July 10, 2006 - Issue #231
From the Desk of Anne Marble
Where Have All the Historicals Gone?
Many readers are upset about the dearth of historical romances. AAR's Coming Attractions page
shows that fewer and fewer historicals are being published. In August, for
example, readers noticed about 93 contemp titles versus a mere 23
historical titles! When romance fans complain about the dearth of the
historical, they aren't kidding.
Over the past couple of nights, I went to the local bookstores to find some
historical romances. In both cases, after scouring the shelves for what
seemed like ages, my findings were sparse. As a Regency miss might say,
that was the outside of enough! After all that hard work, I was determined
to find more historicals. There were other good ones there, I knew it. I
just had to tease them out. So I gave some books another look, and while I
was at it, I checked the "rejects" again. I must have been quite a sight as
I walked down the aisles, holding armloads of books while I looked for a
place to sit and look over what I had founds. In one store, I had managed
to gather about 17 historicals. (In the other, I had a mere thirteen.)
I rejected some books quickly because of the "gimmick." They seemed to be
trying to capture what Julia Quinn has done, but they missed the point
about what makes her books work. The Quinn books are about people..not about a gimmick. Speaking of gimmicks, there was no shortage of
historicals with flamboyant plots. When I watch a corny movie with my
father, he often calls out, "Oh come on now!" When I read an opening
chapter, I shouldn't imagine my father saying, "Oh come on now!" Until
the Knight Comes, the new Sue-Ellen Welfonder, starts with the heroine
walking in on her lover while he is with a notorious whore. On top of that,
he has a heart attack. But wait, there's more! After he dies, the whore
confronts the heroine, attacks her, and makes it look like she killed the
guy. All that in a few pages. It was too much for me (and a good decision, apparently, because Laurie hated this book!). Or as Dad would say,
"Come on now!" On the other hand, I nearly bought Master of Desire,
a new Kensington by Jessica Trapp because it was so flamboyant. The
book started with the line "The hard, long bulge tenting the priest's
scarlet robe caught Lady Ariana's attention." Mine, too! Maybe I'll get it
next time. At least I know it won't be about a Regency spy or a heroine who
becomes the hero's mistress to save her sister's home for unwed cats.
Like Master of Desire, many of the promising reads were published by
Kensington, including several Zebra Debuts. I like the idea of
bringing out new authors in special editions with lower prices, but even
with the lower prices, I was wary of buying something from a new author
without knowing more about the book. I did buy Kristina Cook's
Undressed, which was one of the books I came looking for, but if it
hadn't been for the AAR review, I would have left that one on the shelf
because I thought it was Chick Lit! Other covers fared even worse. Her
One and Only by Alice Valdal was promising because it was actually set
in the Old West, but the cover looked like a cover for a gay cowboy porn
novel. Besides, while the beginning was promising, the back cover promised
more mystery and intrigue. Why can't publishers let authors write about
everyday aspects of the frontier, such as cattle drives and survival? Hey,
it worked for Larry McMurtry. Another recent Zebra Debut title, Gretchen
Craig's Always and Forever, has something I haven't seen for an
epoch, a plantation setting. Neat! It seemed more like a story about
a friendship between two sisters (one an heiress and one the daughter of a
slave) than a typical historical romance, so I'm keeping it in mind for
another time, even as I wonder - based on reviews - about its romantic aspect. (Luckily this one doesn't whitewash history as romances sometimes do by turning slaves in "servants.") Yet even Zebra has its Regency/Victorian books. For example,
there's The Seduction of Sarah by Cynthia Clement, which starts out
when the hero comes across the heroine while she's swimming
naked and thus first mistakes her for a harlot. Can't get much more
traditional than that, which is why I decided not to buy it. I kept an eye
out for Leisure titles as well because I know they publish a lot of
historicals, often in unusual settings. However, most of what I found were
books by Connie Mason and Cassie Edwards, authors I've never enjoyed. One
Leisure book that did look promising; Jennifer Ashley's Penelope &
Prince Charming turned out to be about a hero who was a prince of a
fictional kingdom, but I've made a "no royals" pledge and put it back. The one
Leisure book I did buy was the Viking romance Maidensong by Diana
Groe, which I was looking for because someone had mentioned it on the
Reader to Reader board. Maidensong also has a decent cover, rather
than falling back on a clinch. Whatever I think of Zebra's hunk covers, at
least they aren't Leisure clinch covers.
I had better luck with other publishers. I'm really happy to see that
publishers such as Warner, HQN, Signet Eclipse, and Berkley Sensation are
publishing historicals with a wide range of settings. For example, Lydia
Joyce's The Music of the Night (2005) was set in Venice, while her new release, Whispers of the Night (both from Signet), features a heroine
who takes a trek across Europe and ends up in Romania (shocking!). Sarah
McKerrigan's Lady Danger is a Medieval about a sword-wielding
heroine, and the only reason I didn't buy it on the spot was because I
wanted to check reviews first because that's a difficult plot to carry off
correctly. (If only I had remembered that she was an established author,
previously writing as Glynnis Campbell!) Jolie Mathis' The Sea King,
a Berkeley Sensation, is a realistic and well-reviewed Viking romance. I
was psyched to see a Viking romance that thanked the Icelandic Language
Institute for its help and used actual Norse in its text! Jocelyn Kelly's
new Medieval from Signet, A Moonlit Knight, looked intriguing.
So intriguing I was sure I had already bought it, so I had to leave it on
the shelf. I did buy my first ever Medallion Press book, Vanquished,
the new Hope Tarr, for two reasons: I'd heard good things about Hope Tarr
in the past, and it was about a suffragette heroine in the 1890s. I did
succumb to the new Virginia Henley Medieval, Infamous (although now I wish I'd read the review posted the day after I made my purchase). With more new
Medieval (and even Dark Ages) romance, I wonder if publishers are trying to
win back readers who dropped off the map because they didn't like Regency
and Victorian settings? Still, for all my complaints about finding too many
typical books set in the Regency, I must admit that I bought Cheryl Holt's
Too Hot to Handle (a title put out by St. Martin's), even though I
mentioned that author in my segment on When Good Heroines Have Bad Ideas.
But I swear, I felt guilty about buying it. <g>
I also came
close to buying one of the Viking England trade paperbacks by Helen
Kirkman (either Embers or Destiny, plus the new trade paperback by Cheryl
Sawyer (The Code of Love), all published by HQN. In fact, I ended up
buying Kirkman's Fearless on Saturday, after finishing my article.
I was astonished when HQN put Destiny out as a trade paperback.
Sure, it got a great review at AAR, but here was a midlist historical
author in trade format! Many romance fans hate trade paperbacks.
Were they crazy? Then again, much as it pains me to say this, the format
might be a good choice for longer, riskier historicals that might appeal to
fans of historical novels as well. At the very least, this format will give
the books more "staying power." Besides, when I think of the number of
"guilty pleasure" books that looked great but ended up in the "trade in"
pile halfway through... Hmm. Suddenly, paying $14 for a good story
doesn't seem like such a bad idea after all...
Did you notice something? What about the Avon titles? I looked over
several, including She's No Princess by Laura Lee Guhrke. I was
tempted but didn't succumb because I of that "No more royalty" pledge.
Another Avon I considered was In the Bed of a Duke by Cathy Maxwell. The
beginning of too hard to introduce the intrigue, before we even met the
heroine. Also, the hero and heroine had a hot kiss around page 37, which
seemed rushed considering she hadn't been in the first chapter and
also because he hated her. I just didn't buy that kiss, and I didn't
buy the book. After all that work, the only Avon title I bought was the new
Eloisa James because the dialogue sparkled, and I was relieved to find a
book where the dialogue interested me instead of one where people stood
around saying things like "As you know, Lord Thurmont met Velveeta Heroine
in the last book..."
While I did find books with something different, they were almost all from
other publishers, not Avon. A Viking romance that's well researched? Cool!
A heroine who knows how to use a sword? Nifty! A heroine who's working
toward suffrage? Better yet! Maybe I'm reading more into this than I
should, but it seemed as if those publishers were picking up the slack
where Avon dropped the ball. (Sorry for the mixed metaphor.) What happened
to the days when Avon used to publish that sort of book on a regular basis?
This was the publisher that published Anne Stuart's To Love a Dark
Lord and Shadow Dance! Can you imagine To Love a Dark
Lord coming out from Avon today? They'd probably insist that Lady
Barbara Fitzhugh be a virgin widow, which would have ruined one of the best
secondary characters ever. Of all the most recent Avon historicals
(from May to August), a quick look shows that only one was not set
in the Regency or Victorian era - the new Templar book by Mary Reed
McCall. That's not to say there aren't great authors among those titles -
after all, there are new titles by Julie Quinn, Lisa Kleypas, and Eloisa
James. Yet the historical reader in me cries out "Is that all there is?"
Many readers complain about the "Avonization" of historicals - the way
some writers' books become homogenized once they sign a contract with Avon.
It's definitely beginning to look like they have a point. This month is a
particularly sparse month for Avon historicals. Mysteriously, this month,
Avon historical author Kathryn Smith published Be Mine Tonight, the
first in her new vampire series. Is this a sign of things to come? Will
more and more Avon authors write paranormals?
Finding a good historical didn't used to be such a big production. If I
wanted to find a historical, I could go into any store and find titles by a
wide range of authors. How much have the numbers changed? I recently looked
through some Romantic Times back issues from 2000-2001. There are ten pages
of historical reviews in the November 2001 issue. The latest issue contains
nine pages of historical reviews, but that's not as many as it seems
because three of the reviewed books are historical paranormals and four of
them are historical fiction. Even more importantly, the 2001 issues show a
fair number of Regency historicals, but that's not all there is.
There are "Top Pick" romances set in places as varied as Wyoming and Texas,
Medieval Brittany, and even Turn of the Century Boston. Compare that to the latest
issue, where out of seven "Top Pick" selections, five are set in Regency
England (including one paranormal), one is a Medieval paranormal, and the
only non-Regency non-paranormal story is is Jolie Mathis' Viking romance
The Sea King. Also, in those back issues, there were historicals by
authors such as Marsha Canham (now retired), Sharon Abé (now writing
paranormal romance), Barbara Samuel (now writing woman's fiction), and
Susan Sizemore (now writing vampire romances). There were even a good
number of Avon romances set in the American frontier! The numbers from the
Publishers Previews sections are even more shocking. In the November 2001
issue, I spotted over 33 historical releases for the month of December, and
the April 2001 issue shows about 38 upcoming historical releases. But
October of 2006 brings us only about 25 historical releases! That's a sharp
drop in a few years. Heck, in a field where even Bertrice Small and Mary Jo
Putney have put out contemps and fantasy romances, something has definitely
So what happened? Where did all the historicals go? In many cases, the
question should be "Where did the authors go?" Many readers have given up
on historicals because their favorite authors are no longer writing in the
field. Some have turned to contemps or romantic suspense, others are
penning paranormal, and still others have stopped writing altogether. Many
readers followed their favorite historical authors into paranormals.
I've done that myself. While I'm not crazy about following historical
writers into contemps and romantic suspense, because their writing styles
and plots don't always fit modern settings, many historical writers do seem
suited to paranormals, because of the worldbuilding and "fairy tale"
aspects of those stories. Heresy of heresies, unlike many others, I'm a fan
of paranormals with a historical setting. To me, it's like a way of
"cheating" the publisher. They may be reluctant to serve up Medievals to
readers, but they're eager to publish Medievals with vampire heroes. Now I
can get a vampire book and a historical at the same time. ("Hey, you got a
vampire in my historical.... Hey, you got a historical in my vampire
In the best of paranormals, the authors have created a world as unusual and
well drawn as most historical settings. Want to escape into a new world,
but not in the mood for yet another Regency historical? Then why not delve
into Lynn Viehl's Darkyn series or J. R. Ward's Black Dagger Brotherhood? Of course, as with
any subgenre, not all books are created the same. Some authors build
detailed worlds, but others are the Cassie Edwards of paranormal romance,
with settings as believable as Cassie Edwards' noble savage heroes. I once
read a book review in an SF magazine that pointed out that Regency romances
were set in a world more alien to us than most SF and fantasy novels. The
same can be applied to paranormal romances. Sometimes, if I really want to
read about an alien world, then I'd be better off reading a good historical
romance, not another novel about a vampire lord. Besides, while there are
great paranormal romances, have paranormal romances developed their Judith
Ivory, their Mary Balogh, or their Laura Kinsale yet? Even today, I think
that some of the best romance authors can only be found in the
Questions To Consider:
Have you noticed that there are fewer historicals available lately? If so, when you did first make note of it? Why do you think this is happening?
If you're a fan of historicals, what publishers have you been turning to? Has that changed over the years?
Do you agree with the idea of the "Avonization" of historicals? What do
you see as the symptoms of Avonization?
Do you like only historicals, or do you like other subgenres of romance as
well, such as paranormals and contemps? If so, why or why not?
What do you think publishers could do to win back readers of historicals?
Many romance readers started out only reading historicals...were you on of them, and if so, did you branch out into other sub-genres? If not, did you specialize into only reading Medievals or Westerns or trad Regencies. If you are/were among this latter group, where have you turned now that fewer romances are being published in those sub-genres (and in the case of trads, not at all)?
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