that until 1) people stop buying them and/or 2) someone comes along with an extraordinary book that breaks with the past– because editors, while of course they buy what’s sold in the past, also, from time to time, buy a damn good book that isn’t like what’s popular. And should that damn good book break out, then of course publishers will buy more of that, too.

Now there’s self-publishing thrown in there. But first, what’s the one thing publishing DOESN’T do that every other company does? Yes. Market testing. Publishing doesn’t survey the end-user. They don’t focus group covers or (to my knowledge) A/B test anything. Publishers know next to nothing about what readers are inclined to buy. The traditional market, driven by middlemen who purchase for Big Stores, has removed publishers from the consumer who would, in the aggregate, buy more varied books except that the middleman (the stores who buy lots and lots of only a few books) has artificially whittled down the selection.

In other words, the genetic diversity required for a robust, healthy population withered away in the face of a dangerous inbreeding. The problem with limited diversity is you don’t realize it’s unhealthy until the offspring are dying. Or one of the studs or brood mares dies. In this somewhat tortured analogy, the offspring are the books, the studs and brood mares are the Big Chains.

One day, After All the Editors Went Home, the Slush Pile and an Abandoned Marketing Research Plan Partied Hard

Nine months later …..

A baby!!!

They named it Self-publishing. But all its rowdy friends call it Indie for short.

Because, really, what is self-publishing but one big genetically diverse market test for publishers? Setting aside all the missteps so far, self-publishing is a crucible from which shiny new kinds of stories emerge market-tested. Traditional publishers can watch what catches on, and place their bets with greater confidence than before. 50 Shades proved there’s a bigger market for erotic romance than they knew. “New Adult” showed up in self-publishing first. If publishers manage to get their Beer Goggles off, they may find they’re in a good place.

Oh, Historical, Where Art Thou?

As the publishing ecosystem continues its transformation, we’ll see Indie authors do riskier things with their stories — and they can do it because they don’t have to listen to anyone tell them they can’t publish a story with THAT in it. They can write in the mid-Victorian period if they want. And maybe that story will crash and burn because (all other things being equal) what readers want is a Regency. Or a Vampire. Or something else. But there WILL be new and different historicals.

So. What do YOU think?

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Susana Ellis
9 years ago

The fact is, New York can’t decide the trends anymore. My friend who wrote a shape-shifter romance couldn’t find a publisher because New York decided shape-shifters are OUT! Well, tell that to the shape-shifter readers who have other alternatives than New York these days.

The times are a-changing, and that’s good. And maybe bad too. If New York is being replaced (or taken over) by Amazon, will Amazon start trying to manipulate readers too? I have to admit I’m concerned about what I’m hearing about censorship on the part of Amazon.

But then, who says Amazon will rule the world? Undoubtedly someone else will come along and start the whole process all over again.

Is that good or bad?

Carolyn Jewel
Carolyn Jewel
9 years ago
Reply to  Susana Ellis

Survival of the fittest, right? Good for who? And just as authors and publishers don’t have fully aligned interests, neither do amazon and authors. Or readers. Hardcore readers benefit a lot from story diversity.

9 years ago

I completely agree that authors now have the power to produce works that will influence the direction of the market. The next question is if the market wants to move. Much of the push back on this topic has been from those who adore the Regency and are quite happy with the multitude of talented authors who spin romances in this setting–to which robust sales, satisfied readers, and top selling authors can attest.

The issue of the “dead” genre usually occurs when audience fervor for a particular trend (vampires, Navy SEALs, FBI romantic suspense, et al) wanes before the publishers have cycled through all of the books they acquired when the market was hot. Historical romance is usually declared “dead” when sales don’t grow on par with shiny new trends and new authors fail to garner buzz.

But guess what doesn’t die? The Regency setting. *g*

Notice there was not a bevy of historical romances set in the 1880s and 1890s after Meredith Duran and Sherry Thomas debuted to widespread critical acclaim, nor a bevy of French Revolution-set historicals after Joanna Bourne debuted. Or, heck, when Ellen O’Connor’s self-pub Western romances sparked lots of chatter last year, we did not see a substantial uptick in Westerns in Publisher’s Marketplace deals. We’ve never had the opportunity to see if something new in the historical romance market sticks because for some reason, trends cycle until they peter out and then largely disappear (e.g. Medievals, Westerns, Civil War, American Revolution), or they remain contained to one author (e.g. Susan Johnson and her Russian romances).

Isobel Carr
9 years ago

The Regency, well, it is eternal. For good or for ill, it’s firmly cemented as the cornerstone of the Historical Romance subgenre. But the style of them changes (romps are in; angst is out; cycle and repeat). The types of stories being told changes (You can’t have a courtesan as a heroine; Oooo! Courtesan heroine, how risky; Dang, she was fake courtesan, that’s so bogus). I think it’s easy to look at the enormous glut of books with this setting and forget that there is a WIDE range of stuff within it, almost all of which has a body of readers (Trad, inspie, romp, angst, wallpaper, heavy history, heavy mystery, Austen sequel).

Elena Greene
9 years ago

I think your analysis is spot on.

I am one of those indies trying something new. The couple of industry professionals to whom I pitched the idea of my Waterloo veteran turned balloonist were kind of “meh” about it. One asked me if I had a courtesan story and I couldn’t think of anything that hadn’t already been done. So I’m just going to stick with the story and not try to sell it to the middlemen. There are a few readers asking about this story so I expect there’ll be some sales. In any case, I’ll have the satisfaction of getting it out there, finally.

Ella Quinn
9 years ago

Great post. I FB and tweeted.
Having the opportunity to attend BEA last year, before I sold, was an eye opener. Once of the brands for a large publisher who only handles paranormals wasn’t taking them. But I knew from friends who write paranormal, smaller houses were still buying. They are also buying different historical genres. Yet that seems to have little to do with what NY will buy.

Lately, a friend who writes YA subbed to an editor representing a new YA line for one of the big 6. The editor loved her work, but thought the F/F theme too risky for the new line right now.

Large publisher will probably always be cautious. After all, look at the innovation you don’t see from large corporations in general.

Carolyn Jewel
9 years ago

I didn’t include several points and factors in my post, so the issue is considerably more complex.

For example: For genre fiction, NY is imprint driven, not author driven. There are a lot of consequences to that. What’s known is that readers, may generally have a preference that an imprint may satisfy (A reader may like lighter historical romances, and thus, broadly speaking, the Avon imprint is a fruitful place for that reader to look for new books.)

We also know that readers follow authors. Courtney Milan, for example, or Elizabeth Hoyt. To some extent their choice of historical setting (Victorian and Reformation) is only loosely related to voice and why readers read those authors and not at all related to imprint.

A publisher’s imprint is an artificial grouping of like stories.

Authors who sell big sell big usually do so because of their stories, helped along, often, by publisher support. Sales become a chicken and egg question. Are the books selling only because the publisher put a huge push behind them? Are they not selling because the publisher has done little or nothing to get the books in front of enough readers to matter? Are the books not selling because they’re just not very good?

I’ve come to the conclusion that imprints are not necessarily a good thing for authors and they have hidden dangers for publishers. They end up concentrating on imprint success and not the success of all the books they sell.

I find myself wondering what will happen to imprints as the midlist drops out because they can make more money outside of traditional publishing. This might actually be a good thing for everyone in the short to mid term, but in the long run? I think publishers will be in a harder place.

Publishers won’t have to pretend they intend to market all books equally. Authors won’t end up feeling they’ve been had.

There’s a lot more to say, here, and a comment is probably not the best place for a long, complex and nuanced subject like this one.

Diane Gaston
9 years ago

Sorry I wasn’t around this week to add to the comments! But I’m glad the discussion continues. Carolyn, I love your idea that indy publishing is the “market research” publishing has lacked!


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