Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Back to the Future: Practitioners of Historical Fiction Look at the Future of Their Genre & the Publishing Industry

by Sophie Perinot

June 17th to 19th marked the 4th North American Conference of the Historical Novel Society. I am a sucker for this conference. I’ve attended them all. Why? Well in addition to the fellowship (and this group of writers feels and behaves like one big, happy, and occasionally dysfunctional family) I go because I LEARN. I learn about my craft, and I learn about the trends and issues in my genre.

There have been a number of super “wrap ups” of the HNS conference. If you want to savor the minutiae—who sat with whom at dinner, the details of a particular panel—I suggest you have a look at one of them (e.g. Kate Quinn's or Susan Higginbotham's or Dora Levy Mossanen's). Just remember whatever you read about me in the lobby of the hotel at 2 a.m. on Saturday night is likely an exaggeration.

My goal in this post is not to recount all that happened during my 3 days in San Diego, but rather to highlight a few, select, personal impressions & conclusions that may be useful to those pursuing publication.

Reports of the death of traditional publishing are premature. Sure “It’s the wild west out there” as editor Shana Drehs of Sourcebooks (largest woman-owned publisher. 11 national best sellers in the past 5 months) put it, but if you can land a spot with a traditional publisher they still “add value” to your product. Some examples: production, editing, meta data management, distribution, licensing and rights, tradeshow attendance ... the list goes on.

Yes, all authors need to be their own (or if their advances warrant it, hire their own) publicists, but your in-house publicity and marketing departments will do more than all the big-house-trashing on the web these days might lead you to believe. This can include coop (placement on that coveted “new release” table), store level promotions, hardcopy marketing and advertising, coordinating blog tours, and sending out reams and reams of review copies (ARCs), and more.

And let’s not forget there are purely practical, sales related matters attendant upon self-publishing (at least in paper copies). A conference highlights these. No, people were not selling books out of their suitcases or trunks. In fact, that would not have been possible because conferences have vendors. For example, at the HNS conference a vendor was selected to set up a conference bookstore. This vendor only “ordered in” books that could be returned if they didn’t sell (basically books published by large publishers and established indie houses). So, those authors with micro-houses or whose novels were self-published had to supply copies of their books on consignment (with all the lugging or shipping of books that entailed) and pay a percentage of sales to have their books stocked.

Finally, though it may not be politically correct to bring it up, the intangible “cachet” of being with a major publisher is still there. It may be waning, but it’s not gone. I am not going to belabor this, but attend a conference yourself and you will see what I mean.

If you write historical fiction, big-name historical characters still have value. Are marquee names really necessary in writing (and more importantly selling) a work of historical fiction? There was an entire panel devoted to this, folks, and a heated panel too. Yes, we’ve come along way in introducing “average people” and giving their stories value and importance (both in academic history and in historical fiction) but my conclusion is that famous names sure do help—especially if you are a debut novelist seeking to break in and stay in.

Why? Look around you, folks, we are a celebrity-fixated culture (but don’t feel bad, we always have been). Real characters (preferably famous ones) DO attract more attention and big names can equal big sales. BUT—and this may be the most interesting idea I brought home from the conference—the “marquee” that hooks an agent, an editor and ultimately readers DOESN’T have to be your main character; heck, it doesn’t even have to be a person. IDENTIFY what is marquee in your story and bring it forward—it could be your setting (major historical event, time period that fascinates readers—Tudor period anyone—etc), it could be a secondary character that your MC interacts with (or more than one, someone at the conference mentioned a book in which the protagonist interacted with numerous famous figures including Shakespeare). But, if you can’t find someone or something that’s “marquee” as a hook for a story that you are passionate about telling, write it anyway. As multi-published author C.W. Gortner said, “It doesn’t sell until it sells—it is never, never in publishing.”

Titles and covers matter (a lot). According to one publishing house insider, more books fail because of titling and positioning than any other factor. As for covers—we denizens of the historical genre are often obsessed with accuracy (is the costume on the cover figure right? Why is the figure standing on a moor when there is no moor in the book?), but being INTRIGUING is more important than being accurate. If your cover doesn’t catch a reader’s eye in a split second you are in trouble! The art & marketing departments at publishing houses know this business. They (and your editor) often reject many versions of a cover before shouting “that’s it” (Shana D from Sourcebooks told us the record for a book she’s edited was 120 cover versions. Yeah 120).

Don’t be tyrannized by fact. This is not academic history we are writing. Does accuracy matter in historical fiction? You bet your farthingale it does, but “fictional art can show truth that goes deeper than a collection of fact; it can show us what it felt like to be a particular person at a particular time.” (Susan Vreeland). And besides, “as soon as something happens people start lying about it” (Cecelia Holland) so “truth” in history can legitimately be debated.

Award winning author Susan Vreeland pointed out that selection (and correspondingly, elimination) of facts is part of the process of writing compelling historical fiction. As an author you need to select only those aspects and events in a character’s life or time period that relate to or reflect the themes and premise of your book. It doesn’t matter how pivotal an event is (Susan gave the example of the death of a beloved brother that stuck with one of her main characters for the rest of his life), if it doesn’t move the plot of your individual book forward than it needs to be left out.

Invention is also a part of historical fiction—embrace it. Invent characters, invent events, put words into the mouths of your characters, but make sure your inventions contribute to the narrative arc of your story and are in keeping with what your research has revealed to you about the nature and personality of your characters. Author Margaret George suggested this quick “gut check” for whether your invention is appropriate—imagine you are writing for the character herself/himself. Would he/she be pleased? Margaret also posited that if someone was writing about you, you might be very happy to have some things fudged.

Fess up when you stray. The general consensus among attendees was that pointing out where you deliberately deviate from the historical record in a good author’s note is a must (and not just to save you from ranting, 8-point-type, single-spaced letters from readers who feel you gotten something dead wrong). You need not point out the obvious (like you imagined the dialogue between characters dead 500 years) but if you’ve moved a battle by a year, etc. then come clean (but don’t apologize).

The author to reader connection is closer than it has ever been. As writers we need to be accessible to our readers—that means having a home base (website) but not just staying there sipping coffee and eating bon-bons. Think blog tours, think social media, think outside those boxes as well. But most of all, remember that the author-to-reader relationship is NOT about you. Make it all about the reader and her/his experience and you will sell books better.

The pace at which consumers are learning to love e-books is exponential. Here are one publisher’s numbers. In September of 2010 6.7% of publisher X’s $ from sales came from e-books. In January of 2011 (that’s 4 months later) 35% of $ from sales were e-book generated. While only 25% of print books sold are adult fiction, fiction has a much bigger slice of the pie in the e-book world. Why do readers buy e-books: affordability, ease of download (allowing readers to connect with books anytime and any place), searchablity, and portability.

I will close with a few “sound-bites” answering “ever wonder” questions:

Ever wondered how historical fiction writers handle conflicting historical sources?

There are three main approaches to this—each with its devotees. First, you can “pull back” to a point where there is general agreement in the historical sources (but this can leave you in limbo if your narrative arc demands an answer to a certain historical question). Second, you can go with “majority rules” (but if you want to paint a picture that goes against the grain this approach will not suit). Finally, you can view this as “writers choice,” picking the facts as you need them and knowing that you do have a credible source (or perhaps more than one) to cite if challenged.

Ever wonder why it takes so long for a book to hit the shelves once it’s acquired?

Here’s the breakdown of the time from a publishers perspective—3 months for editing, 7 months for production, 5-6 months for pre-publication publicity (including getting the accounts on board) = a minimum 10 months from acquisition to publication.

Ever wonder what three questions editors ask when they look at your manuscript?

1) Is it good? (obvious)
2) Will it sell? (data helps answer this—especially sales data on comparable titles)
3) Is it right for our list? (this is the one an author can’t control)

Ever wonder how can you think about positioning for your novel?

1) Familiarize yourself with your book’s subcategory inside and out. What sort of things are being written and about whom? Do you want to go with the grain of existing novels or against it?
2) Consider how you would tweet what your novel is about (try it—140 characters is not a lot)

Ever wonder when this post will come to an end? Relax, you just got there.


Julianne Douglas said...

Great post! You caught all the main points. What an informative conference it was. And lucky for you I went upstairs before the escapades in the lobby got out of hand. :)

Sophie Perinot said...

Ah, Julianne, but you were much missed (though we did all laud you for your self-discipline in getting a full night's sleep before your pitch))

Stephen L. Duncan said...

Great post, S!

Titles are the stuff of my nightmares.

Sophie Perinot said...

Stephen --

I think it's almost easier if you are "title impaired" as I am. I was quite happy that my editor and then eventually the marketing folks etc had title suggestions. And I was fully ready to embrace theirs because mine were. . . .

Lindsay N. Currie said...

Great post - very insightful:)

Deborah Swift said...

Absolutely fantastic post. Thanks for giving us all your impressions. I'm off to tell everyone to come over and read it.

Jemi Fraser said...

120 cover attempts is crazy!!! Wow! I agree covers are so important though. I know the kids in my class are VERY reluctant to pick up a book with a disappointing cover.

DeAnna Cameron said...

Great recap -- you nailed so many of the best take-home messages, and love those "ever wonders." So clever :)

Sophie Perinot said...

Thanks Lindsay, Deborah & DeAnna!

Jemi, I know, I can't even imagine. I also think authors are not the best judges of their own covers (heresy to some I am sure). I think we know lots about our books but not so much about what makes people snatch one volume among many from the "new releases" table

Jean Oram said...

120 covers! (I'm having the same reaction as Jemi.)

Wow. A good cover DOES make a big influence on readers though. As a librarian I've seen that a ton of times. A poor cover can have that reader going 'neh' like you wouldn't believe. (Me too!)

Sophie Perinot said...

Jean what I think is particularly interesting is that writers may not be the best judges of covers for their own work -- I knew that the minute I heard Shana say that "INTRIGUING is more important than accurate." An awful lot of writers of historical fiction may know that in their gut but when they see a cover they want every detail to be "perfect" -- sort of a "forest for the trees" situation.

Marci said...

Ahem. I know exactly what happened in the lobby at 2 am. But don't worry...I'll never tell!!
Wonderful post. Makes me long to go back.

Sophie Perinot said...

Marci -- well, there is always 2013 :) I suggest we drink more at that one.