How To Sell Historical Fiction: The Past Is The Future

Oliver Webb-Carter

As editor of Aspects of History, I am often asked at book launches and in correspondence with authors about how historical novelists can and do sell books.
Home » Articles » How To Sell Historical Fiction: The Past Is The Future

How To Sell Historical Fiction: The Past Is The Future

There is plenty of attention given to the question of promoting and selling new books, but one of the things that has pleasantly surprised me since the launch of Aspects of History is just how well backlist historical titles sell. It’s always nice to hear from one of our writers about a spike in sales due to one of our promotions, or when a publisher or author puts a backlist title in the spotlight and it shines. It seems the major publishers do not publish as many frontlist titles as they used to, but there is a wealth of books out there published previously that readers will turn to, if highlighted. Unlike a number of other genres, historical fiction does not date. A book first published 30 years ago can sell as well now as it did then – and the reader would probably not be aware of the novel’s original release..

Most increases in sales, when older titles and authors experience a resurgence, are generally delivered through the kindle market. Readers can easily access the books, as they are unlikely to be stocked in bookshops (with their shelves groaning under the weight of celebrity memoirs or, worse, ghosted celebrity fiction). We recently helped to promote one of our authors who had one of their novels, initially published over ten years ago, reach the top 20 in the Amazon chart. That’s the whole chart, not just that devoted to historical fiction.

Intrigued by the renaissance of backlist historical fiction which is coming to dominate the charts, I spoke to Richard Foreman, the CEO of Sharpe Books, one of the UK’s leading independent publishers, which has scores of bestselling historical novelists on its list. I asked him the question which people ask me. How does one sell historical fiction?

“I would firstly say that for those authors doing well, whether through new or backlist titles, it’s seldom just one thing that will help break a novel through. It takes a certain amount of hard work – and good luck… Let us take it for granted that the author has written a good, marketable story and the publisher has duly furnished it with a genre-strong cover and blurb. Success seldom happens overnight. Exceptions do not disprove the rule. An author should be looking to raise their profile and sales in an ongoing way, with the publisher running price promotions and paying for coverage on various deal sites. Visibility generates sales – and sales generate visibility – on the Amazon system in particular. I always encourage authors to join the likes of the CWA and HWA. Aspects of History has also been invaluable to several of our writers, providing coverage on tap through your Author Platforms, to coincide with promotional campaigns. In short, every little helps. Mailing lists and an author’s relationship with his readership help. An author support network, with writers championing each other, helps. Forging relationships with websites and magazines, which are relevant to a novelist’s genre and period, helps… In reference to your point about backlist books, you are right. We regularly promote previously published novels, particularly series. As many debut authors that we take on, we are equally on the lookout for re-publishing older books. If an author’s novels are out of print, previously published by a major publisher or reputable independent press, then we would like to hear from them. We are also happy to hear from self-published authors who wish to raise the sales of their series.”

One of the reasons why we are seeing so many older titles re-enter the kindle charts is because of the quality of the novels too. Once readers discover the likes of Bernard Cornwell, Patrick O’Brian, Georgette Heyer and Mary Renault, it’s probably the case that they will not just read one book in their canon. Britain should not be ashamed of its history, or its historical novelists. There is also another generation of historical writers, who have proved prolific and popular, over the past twenty years, who possess enviable and enduring backlists, including Conn Iggulden, Ben Kane, Philippa Gregory, Steven Saylor, Michael Jecks and Andrew Taylor. I am sure that many of you reading this article will be able to put together a similar list. So it seems that the past is the future, which is a heartening message for Aspects of History.

If you are interested in submitting your historical novel or backlist series to Sharpe Books please contact