In the past, I’ve bemoaned a lack of variety in historical romance settings, and we’ve even voted on where readers wanted to see historical set (Result: we like 19th c. England but wouldn’t mind reading about other places and times, too!). However, over the past few years I’ve been seeing change in the historical market overall.
Historical romance once dominated the market. When I started reading romance as a 1990s high school student, the vast majority of books out there were historicals – and they were set all over the place. When I started at AAR in 2003, it was harder to find a wide variety of historical settings, but there were still plenty of books. And this continued for a while. An informal look at book lists, some from AAR and some from old issues of RT at the library, throughout the 2000s even up until 2010-11 showed me that we still had historicals galore being released. In fact, in some of those 5 and 10 year old issues of RT at the library, the list of historical romances each month would take up a full page and then reviews would go on for 10+ pages.
However, now there seem to be fewer historicals out there on the shelves. When I go to the bookstore, the contemporaries and paranormals seem to dominate. If you want to read yet another series about a set of friends or siblings or English spies, you can still find plenty of that but it’s getting a little harder. We thankfully still have authors such as Meredith Duran, Sherry Thomas, Julia Quinn, Eloisa James and others putting new historicals on shelves, but I’m seeing fewer new writers making their debuts in this category each month. And in the more current issues of RT that I hunted down, I noticed that while the historical romance section is still generously sized compared to, say, urban fantasy, the list is shrinking in size and reviews don’t tend to take up quite as many pages.
I’d noticed this for a little while, and had wondered whether it was just a blip in the market or an ongoing trend. A telling moment for me came at RWA 2012 during the Carina Press Publisher’s spotlight. An aspiring author in the audience asked Angela James and company if they would consider historical submissions. The answer she received? Carina would love to get historical submissions but they just weren’t receiving as many of them. That shocked me. Since childhood, I’d viewed historicals as being synonymous with romance in a way, and it’s hard for me to see them growing scarcer, even if only slightly.
And this makes me wonder. Is the declining popularity of historicals merely a passing trend or a permanent shift in the market? We’ve certainly seen trends in romance before. When I first started reading, time-travel was everywhere. Then, by the early 2000s, it had largely disappeared. And now, while not as huge as before, time-travel and time-slip books are creeping back onto shelves. Then again, medical romances were once a staple of the market but now, with the exception of the Harlequin Medical Romance line(which isn’t even sold in bricks and mortar stores), they’re pretty much gone.
I don’t see historicals entirely going the way of the dinosaur. Romance readers tend to read widely, but there are still many out there for whom historicals are a staple of their reading diet. However, with contemporaries and erotic romance growing in popularity, I do wonder if tastes are changing a bit. I read across pretty much every subgenre, so I don’t really see the various subgenres being in competition with one another. However, publishers have a finite number of slots in their lists and if they are publishing more in 1 subgenre, that means that, unless they expand their lists overall, they will need to cut back in other subgenres. All of which makes me wonder if midlist and debut authors, who are getting crowded out already, will continue to face even more pressure in the historical category. A sad thought.
So, what have you been seeing as readers? And authors: You’re out there in the trenches; what do you see happening in the market?
– Lynn Spencer