As part of the preparation for our HNS2013 panel on Off the Beaten Path books, we wanted to get a really solid grounding and definition—one can have an intuition about what's off the beaten path, but we wanted to have facts.
As a reminder, our definition of mainstream was:
There’s nothing wrong with popularity! But with so many books out there and only so much time and space for promotion, the most popular themes naturally get the most attention, while others remain out of the spotlight.
In this panel we will explore current themes and trends in historical fiction and take a look at some books that veer off these paths. Our goal is to show readers the wide variety of historical fiction available to them, and to show writers that there is an audience for every story. If you’ve ever asked, “Doesn’t anyone write (…)?” this panel is for you.So, what does the HF landscape look like? We did a combined analysis of both the February and May 2013 Historical Novels Review, both print and online (which included Big 5/6 and their imprints, independent presses, small presses, and self-published books).
In this panel, “mainstream” refers to the most well-known settings, eras, characters, and/or styles in current historical fiction.
What our definition of mainstream is NOT:
- A method of publishing
- A list of targeted topics
- Overdone (aka “popular = bad”)
What we found was interesting but, honestly, not super surprising.
Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries Lead the Way
- The 19th and 20th century represent 65% of all books reviewed
- England and America are neck and neck for most popular location (England most popular in the February HNR, America in May)
- The Big 5/6 and their imprints comprised 40%+ of all books reviewed
- In May, 20th century England comprised almost 50% of all Big 5/6 books
- Self-published books lead the way for settings Ancient to 11th century
- Small press & independent represent most 12th through 16th
- "Unusual" locations (e.g., not America, England, Australia, or France) represent only 20% of the books during the period
- Independent publishers (e.g., large publishers not affiliated with Big 5/6 or imprints) and Self-Pub have the widest variety of location and time period
- Only two books out of the hundreds reviewed were not heteronormative
- Protagonists who are persons of color represented only a very small number of books published in the period
- While the other publishing types do take the most chances in terms of off the beaten path settings, eras, or protagonists, the Big 5/6 and their imprints definitely go off the beaten path (though it tends to be the exception)
Sarah Johnson also did a fantastic analysis of the February 2013 Historical Novels Review if you're interested in more detail.
Why Go Off the Beaten Path?
It can be intimidating to go outside your comfort zone when reading (or writing)—and mainstream books are popular for a reason (they're interesting and good!).
But sometimes you just want something different. Why read off the beaten path?
- Intellectual stimulation; boredom with existing trends
- You're naturally curious
- Over-saturation with current trends
- Wanderlust (a particular affliction of mine!)
- A desire to see fresh life given to old themes and stories
- A desire to see protagonists that are more relevant to your life experience (LGBTQ for example)
- For writers, it's a kind of blank slate; readers don't necessarily have pre-conceived notions and aren't armchair experts on your era/location
Finding Off the Beaten Path Books Can Sometimes Be Challenging—But Worth Your While
Because these kinds of books don't necessarily get the attention a mainstream book would, they can be more difficult to find.
Some fantastic resources for finding these kinds of books are:
- Historical Novels Review (both print and online)
- Goodreads (both friends' feeds and their List feature)
- Unusual Historicals
- Book bloggers (Unabridged Chick, Queen's Quill Review, A Bookish Affair, Passages to the Past, The Maiden's Court, Let Them Read Books, Oh for the Hook of a Book, The Lit Bitch, Historical Novel Review, So Many Books So Little Time, Peeking Between the Pages,Confessions of an Avid Reader, Historical Tapestry, Royalty Free Fiction, Reading the Past)
- Our ongoing list of Highly Recommended Historical Fiction Off the Beaten Path