Literary agent, Kate Burke, explains current market trends in historical fiction.
Historical fiction has always had a strong presence in the book market and, in an increasingly competitive climate for fiction, it is encouraging to have seen significant sales this year for established writers (Philippa Gregory, Robert Harris, Bernard Cornwell, Conn Iggulden, Simon Scarrow, John le Carré, Kate Mosse) as well as great support for break-out debuts such as Heather Morris’ The Tattooist of Auschwitz, which has sold 75,000 print copies this year and, last week, was the bestselling hardback and eBook in the UK.
Taking into consideration some of the bestselling historical fiction titles of the past few years, it’s clear that certain periods of UK history (World War II, the Victoria era, the Pendle witch trials and the tumultuous monarchist times of the 16th and 17th century) continue to fascinate readers and rise to the top of the charts. With regards to the Second World War, there’s something about this era – perhaps because there are still people alive who lived through it– that feels recent and integral to our society nowadays. With political tumult at home, in the US and elsewhere, the fascination with this period is reaching an all-time high.
Historical fiction is a broad category but what seems to really capture readers’ attention is when there are other elements to the story at play – for example, a mystery, an exotic setting (like Dinah Jefferies’ South East Asia) or a speculative retelling of well-known events (Robert Harris’s Fatherland, for example) – a hybridity of genre. Normally, in publishing fiction, it’s better to have a clear pitch for a novel and have it sit in a particular genre, but what’s so exciting about historical fiction is that it can cross over into thrillers, fantasy and women’s fiction.
Interestingly, some of the biggest UK publisher auctions over the past year have been for historical novels – The Familiars by Stacey Bartlett, The Doll Factory by Elizabeth MacNeal, We Were Never Here by Lara Prescott – so the genre is not just exciting for readers but for agents and editors too. We all want to find new stories and angles on familiar periods, with strong characters (sometimes based on real people) battling their way in a time of oppression (whether that be social, religious, cultural or political) and coming out triumphant. And it is this triumph over adversity that seems to really connect with readers – whether it’s on the battlefield or in the home.
What we – and I think, all readers – also love about historical fiction is being transported to a place we know nothing about and being immersed in that time period as we are swept along with the characters. For most people, reading fiction is escapism and what better way to escape than to be transported elsewhere? With historical fiction in unique settings, there is huge opportunity for a book to become a worldwide success. We handle rights in all territories for our clients so, when we take on a new historical writer, we are always thinking about how we can reach an international audience with their story. Readers at home and abroad are interested in travelling further afield than Victorian London or the Tudor court!
Alongside the potential international appeal of historical fiction (though I should add that WW2 fiction with a very British slant can be a tough sell to territories such as Germany), there’s the huge film and television potential, as period dramas like Poldark and Downton Abbey continue to entertain and delight audiences. At Northbank, we have an experienced film & tv agent with whom we share projects, so we discuss the potential scope for a film or tv adaptation from the outset. All very exciting indeed!
What’s key – in any work of fiction – is that the story unfolds through the characters’ eyes (in that show-don’t-tell way). As much as readers like to feel as though they are learning something about a place or time, they don’t want too much historical detail to be listed on the page. Instead, they want to be caught up in the protagonist’s world and to see the period through their eyes. Historical detail is crucial, of course, but the biggest debut successes of the past few years (The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton, The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris and The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry, to name but a few) all have that central (usually female) character with whom the reader connects from the first page and is rooting for throughout. Female readers in particular, like a modern, feminist slant/twist on a well-known period, which has been immensely successful commercially.
Historical fiction is here to stay and, as I hope you can tell, I’m a huge fan! At Northbank, we are open for submissions and actively looking to take on more historical writers so please feel free to submit to us.
Kate Burke is a Literary Agent at Northbank Talent Management. Kate moved to agenting in 2013 following a career commissioning and publishing commercial fiction at Headline, Penguin, HarperCollins and latterly as Editorial Director at Century (Random House), where she achieved an excellent track record of publishing bestsellers.
Northbank is actively seeking new clients and welcomes all submissions whether from debut or established authors. To submit to us, please send some background information about yourself, a synopsis and the first three chapters of your submission as Word or Open Document attachments to firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, please consult our website www.northbanktalent.com