SCBWI Summer Conference, Part 3: What Editors Want and Historical Fiction

Elise Howard, editor at Algonquin Books, had a breakout session in which she talked about her list and spoke about the differences between a small press like hers and the large publishing houses. Of course, this being a writer’s conference with lots of writers dying to make their debut, the Q&A inevitably turned toward “What are you looking for now?” and one of the things she shared was a list of what she rejects and why.

1. A manuscript that’s good but not great. Often it’s because she doesn’t like the character enough, and when she reads manuscripts, she asks herself if she wants to spend time with this character.

2. A 100,000 word story that should be 50,000 words.

3. Manuscripts that don’t grab her by the first 10 pages. She can usually tell within 10 pages if she likes it or not.

4. A pile of idiosyncrasies defining a character that just doesn’t work.

5. Historical is really difficult to sell now.

Point number five she pretty much worded that way. It’s not like she has a vendetta against historical fiction, but businesswise it doesn’t make sense in the current market. Being the daughter of an accountant and having worked in a corporate setting for a decade, I totally get that.

Still… ouch.

That sentiment only got driven deeper during Deborah Halverson’s keynote about SCBWI’s latest market survey. Teen fiction is still a growing market, but historical fiction isn’t a big seller though there is a budding market for YA historicals with a paranormal or mystery element.

Unfortunately, my WIP has neither of those.

So what does that mean for me?

It means I take my pen and keep trying to make my historical WIP the best it can be.

When I chose to write about Cynisca of Sparta, it wasn’t because I said to myself, “I want to write a historical novel.” It was because I happened across her while researching another project and became so fascinated by her that I set that other project aside to write about her. To me, hers was a story worth telling, and even if the market isn’t trending her way right now, I still feel that way.

The next day, I went to Cushman’s breakout session about girl characters in historical fiction (which I’ll write more about in another post), and someone brought up the fact that other speakers had said historical fiction was a bad sell. Cushman responded by saying that was what people told her when she wrote her first book, and since then, she’s sold several books in that genre.

So Cushman’s words give me hope, and even if historical YA isn’t the hottest thing when I start to query, I hope people will be as fascinated by Cynisca’s unique story as I was.

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2 responses to “SCBWI Summer Conference, Part 3: What Editors Want and Historical Fiction

  1. I wonder if maybe the market is a little different for Algonquin (being a smaller press). I say that only because I write historical and my agent is super excited to start sending out to editors–she said historical is pretty hot in Europe right now. I wonder if it depends on the US market vs. Europe? Mine is royalty, so it may be that certain historicals have a wider audience than others. I for one would love to see more set in ancient Greece.

    FYI, found you on AgentQuery Connect. Glad to see another writer of historical fiction! 🙂

    • Yes, perhaps things are different in Europe. Regarding the Market Survey that Halverson covered, I don’t know for certain if it reflected just the US domestic market, but I have a feeling it did. One thing that popped up during the conference was how Core Curriculum standards (which affects fed education funding) were going affect the juvenile non-fiction and the historical fiction market.I”m no expert in that, but all I know that there’s a lot of different market forces at work in the US.

      So glad to hear you’ve got an agent excited about sending your mss out! And I think Litgal (also on AQC) recently got her historical (also about royalty) published earlier this year. So that’s encouraging for me to hear!

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