History Ever After: The Historical Romance Market

One of the components of History Ever After at IASPR in Sydney, Australia, will be a market study of online retailers and their potential influence on chronotopes. (Chronotopes are literary representations of time and space, a term coined by Mikhail Bakhtin). The heavy-lifting of my analysis is still to come, but my data has given me a better snapshot of the industry right now.

Let’s look at the only two major retailers that have subcategories of historical romance are Amazon and Barnes & Noble:

International Association for the Study of Popular Romance Sydney Think Globally Love Locally presentation by author Jennifer Hallock of Sugar Sun historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. History ever after.

Given how big Amazon is, I was surprised they did not have more variety in their categories. English history is relatively pinpointed: with Tudor, Regency, Scottish, and Victorian choices. But some of the other categories—Ancient World, Christian, and Medieval—are huge blocks of time. Moreover, calling something medieval (from the “middle age” between ancient and modern) is a Eurocentric view of history with potential negative connotations that do not fit other areas of the world. For example, the European “Dark Ages” were actually the height of the Islamic empires. China was pretty rocking, too. And, even in Europe, what does one do with a romance set in the Renaissance? And—side note—why aren’t there more Renaissance/Venetian romances?

The Barnes & Noble categories do add more variety, particularly some needed U.S. representation, including: Southern U.S., Native Americans, and Western and Frontier. Also, props for the Prehistoric category: Clan of the Cave Bear, baby! There are two Vikings options. One also includes pirates and sailors, taking it out of northern Europe and thus making it more inclusive. Plus there are some genre-crossing categories: Paranormal Historical, Suspense & Intrigue, and Time Travel. Still, there is not a whole lot of non-Western representation, if you really look at it.

Should these retailers re-examine their categories? I have been observing bestseller lists for over three months now to learn what is selling in the largest quantities. Truthfully, historical romance does not hit the trade lists very often. Contemporary (both adult and young/new adult) and romantic suspense are the biggest sellers. In the first quarter of 2018, only one book—Lisa Kleypas’s Hello Stranger—made the New York Times list.

International Association for the Study of Popular Romance Sydney Think Globally Love Locally presentation by author Jennifer Hallock of Sugar Sun historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. History ever after.

For those historicals that do make the retailers’ charts, they do so more often on Barnes & Noble than Amazon. This does not mean that B&N sells more overall, but a higher proportion of what they sell are historicals. By the way, those historicals are about a half as likely to include the words duke or duchess in the title if charting on B&N’s top 20 Regencies than in Amazon’s top 20 Regencies.

International Association for the Study of Popular Romance Sydney Think Globally Love Locally presentation by author Jennifer Hallock of Sugar Sun historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. History ever after.

Most bestsellers—no matter which list they are on—are Anglocentric. In the first quarter of 2018, 46% were Regencies, 23% were Scottish (any time period), 18% were Victorian, 5% were Georgian, and 2% were English medievals.

International Association for the Study of Popular Romance Sydney Think Globally Love Locally presentation by author Jennifer Hallock of Sugar Sun historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. History ever after.

Note that some books listed across two categories, such as Victorian and Scottish, and they were counted in both. Also note that the “Twentieth Century” category is inflated by the appearance of a book entitled White Rose, Black Forest. This romance of a German dissenter and Allied spy during WWII was published by Amazon’s own imprint (Lake Union). Amazon gave it away as a Kindle First read, which means any Amazon Prime member could have downloaded it in the month of February (but it technically wasn’t free). Great for that author, but not so realistic a picture of twentieth-century romance’s market share.

I have also noticed that Amazon stats are heavily impacted by paid newsletter services, like BookBub. I am starting to compile some statistics on just how much. (Stay tuned.)

What about award winners? Looking at 2018 RITA nominees, Regency and Scottish romance are even more heavily represented. Only two historicals on the entire list were not one or both of these categories:

International Association for the Study of Popular Romance Sydney Think Globally Love Locally presentation by author Jennifer Hallock of Sugar Sun historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. History ever after.

All nominees receive that recognition because they have written a great book, which took a lot of hard work. I will be looking at the last few years of historical winners to see if 2018 was an aberration, but certainly we can say that—paired with the market data—it is a reflection of reader preferences (and, in this case, author preferences, since authors were the judges).

In the end, what do readers want? They want it all. Here’s a wishlist of sorts from the survey I conducted in February 2018:

International Association for the Study of Popular Romance Sydney Think Globally Love Locally presentation by author Jennifer Hallock of Sugar Sun historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. History ever after.

The best sellers may be the most traditional time periods, but there are readers out there for everybody. Or, at least, that is how I choose to see it.

 

Research with Red at the Concord Museum

I am thrilled to announce that I will join RedHeaded Girl of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books at the 2018 New England Chapter of RWA® Let Your Imagination Take Flight Conference to present our workshop: Breeches, Banquets, and Balls: Living Your Heroines’ History.

Don’t just research history—live the life of your characters! See how cooking their feasts, wearing their clothes, and recreating their dances or battles will make your writing better. Join practical historian and blogger RedHeaded Girl of Smart Bitches Trashy Books, and Jennifer Hallock, history teacher and author of the Sugar Sun series, for the latest online and offline trends.

Red is an experienced practical historian and officer in the Society for Creative Anachronism, a group of over 30,000 members worldwide who are “dedicated to researching and re-creating the arts and skills of pre-17th-century Europe.” Dressed in clothing of the Middle Ages and Renaissance that she makes herself, Red attends “tournaments, royal courts, feasts, dancing, various classes & workshops, and more.” Oh, and she cooks and bakes for those feasts. Our workshop will tell you all about her adventures and how it gives her insight on daily life in historical times.

I have a lot to learn about making clothes (or food) from history, so Red gave me a primer at a new exhibit at the Concord Museum, “Fresh Goods: Shopping for Clothing in a New England Town, 1750- 1900.”

Fresh Goods Concord Museum history fashion Regency Victorian Georgian American history
Red “shopping” for shoes at the Concord Museum.

Do you see those shoes? People had small feet. I learned that. Also, as Red pointed out, shoes were made from the same fabric as dresses, which is why they had so little durability. If you have read that a character danced right out of their shoes, that description may be literal. It was possible to wear through the soft soles in a single ball, especially in flats. Heels helped.

Fresh Goods Concord Museum history fashion Regency Victorian Georgian American history

I loved the colorful clothes at the Concord Museum. These dyes must have been quite expensive, which may be why they were so treasured and therefore survived—more on that below. We saw dresses for every stage of a woman’s life, too. Below (going backward, from right to left) you can see the dress of a young girl, who then grew to be a young woman and required a formal gown to attract a husband, and then with that husband needed a maternity dress. If your family was frugal—and they probably were—they saved your baby dresses for your babies, and so the cycle went.

Fresh Goods Concord Museum history fashion Regency Victorian Georgian American history

As Red showed me, the fabric of these dresses often predated the styles they were recrafted into. It was not uncommon to see an 1860 dress made out of an 1820 dress, which may have been sold first in 1790 in a slightly different pattern. In fact, clothes were so often repurposed that it is hard to find surviving pieces of a working-class person’s wardrobe because they were worn to the bone. What is left to us is often clothes in odd sizes—especially small pieces, Red tells me—or the clothes of the elite, who bought new duds every time fashion changed. And fashion changed a lot. Do you see the photo above, with the blue dress? Look at the dress on the far left with the big sleeves—you see the one? Yes, the 1830s were a rough time. Sort of like the 1980s.

Concord Museum history bedroom Regency Victorian Georgian American history

And going to a museum with Red makes you look at things differently. For example, at the display above of life for a woman lying-in after the birth of her child, my first thought was: “Are those tea cookies real? Because I’m hungry.” My second thought was, “Look how pretty this room is!” (And our friend Namrata Patel—also a presenter at NECRWA, giving a must-see workshop on search engine optimization—said: “Where can I get this wallpaper?”) But Red’s question was, “Where is the chamber pot?” because she has lived this period (or, rather, earlier) and knows what is truly important. She also admired the washstand in the corner and wished she had one of those for her SCA “camping” retreats.

This trip was just the beginning of my education—and yours. I hope you can join us in Burlington in April! You can see all the great workshops and speakers, as well as register, at the NECRWA conference home page.

Discoverability: A Sneak Peek from the History Ever After Survey

(In preparation for my presentation, “History Ever After: Fabricated Historical Chronotopes in Romance Genre Fiction,” I created two surveys, one for readers of historical romance and one for those producing it. Now the results are in. Do you want to sneak a peek?

International Association for the Study of Popular Romance Sydney Think Globally Love Locally presentation by author Jennifer Hallock of Sugar Sun historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. History ever after.

I am not going to spoil the whole presentation now, but I will show you a little bit from the reader’s survey. Here were the questions asked:

International Association for the Study of Popular Romance Sydney Think Globally Love Locally presentation by author Jennifer Hallock of Sugar Sun historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. History ever after.

Question four is my topic of the day: discoverability. That’s the toughest nut to crack in today’s market so authors, listen up! Below are the options available to the respondents. (They also had a write-in option.)

International Association for the Study of Popular Romance Sydney Think Globally Love Locally presentation by author Jennifer Hallock of Sugar Sun historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. History ever after.

I wish I had a drum roll for the big reveal here, but since I don’t here goes…

International Association for the Study of Popular Romance Sydney Think Globally Love Locally presentation by author Jennifer Hallock of Sugar Sun historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. History ever after.

I know what you’re thinking: Social media recommendations won? Woot woot! I’m gonna throw promo around my favorite Facebook groups like graffiti! Well, hold on there, friend. Let me make an important disclaimer before you do. My survey link was distributed via social media, especially Facebook groups and, to a lesser extent, Twitter.

International Association for the Study of Popular Romance Sydney Think Globally Love Locally presentation by author Jennifer Hallock of Sugar Sun historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. History ever after.

It makes sense, then, that the survey respondents would take book recommendations via the very same channel that suggested the survey, right? So let’s not overvalue that response. But what can we learn from the results?

  1. As you might expect, book blogs do sell books. If you can get reviewed by several of these sites, especially the big ones, terrific! (It does not matter the grade they give you, believe it or not. I have heard both Sarah Wendell and RedHeaded Girl from Smart Bitches, Trashy Books say that—according to author feedback—the books with the biggest sales boosts might be those with the lowest-scoring reviews. Keep in mind that while the reviewer might not like bear-shifter-billionaire-alpha-hole-holiday-baby-surprise books, Jane the Reader might want to devour them like, well, a bear.
  2. Beyond book blogs, though, almost as many people find books through random browsing online. You can pay to promote on retail sites like Amazon, and how often your ad shows up depends on how much you bid for the spot. The real gold mine, though, is when a retailer promotes your book for free, especially in search results. To do this, you need to make friends with a nasty beast: the algorithm. How? Well, being a bestseller already is good. That’s helpful, right? To sell books you need to have sold books. Great, Jen. Thanks. Okay, how about this: a connection to another bestselling novel helps, too—those coveted “also bought” features. Outside of this survey, I have been tracking bestseller lists for three months, and I have noticed that sales on Amazon are strongly affected by our next marketing tool…
  3. Promotional newsletters like BookBub, Bargain Booksy, and others have changed the publishing industry. Initially, BookBub was a resource targeted at independent authors, but its tremendous success (millions of subscribers) meant that bricks and mortar publishers quickly got on board. While the big New York houses do not like to discount their books too close to publication date, they do use BookBub and others for their backlists. For example, Julie Garwood’s The Wedding, first published in 1996, was discounted to $1.99 this past week, advertised on BookBub on Tuesday, and now (on Thursday) it is still number 67 in the Kindle Store. That means it is on target to sell approximately 1500 copies today, according to Dave Chesson’s Kindlepreneur calculator. Before you rush to submit to BookBub, know that they do not accept everyone’s request for promotion. And, even if they do take your book deal, a spot in their newsletter is not cheap: from $66 to $4,000, depending on your genre, market (US or international), or book sale price. Is this worth it for an indie author? Maybe, after you have enough other books in a series to sell at full price to the new readers you attract.
  4. Speaking of newsletters, an author’s newsletter still has cache! (Did you know that you can sign up for mine here? Just checking.) In fact, author newsletters came in above promotional newsletters in the survey, but I put the paid ones first on this list because of their success in pushing sales. (By the way, I will be writing more about my bestseller tracking results after IASPR this summer.) Just keep emailing your readers—and do recommend the books that you enjoy reading, too, because people are listening. Read on…
  5. Fourteen people wrote in “recommendations by other authors.” This result could be compromised by the place I solicited for responses—two of which were big author pages—but I do think it is interesting that four percent of my respondents wrote in the very same idea (and that they felt it was distinct from other social media recommendations). So endorsements work. But you need to find an author with a big enough following to matter, and this is not always easy for debut authors without the support of a good agent or large publisher.
  6. Giveaways are popular in this survey, too, but I have a question about those: will entrants buy your book if they lose the giveaway? Anecdotal evidence from my friends says not necessarily, but I imagine that if your goal is to create name recognition, a giveaway on a site like Goodreads could work for you. I have no data to back this up, other than the relatively strong showing on this survey.
  7. Even digital people have a real life. The next response people gave was browsing in bookstores, superstores, grocery stores, libraries, and (yes!) yard sales. Obviously, this distribution channel favors print books; those who publish digital-only miss out. The deck is also stacked for traditional publishers who have distribution networks that reach into Walmart, Target, Barnes and Noble, and more.

That’s all for now. I am still analyzing the results of this survey, and these are just my first thoughts. Do remember that this is a survey for historical romance, and the results may have been different for readers of contemporary, erotic, inspirational, paranormal, or other romance subgenres. I will put this survey together with my other research to examine the most popular settings, plots, and characterizations in bestselling historical romance—the chronotopes—and see how flexible the market is. More to come!

[Background photo used in header taken by Jerzy Gorecki, used with permission under the Creative Commons CC0 Universal Public Domain Dedication 1.0 license.]

Thank you for your help!

I have been so pleased with the number of people who have taken the surveys for my presentation, “History Ever After: Fabricated Historical Chronotopes in Romance Genre Fiction.” Thank you!

International Association for the Study of Popular Romance Sydney Think Globally Love Locally presentation by author Jennifer Hallock of Sugar Sun historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.

After the IASPR conference in June, I will post the full results of this survey (and the rest of my presentation) here on this blog. Until then, if you want a sneak peek, check out my post on discoverability.

[Background image of girl in white shirt by Jerzy Gorecki, used with permission under the Creative Commons CC0 Universal Public Domain Dedication 1.0 license.]

Historical Romance Surveys

I need your help for my presentation, “History Ever After: Fabricated Historical Chronotopes in Romance Genre Fiction,” which I will deliver at the 7th Annual Conference of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance. Whether you are a romance professional or a romance reader, please answer a short four-question survey designed just for you:

For authors, editors, agents, assistants, librarians, graphic designers, and other industry professionals who create historical romance (and read it):

International Association for the Study of Popular Romance Sydney Think Globally Love Locally presentation by author Jennifer Hallock of Sugar Sun historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.

For romance readers (including authors who do not write historical romance):

International Association for the Study of Popular Romance Sydney Think Globally Love Locally presentation by author Jennifer Hallock of Sugar Sun historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.

Note: While you are asked to sign into Google to ensure one survey per person, it will NOT collect your email address.

These are not the only way you can help. I am building a few lists of books outside the most popular chronotopes.

Goodreads International Association for the Study of Popular Romance Sydney Think Globally Love Locally presentation by author Jennifer Hallock of Sugar Sun historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.

For books outside of 19th century England (Regency/Victorian), Scotland, and the American West, click here.

For books (in any historical time period) that include political, military, or socio-economic conflict or complexity, click here.

Thank you for all your help. I plan to summarize my results on this blog in the future, so please stay tuned. I hope to see as many of you as possible at the IASPR conference in Sydney. Thanks again!

[Background image of girl in white shirt by Jerzy Gorecki, used with permission under the Creative Commons CC0 Universal Public Domain Dedication 1.0 license.]