This Little Manuscript went to the Marketplace

The 4th Annual Historical Novel Society conference in San Diego, June l7-19, 2011, is approaching, and I am looking forward to meeting everyone, in particular the others on our ‘Debut Authors’ panel. Check out  http://hns-conference.org/.

In re-reading recently the program, I noticed that the names of the agents/agencies who will be attending the conference in search of the next ‘debut novelist’ sounded awfully familiar. And sure enough, after I checked my thick query/rejection pile, I was turned down by every single one of them. 

Almost a year has passed since The Sixth Surrender made its ‘debut,’ and as I re-read the letters, most of them the “Dear Author/Writer” kind, I reflected on what had changed and what had not in the historical fiction market since I fired off the first query letter—and received my first cherished rejection (see below). 

As others have pointed out recently, historical fiction (the literary and popular kind) appears to be gaining a spot in the marketplace—or not. The highly regarded agent Irene Goodman whose call for historical fiction pitch contest (“not historical romance!”) appears in the May 2011 issue of RWR, and at her website http://www.irenegoodman.com/historical_fiction_contest.php indicates that something maybe afoot—or not. 

•Irene will consider anything European, but especially England, Scotland, France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland. Some American settings will be considered, but the market is not currently favoring those, so selectivity is essential. A few Asian subjects might work, but again, selectivity will be crucial. Irene is not looking for books set in ancient Egypt, Greece, or Rome. Historical means anything from the dawn of time to World War One. 

Last year, in an interview in Solander (May 2010, published by the Historical Novel Society), Ms. Goodman advised writers to “avoid the iffy subjects and understand that what seems compelling to you as a history geek may be less so in the marketplace. Be absolutely sure before you even start out that your subject will be considered saleable.” 

Going back through my files of similar encouraging/discouraging information, I found there an article from the last meeting of the Historical Novel Society in Albany, NYin 2007. http://historyhoydens.blogspot.com/2007/06/historical-fiction-vs-historical.html

At that time, what was the conventional wisdom about historical fiction set inFrance? French settings don’t sell because people (i. e. Americans) don’t like the French. The exception for the marketplace, according to Ms. Goodman, was anything about Marie Antoinette because she’s a ‘marquee name.’ (Historical geeks would point out that Marie A. wasn’t French, the French didn’t like her either and in fact called her L’Autrichienne, but I digress.) 

So writing ‘what is saleable’ still remains an open question, doesn’t it? 

To that end, here are rejection comments culled from the NRP (Norton Rejection Pile) about The Sixth Surrender,  set largely in medieval France. And no, not during the 100 Years War either. 

The Market Stinks:

 “…with the market being so competitive, it is only with unreserved enthusiasm that we feel comfortable taking on new projects.” July 2005

“We don’t believe that this described book would be saleable in today’s tough market place.” January 2006

“…I was turned down by a number of publishers on [a project similar to yours]. This has confirmed my feeling that the market is truly shrinking for creative fiction placed in previous eras—at least, at the present moment.”   January 2006 

“…given today’s publishing climate I do not believe I would be able to get you the attention of a publisher.…”    September 2006

“The fiction market, as you know, is extremely difficult.” May 2007

Your Writing Stinks:

“…I did not love the writing enough to want to see more…Why don’t you write about what you know?”  February 2005

“…I was very excited when I read about your story, but unfortunately I didn’t find the writing as engaging as I hoped it would be.”  January 2006

“The subject is interesting, but I found the writing just a little stilted.”  February 2006

“I’m afraid that I just was not compelled to keep turning the pages.”  April 2007

Your Writing doesn’t quite Stink but it’s the Market, again. 

“…showed an awful lot of talent with fine writing and very authentic detail, but I am not sure it could find a home in the historical fiction market.”  October 2005

“…it showed a lot of talent but it was clearly not a fit for the historical romance market (even the high end) and the market for true historical novels is very, very small. I’m sorry I can’t help you with it, it’s high quality work.” October 2005

“Although I do have to admit that you have a strong fiction voice…this is just not the type of story that I am looking for.” November 2005

The moral to be drawn is perhaps this: 

1) Chances are the ‘publishing climate’ and the ‘marketplace’ will always be bad for your kind of writing. It will be un-saleable until it sells. 

2)  Not everybody has to love your stuff just like not everybody has to love you. Your stilted, un-engaging and un-compelling writing may be exactly the opposite for someone else. 

3) By no means write only ‘what you know.’ Unless it’s all you know. I don’t know…. 

4) The times are a changin’: avoid all of the above—go digital.

 P. S. My characters are currently in medieval Cyprus. . It’s an iffy subject, in an odd location, written by a history geek. Yiikes  La lucha continua.

About Hana Samek Norton

I am a historian who writes 'history with a story' in off-duty hours.
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