Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Historical Novel Society Conference London 2014 Part 1: Selling Historical Fiction

Here’s the paradox – both writing and reading are solitary activities, yet writers and readers love to create communities, particularly in this hyperactive era of social media. We find peer groups, like-minded souls, supporters – we share ideas, enthusiasms and dislikes. I’ve always been a reader, pretty much always been a writer and in the past few years I’ve felt more and more part of solidarity and fellowship, whether online or when attending writerly events.

Which leads me to the Historical Novel Society’s London Conference 2014. Cue bemusement that two years could have passed since I attended HNS London 2012! (See links to blogposts on that at the end of this post.) This year’s conference was held at the University of Westminster’s Marylebone campus, right opposite Madame Tussaud’s in London. It ran from Friday 5th to Sunday 7th September, and here’s the first part of my experience of it.

I’m afraid I wasn’t there at the start, at the Friday reception, where Elizabeth Chadwick awarded the HNS Indie Novel Award to Victoria Cox for The Subtlest Soul – I’m sorry to have missed that. I was there bright and early for the Saturday conference activities, though, which started with  words of welcome from the Society’s earliest benefactor and founder of its fortunes Richard Lee. The first panel discussion was ‘Selling Historical Fiction: the challenges and triumphs’, chaired by Carole Blake and featuring Matt Bates, fiction buyer for WH Smith Travel and possessor of a megawatt smile; Nick Sayers, publisher at Hodder and Stoughton; Simon Taylor, editorial director of Transworld; Susan Watt, editor at Heron Books; Katie Bond, once with Bloomsbury, now publisher with the National Trust.

Katie Bond
It’s interesting to compare this discussion with HNS London 2012, which also kicked off with an analysis of what sells HF – back then, there was a focus on covers. At the time, whether wearing embroidered gowns or wielding broadswords, headless characters featured on book-jackets all over the place, like a mass-exodus from Sleepy Hollow. This year, the speakers once again emphasised the importance of  ‘a really strong jacket’ (Matt). Katie Bond, talking about the difficulty of getting ‘the buzz' going, said that to break out a new writer, you need ‘a fabulous jacket’ – but you also need to ‘do something different’. As an example, she referred to Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles and how Madeline started as an ‘American blue-stocking’ who rewrote the Trojan War as a gay love story. Ah, that’s how you do it …

Carole Blake
Carole Blake said, ‘You can’t force the public to buy a book simply because you like it … we’re competing with every other form of entertainment.’ Publicity campaigns are risky and costly: Nick Sayers commented that ‘We can’t spend that kind of money to get someone from a standing start to being known … there’s no short cut’. As readers, we’re all aware of times when publishers have invested heavily in pushing a book only to find the public cold-shoulders it – that no matter how gorgeous the cover, how sparky the blurb, how saturated the media attention, something doesn’t fire the readers’ imaginations – or, indeed, has the contradictory effect of making readers not want to read the book. Readers can be resistant to hype or to feel challenged by it – leading to a slightly belligerent ‘Go on, prove yourself!’ attitude towards the hapless author. Conversely, there are the ‘sleeper hits’ – the novels no one saw coming, but which sidled into popularity with a shy embarrassed smile; novels whose quality spoke out, spoke directly to the readers who discovered them – and then shared them.

Carole Blake and Simon Taylor
The panel was asked whether paid adverts or social media influenced sales more. Simon Taylor felt a mixture worked best but that a ‘butt-kicking campaign’ is less likely these days. Susan Watt felt that an advert wouldn’t work as well with an unknown author, although a London Tube strike had benefitted Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace, simply because there was a captive audience, as it were. Oh, and it had a lovely cover, of course. Carole Blake reminded us that a gorgeous cover may not always work for both print and ebook versions: we need to bear in mind that a thumbnail image has to be both eye-catching and legible.

Matt Bates, Katie Bond, Nick Sayers
Debate moved into which era sells best – a topic about to be picked up in the next panel session. Matt Bates reiterated the popularity of the Tudor period. Indeed, Susan Watt, when asked how to break out an author who’s not yet known, said ‘I would recommend you start with a Tudor!’

The panel referred to the power of TV series not only to promote specific books but to influence what is produced: ‘sales guys love a good label’. Game of Thrones was mentioned, of course, along with Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series and Bernard Cornwell’s Anglo-Saxon series – bought by the team who brought us Downton Abbey. Visions of Maggie Smith as a shield-matriarch …

Carole Blake, Simon Taylor
Susan Watt, Matt Bates
(lighting conditions not ideal!)
At the end of the discussion, each panel member gave a final piece of advice. Simon Taylor: ‘Don’t give up the day job.’ Susan Watt: ‘Tell a story.’ Matt Bates: ‘Get the cover right.’ Katie Bond: ‘Enjoy the writing of it and edit and edit.’ Nick Sayers: ‘It’s got to have something about it to sell.’ Carole Blake: ‘Don’t follow a trend.’

I’ll round off this first post on the conference by giving the last word to Carole – when pitching, she says, ‘Don’t be mad.’

Duly noted.

Here are my posts on HNS London 2012:
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5 
My upcoming Fictionfire by the Sea workshop/retreat in Cornwall is here.

My upcoming season of Focus Workshops for writers, from October to December, is here.

The HNS Conference teaser video  will give you a flavour of what it was like to attend the conference  - much hilarity involved!


Karen said...

Fascinating read, Lorna, thanks for posting :o)

Lorna F said...

Thank you, Karen!

Anita Chapman said...

What a fabulous weekend it was Lorna! Congratulations on winning the #HNSLondon14 Short Story Award-look forward to reading 'Salt'. Great, detailed coverage, just like your posts for 2012. Look forward to the others!