This may seem like a rather foolish question. Readers want to read, OF COURSE!
But what I’m talking about is what is arguably on the mind of every agent and editor at every publishing house: what kind of books will capture the most readers, which translates into: what’s going to be the next big thing in publishing and how can I either find a writer who has already produced it, or get one of the writers I already know to write it?
The funny thing about writing is that you have to really love what you’re writing about. You have to get behind it and be willing to spend a sizeable chunk of your life and energy on it, warts and all, until you produce something you actually think is worth reading.
And then, it’s quite possible that not very many people will want to read it once it’s all done and dusted. At least, that’s what we’re told by mainstream publishers.
I had one of those, “It’s not what editors are looking for,” moments recently. A very kind and thoughtful agent took the time to read something I’ve been working on for about eight years, and although she liked it very much (at least that’s what she said), pointed out that editors are not buying books about the period I was writing in, which happened to be the mid-thirteenth century. Undoubtedly that is true.
As a historical novelist, I absolutely delight in digging into research, discovering things about the period of whatever book I’m working on and gaining a deeper understanding of history because of it. Yet historical novels are already a thin slice of the entire fiction market, albeit one with a devoted readership. I looked up Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, and Phillippa Gregory’s The White Queen on Amazon (those being the three titles I could think of that might be the most popular in historical fiction), just to look at their rankings. None of them were below the 2,000 mark in Kindle books, and even higher in paperback. And that despite the fact that two of them had won the prestigious Man Booker Prize in recent years.
Periods in history, historical subjects, come and go in popularity. Right now, there seems to be a plethora of Tudor era novels. It’s a wonderful period, rich in subject matter, so it doesn’t surprise me. But unless someone has written a really remarkable book (like Hilary Mantel’s novels about Cromwell), or put a new spin on it (like C. W. Gortner’s Tudor mystery series) I’m kind of over the period.
But are “readers?” At least, are enough of them?
At what point do editors—who are under an awful lot of pressure themselves to make the numbers—decide to take a chance on a period that isn’t “popular,” or on a historical novel on a subject that most potential readers aren’t familiar with? And should they?
I try to put myself in their shoes. I believe that I would champion a novel that I thought was really excellent. But then I’d have to sell it to the marketing folks, whose first observation would be, “No one’s heard of that (person/place/time period/event). Hell, they can’t even pronounce it!”
This focus on selling has been decried as a dumbing-down of the literary world. Yet publishing is a business, and a business must make money. Works of true literary merit do still manage to get published by mainstream houses. Here’s a very illuminating quote from The Guardian about the effect of the Booker Prize on book sales:
The Booker effect is most noticeable for less well-known authors – sales of Tan Twan Eng‘s The Garden of Evening Mists leapt from 174 to 950 during shortlist week in September; Jeet Thayil‘s Narcopolis from 100 to 727; and sales of Alison Moore‘s The Lighthouse rose from 283 to 1,392
Book sales in the hundreds—no publisher could make money on that. I don’t have access to the industry figures, but Alison Moore’s critically acclaimed novel is now at about 145,000 on the Amazon Kindle list. I know from experience just how few sales that might represent.
With all this, it’s no wonder that so many authors have turned to self- or indie publishing, as it’s euphemistically called these days. I’m sure there are many wonderful books written that cannot find a publisher willing to take a chance on them. But does that solve the problem? The overwhelming majority of self-published authors don’t sell very many books, either as e-books or print on demand. They can’t get shelf space in bookstores, and there’s very little apparatus for getting the important pre-release reviews that help sell a book.
Self-publishing may be a way to get your book “out there,” but it isn’t necessarily a way to get it into people’s hands.
So are we, as authors historical fiction, destined to hope our passion becomes popular, or that we stumble into a subject that for some reason first capture’s an agent’s, then an editor’s, then the marketing department’s, then the designer’s, then finally the reader’s imagination, and becomes that “breakout book?”
All I know is that I can’t set about to write for the market. I simply have to keep writing what I love, and hope that—eventually—the market finds me.