When it comes to attracting readers, corset-wearing heiresses are finding it harder to compete with stiletto-heeled executives. So-called "historicals," once the dominant subgenre of romance books, are losing out to contemporary novels, leaving publishers to wonder whether this shift in readers' affections signals a permanent change or is just the most recent dalliance of a fickle market.

"This business is completely cyclical," says Tracy Farrell, executive editor at Harlequin's HQN Books. "I have yet to see anything that hasn't made a comeback." Farrell recalls hearing years ago at her first writers conference that "Vikings are dead," then later going to another conference and listening to endless laments that manuscripts featuring the Scandinavian warriors were nowhere to be found. Farrell sees the recent slump in sales of historicals as "simply another ebb and flow in the tide of romance."

Still, there are reasons to believe the infatuation with contemporaries is not just a fling. Novels with modern settings and heroines may be more accessible to newer romance fans who find it hard to relate to the misty intrigues of the 17th-century English aristocracy, or who are put off by arcane period detail. The weakness in historicals may also have as much to do with format as with content. Mass market, the format of choice for historicals, is in decline across genres. Contemporary romances are more likely to be found in hardcover or trade paperback, the formats of choice for younger generations of readers.

Whatever the explanation, the signs of cooling interest in historicals are unmistakable. The number of historicals being published in the U.S. dropped from a 10-year high of 778 in 2001 to 486 last year, according to Bowker's Books in Print Database. Kensington editorial director Kate Duffy notes that her company's list is 70% contemporary and 30% historical, an exact reversal from five years ago. The change, says Duffy, reflects the submissions coming into Kensington. "Our program takes its lead from authors," she said. "Their gut instincts lead the way."

Pocket has also published fewer historicals in the last several years, though editorial director Maggie Crawford is hesitant to draw conclusions. "Romance has gone in so many directions and readers have so many more choices now," she says. Crawford does admit to seeing fewer historicals being submitted by agents—"the majority since January have been contemporary paranormal"—and attributes much of this to her understanding that "booksellers are advising authors to write paranormals. Authors watch the bestseller lists and see lesser names on the lists with a paranormal and think, 'Why not me?'"

When Tor Romance debuted in November 2004, it was dedicated to paranormal romance—be it contemporary or historical. In 2005, Tor published 12 titles, all contemporary. "I've seen, literally, thousands of manuscripts," says editor Anna Genoese. "Only about 5% of the submissions have been historical—and only about half a percent of those could have been considered publishable. Creating a fantasy for readers to get lost in is one thing—electric lights in the Middle Ages is quite another."

A Divide of Format and Content

The divide between contemporaries and historicals represents another chasm: that between hardcover and paperback. In 2000, according to the Romance Writers Report, only 15 of the 566 historical romances published were in hardcover; last year, there were only 10 historicals in hardcover, and more than four times as many contemporaries. Historicals have been, and remain, a mass market subgenre. And the mass market category as a whole has struggled over the last five years. BISG figures show that total dollar sales in mass market in 2004 were identical to those in 2000. Hence, the decline in historicals may result from their being locked into a publishing format that could be going the way of the fur-clad Viking. Agent Steve Axelrod, who represents such romance stalwarts as Jayne Ann Krentz, Susan Elizabeth Phillips and Julia Quinn, sees trouble ahead: "Historical romance has failed to establish a significant and growing presence in hardcover." Mass merchandisers have lost interest in selling mass market paperbacks and are clearly favoring hardcovers and trade paperbacks, says Axelrod, which prevents most historicals from being sold in the all-important price clubs and other mass merchandise outlets.

Michael Norris, editor at Book Publishing Report, points to the money. "Historicals are struggling, with revenues dropping the last several quarters." The entire romance category, he says, is in for a tough year: "mass market figures from AAP show interest in that format is dropping, dropping, dropping." The reason, says Norris, is that outlets like grocery stores are now carrying more hardcover and trade paper titles.

But the problem goes beyond trim size. "It's harder to get out the numbers on lead historical titles than it was years ago," says Avon executive editor Carrie Feron, "because there's so much demand for people's time." She points out that in the days when Kathleen Woodiwiss shipped millions of copies and was on bestseller lists for months, "there were only three TV channels." Lisa Kleypas, who is finishing her last historical for Avon and will soon begin work on her first contemporary for St. Martin's, agrees. "Look at what's going on in society today—so much tough stuff. Historicals in the traditional sense are so detail-rich and harder to read. People don't have time to work when being entertained." Others contend it's not at all the demanding nature of historicals that puts readers off; it's the constraints of the time period. Warner senior editor Karen Kosztolnyik says that, in contemporaries, "the heroine can be a firefighter, a doctor, a lawyer—the options are endless. But in historicals, the most she can be is a lady."

At Waldenbooks in Hurst, Tex., assistant manager Kathy Baker, a former RWA Bookseller of the Year, reports that while the audience for historicals remains devoted—"the ladies still love their Highlanders"—she's concerned that historicals are not attracting a new audience, particularly readers under 40. "Young women think the typical historical has little plot and lots of sex," says bookseller Suan Wilson of Rainy Day books in Fairway, Kans., who reports contemporary romances continue as the store's sales leaders. "It's not the content, but preconceived notions about historicals" that keeps younger readers away, believes Linda Keller, community relations manager for the Barnes & Noble in West Chester, Ohio. "They have this ingrained notion from school that history is dry. But if you can hand sell them a good one, they're hooked."

For some publishers, currents trends present an opportunity. At Dorchester, editorial director Alicia Condon sees other publishers' backing away from historicals as a chance to "solidify our position. We want readers to think historicals when they see the Dorchester brand. Just because people aren't talking about historicals shouldn't be taken for demise. There's a huge audience and it continues to outsell everything we do in other romance categories." The Dorchester list is 75% historicals and 25% contemporary.

Despite changing tastes, most publishers say historicals—especially Regencies—continue to hold steady in the hearts of both readers and booksellers. "Historicals are still the most reliable and consistent part of our romance program," reports Feron at Avon. Three-quarters of Avon's list is devoted to historicals, a percentage that hasn't changed in the last five years. This confidence is typified, says Feron, by the fact that Julia Quinn's It's in His Kiss (July) is set for an 800,000-copy first printing.

"I've yet to see a call report from the sales force that notes a buyer saying, oh, no, not another historical," says Matthew Shear, senior v-p and publisher at St. Martin's. And for the most part, booksellers would agree. At Joseph-Beth in Lexington, Ky., Gina Scalera reports no drop in sales for historicals, and points to a customer base devoted to medievals and romances set in the 10th and 11th century. She credits handselling and male staffers "who are open to reading romances" with keeping sales steady.

So, What's Hot?

With publishers scrambling to keep devoted historical readers and attract a new audience, the temptation is to grab onto what's hot and encourage writers to go where the numbers are.

But to some authors, chasing after the flavor of the month sounds like the worst possible strategy. "When writers start asking their editors what they should write next," says bestselling author Jude Deveraux, "they're finished." And don't mention "rules" about what should and shouldn't be published to Susan Elizabeth Phillips unless you want an earful. "When all of us—Jayne Ann Krentz, Nora Roberts, Jude Deveraux, Johanna Lindsey—started, we wrote in isolation," says Phillips. "We didn't know what the rules were, we wrote what was in our hearts." Tara Taylor, president of the Romance Writers of America, agrees. "Everyone is jumping around looking for the next new trend instead of writing where their heart is," she says. "Publishers need to become much more flexible about the kinds of stories they accept."

Two years ago, Jayne Ann Krentz considered abandoning her bestselling historical alter ego, Amanda Quick. "Sales of historicals were flat, and I thought maybe the naysayers were right after all these years." But her longtime contemporary editor, Penguin Mass Market Group publisher Leslie Gelbman, thought otherwise. "I told her she couldn't give up on a bestselling name like Amanda Quick. Good romance never dies." Krentz moved the Quick franchise to Putnam from Bantam. Gelbman then asked Krentz what she really wanted to do with these books; the response came back—"more suspense and mystery." In 2004, the "new" Amanda Quick debuted with The Paid Companion, which hit the New York Times list. "We gave it up-market packaging and a cover that looked less category. Sales not only stabilized but came up," says Gelbman.

Emma Holly, who had found a comfortable niche writing Victorian romances, will roll out Courting Midnight (Berkley, Oct.) about a discontented vampire looking for love against a Regency backdrop. Lisa Jackson, whose contemporaries for Kensington appeared regularly on New York Times bestseller lists, returns to NAL for her first historical since 2003. Temptress (Onyx, Oct.) is a "sexy scary serial killer love story set in medieval Wales," reports NAL editorial director Claire Zion. "It's an example of how to revitalize historicals with a fresh new take, which is exactly what the market needs." At Harlequin, Farrell sees Linda Lael Miller's McKettrick's Choice (June) as giving yet another boost to the American western romance—"it's a subgenre that can help historicals gain back the market share."

Bringing a 21st-century sensibility to olden times is a gamble that runs the risk of inviting anachronism while trying to be hip. "An 18th-century heroine not wearing a corset because she knows they aren't good for her—how could she possibly know that?" asks Jude Deveraux. "Very annoying." But some observers, such as Bantam Dell senior editor Wendy McCurdy, feel that writers are managing to avoid women's lib in the castle. "Authors have been very creative in inventing heroines with all kinds of modern attitudes and then superimposing this on a rigid pre-20th century society. In Madeline Hunter's Regency, Lord of Sin, the heroine and her sisters are in the forgery business."

Medallion Press, which made its debut in 2003, decided, says v-p Leslie Burbank, to go after new ideas, historical romances that other publishers may not be doing—"romances set in far-flung locales or those not often written about in the traditional historical sense." Helen Rosburg's By Honor Bound, set in what most publishers often consider a sales wasteland—the French Revolution—has, reports Burbank, found a large readership. "The old rules are falling to the demands of an evolved reader who wants more grit and sense of place in their happily-ever-after."

That First Romance It's tough to launch a new author. The question is, has it become even tougher nowadays for historical romance? Is the interest in and push for contemporary settings causing the old standbys to be eclipsed? Depending on who you talk to, the answer is definitely yes.
New York City literary agent Laura Langlie sold Sarah Elliot's Regency-era romance Reforming the Rake (Oct., 2005) to Harlequin Historicals, but only after racking up rejections from 10 other publishers. "When I was marketing Sarah's book two years ago, I kept being told, 'If this had been three years prior we would have purchased it.' They wanted to see Sarah write a chick-lit novel." Agent Steve Axelrod says it's been a while since he's had a conversation with an editor asking to see historical romance, or heard about new lines looking to buy it. "I get calls about chick lit, about paranormals and romantic suspense, but not historicals," he says. "No question they're being published, but looking for new authors is not a priority for publishers these days."
Not so, says Carrie Feron at Avon. "We buy more historicals than contemporaries, so for us the contemporaries are riskier. Contemporaries have a much higher upside if they break through, but in the main it's easier to sell a great historical romance by an unknown writer than a great contemporary romance by an unknown writer."
One of Avon's successes is Shane Bolks, who made a dual debut in May with a Regency-era historical, When Dashing Met Danger (under the name Shana Galen), and a contemporary, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Men I've Dated. The Regency title did especially well, with nearly double the number of usual orders coming through. And yet Bolks says she was repeatedly told that the historical market was dead. "No matter how well my historical manuscripts did in contests, agents were not interested in looking at them. So I decided to diversify and try what, at that time, was a new genre—chick lit. At first many agents weren't quite sure what to make of that either, but in the end it's what got my foot in the door."
Another first-time author, Lydia Joyce, achieved bestsellerdom with The Veil of Night (Signet Eclipse, Apr.), a Victorian. "I knew when I started writing it was going to be a hard sell," she says. "It would have been much easier to have done a contemporary, but I don't like doing that very much. Now I've made a place for myself and I'm not concerned that my choice is not viable." Says Joyce's editor, Serena Jones, "You wouldn't think setting is such a big thing but it is. It set her apart." Joyce sent her manuscript to only three publishers, and had offers from two of them.
Abby Zidel, an editor at Harlequin's new HQN imprint, stresses how difficult it is for any romance genre. "There are lots of books competing for finite eyes and dollars. What would make a reader pick a newcomer over a brand-name author? You wait for someone with a new look, a new voice, a spark. Right now it's a little harder for historicals, but we've been saying this for 15 years." —Suzanne Mantell