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.