View Full Version : What are agents looking for in a historical

05-25-2010, 09:39 PM
I want to write a historical, but I also want it to be as commercial as possible. I have some ideas, but I'm not sure what the overall hook should be. What are publishers looking for when evaluating historical manuscripts? What elements are deal breakers? What screams instant bestseller?

05-25-2010, 09:45 PM
best advice I can give

Don't write to trends or what people think agents/publishers want. Because by the time you've written your novel, revised it, revised it again, found an agent, the trends will have changed.

Write the story you want to tell and write it well.

05-26-2010, 03:35 AM
Absolutely true. If you want to get in on a hot trend, I recommend the following course of action.

1) Write what you adore.
2) Stay on top of the market while you revise and perfect and polish your adored manuscript.
3) When the market trend swings toward what you've already written, POUNCE.

05-26-2010, 06:35 AM
I agree with firedrake and Mishell. Write what you love and damn the trends -- trends change, and can change in extreme ways between the time you start writing your novel and the time you finally sell it to an editor. Then it'll be another year or more before it ends up on the shelves. Stick with what you love.

I can tell you my own experiences with historicals. I love ancient history, particularly in the Middle East and South America. I wrote an Egyptian novel set around 1500 BCE. I did get quite a few rejections during the agent search, and yes, many of them were along the lines of "I am just not personally interested in Egypt enough to be the right agent for this novel" and even "We've had success with several other authors writing Egyptian historicals, but we're not looking to add more to our list right now" (so there you go, right there -- following a trend isn't always a good thing! ;) )

However, I did find an agent who really loved the book and who works well with me. It was just a matter of patience and being choosy about to whom I pitched the book.

Now the novel is on wide submission and we're getting the same kind of rejections -- "I liked the writing, but this historical period and setting may be too hard to market reliably right now." I am not worried. It's true that there are few ancient Egyptian historicals out there -- certainly not as many as, say, Tudor England or Civil War USA. But as with the agent search, eventually we'll find the right editor -- somebody who clicks with the story, the setting, and the writing. It's a waiting game, and it requires a lot of patience. It makes it easier to wait because I know I've written a good book that WILL sell once it falls into the right hands. I wrote a book I can believe in because I ignored what was popular and wrote about a setting for which I felt a lot of passion and excitement, and I put that excitement into the book.

Definitely stick with what you love. If it's a good book, eventually it will find an agent and it will sell. Good books are always in demand, no matter what their setting.

(Edited to fix my date error...3500 years ago, not 3500 BCE. Need more caffeine, clearly.)

05-26-2010, 01:48 PM
I agree totally with all of the above. Even if you spot a definite trend looming on the horizon, by the time you write and re-write the book, get an agent, a publisher and place your book on the shelf, the market could be flooded with books on that subject.

Best to pick an area you are enthusiastic about and go with it.

Also, the only way a historical manuscript will scream "Best Seller!" to an agent is if the words: "A Novel by Philippa Gregory" are placed underneath the title.

05-26-2010, 02:14 PM
On trends, others have pointed out the futility of writing to them based on how long it takes to get a book to market.

But there's this, too: books in any current trend were purchased two to three years ago. So by the time you see the trend on the shelves, publishers have mostly already moved on.

So never even bother to think about trends from a 'writing to them' point of view. Write what you love, what obsesses you, what demands to be written by you, and pray to whatever diety you happen to believe in that you'll catch a trend.

Mostly, write a great book. (So much easier said than done...LOL!)

06-12-2010, 02:47 AM
I wrote my novel set in a time period not often written about - the 10th century and with a story that involves Viking/Anglo Saxon culture and conflict. Guys like Bernard Cornwell have done very well with this genre but of course he was already well established. My research was intensive and thorough and I did my utmost to try and make this as authentic sounding and immersive as possible. I have only now just started sending queries to agents (I self-published) so don't know what to expect but I am totally prepared to get plenty of rejections.

Seems that most best-selling historical fiction stuff is either set in Roman times or post 15th century. I chose the dark ages because its a period of history that has always fascinated me. I felt I could write best about what I am truly interested in. I think my book came out pretty well in the end but that does not mean an agent will take the bait. In the end they have to predict whether it will sell or not.

06-12-2010, 04:24 AM
The bottom line with historical (as well as any book, really) is to keep it relatable. Just because the characters are from a different time, doesn't mean that the reader should feel distant. I think that's one of the biggest problems I see with historical--writers get too hung up on colloquialism or trying to make the time period so accurate (which is important) that they forget that in the end, they're writing to a modern audience.

06-12-2010, 07:57 PM
Great books. Same as all agents (I know that sounds snarky but it's not meant to be).

If you want to know what makes a great historical, start reading lots of historical that did well. While you don't want to copy or write to trends, every genre has certain things that readers like, and you'll learn the tropes of that genre.

If an agent you like has sold historicals, reads those to see what that agent liked. There are sub-genres in every genre and they may like a particular type.

But in the end, you have to write what you love and tell a story you're passionate about. Great characters trying to solve interesting problems in interesting ways.