Here are the final numbers:
52 readers (52%) said they buy hf by a new author based on their interest in the era or setting;
34 readers (34%) said they base their purchase on the promise of an intriguing plot, whether or not the book features "marquee names";
11 readers (11%) buy solely on their recognition of/interest in an historical main character;
3 readers (3%) buy based on the book's peripherals: cover art, title, author blurbs.
The evidence is overwhelming: it matters to only 11% of historical fiction readers that the main character(s) be names/personalities they recognize from history. Yet more and more, authors on submission hear that editors are only interested in acquiring manuscripts that feature "marquee names." Even established authors are "encouraged" to follow the trend. Why?
Before examining this question, I'd like to highlight various comments voters made about their choices. It is important to recognize that the divisions between my four choices were necessarily more absolute than they are in real life. Many commenters pointed that a combination of factors influences their decisions. When interpreting the data, therefore, it is important to keep in mind that it is the entire "package"--setting, plot, characters and peripherals--that influences a reader to buy a new book. Nevertheless, it is interesting to see which of the four factors readers care most about in an absolute sense and why.
Covers, as we've discussed elsewhere on this blog, matter greatly to readers, especially in the initial impulse to examine a book. In the case of historical fiction, covers must not only designate the book as "historical fiction" but present clues about the book's setting and era. Potential readers search out covers that correspond most closely to eras or settings that interest them. I know I myself look for artwork or lettering that signals "Renaissance Europe" when I browse in a bookstore. Conversely, covers provide an easy way to weed out time periods or locations in which a reader has no interest. One reader remarked that, in complete opposition to current cover trends, she specifically avoids covers that feature a woman in a beautiful gown dated between 1500-1900.
Several readers noted the importance recommendations by established authors play in their decision to purchase a book by a debut author. To these readers, blurbs from well-known authors assure a certain standard of writing and guarantee that the purchase of a debut book won't be regretted. Others emphasized that reviews or recommendations from trusted readers, choices not specifically mentioned in the survey, play a very important role in their assessment of a new novel.
One reader remarked that she is for the most part interested "in people who actually lived and breathed"; another said that although the characters don't have to be well-known historical figures, she does prefer her fiction to be about historical people. Someone remarked that if the book is about a real person, she wants to read about an unknown aspect of that person's life, an original take on the standard version of the character. Other readers remarked that the more they know about a historical character, the less likely they are to read the book, since any discrepancies or wild interpretations will annoy them too much. Another reader says she avoids any novel that reads like a fictionalized biography. Several readers said they do like historical personages to function as secondary characters in their novels. These token appearances of real people root the story in the time period and give a sheen of authenticity to the fictional characters. Most of the respondents, however, said it matters very little to them whether the characters are real or fictional. A couple of readers at HFOnline noted that they are tired of "novels about Henry VIII's wives, Lady Jane Grey, Mary, Queen of Scots and any other well-known Tudor era person!"
More than a third of the survey respondents say that it is the promise of an intriguing story that carries the day for them. The status of the characters and even the setting matter little if the story looks interesting. One reader said, "If I'm interested in the story, I'll read the book, no matter what." Another claimed, "[L]ike everyone else, I'm a sucker for a great plot." Maybe in a future post we can discuss how readers assess a plot with nothing more than the summary on the back cover of the book--what, exactly, do they look for? In any case, several commenters noted that although other factors contribute to their decision, they won't buy a book about an era or a character they're interested in if the story looks dull or overly familiar. It is also worth noting that many respondents claimed that it was hard to choose between plot and setting; although they ultimately voted to setting/era, plot was a very close second. The two choices are inextricably tied in many readers' minds, making the rejection of marquee names doubly strong.
More than half the respondents replied that the setting/era is the most important factor in their decision to buy new historical fiction. Readers seem to have a favorite era/setting about which they'll read just about anything, or they have gaps in their knowledge of specific times or places and search for fiction to repair that lack. However, once a setting feels overused (based on comments, Tudor England is fast approaching this state), surfeited readers turn away. Unfortunately, despite the fact that so many readers chose setting/era, few left comments explaining why this factor was such a draw for them. I hope some voters will elaborate on their choice in the comments to this post below.
One reader made an interesting comment regarding setting/era: although she doesn't care about whether the characters themselves are marquee names, she does prefer fiction that depicts recognizable historical events (for example, the Great Fire of London or the storming of the Bastille). Building a story around a notable event can provide a hook, similar to that of the marquee name, compelling enough to draw potential readers in.
Both published authors and authors with historical fiction manuscripts on submission encounter a strong preference for marquee names among editors. One published author expressed his frustration: "The marquee factor is unfortunately hampering both published and unpublished hf writers; and it goes beyond that, into gender. It seems that unless it's about Henry VIII; you tie in a strong female POV; or you're Bernard Cornwall, male protoganists are not strong selling points in hf right now." The problem apparently doesn't stop at "fictional versus historical characters" but which subset of historical figures may rightfully claim the title of "marquee name." Yet, according to readers, centering historical fiction on a marquee name does little to entice them to read a book, and can, in fact, actively turn them away. Why, then, do editors feel that the presence of such characters is necessary for the success of an historical novel in today's market?
I believe their conviction is little more than a reflection of society's current obsession with celebrity. Actors, sports figures, reality show contestants catapult to stardom because the public's desire to know every detail of their lives--a desire fed by the immediacy of today's media--keeps them in a constant spotlight. They become famous for being famous; whether or not merit they merit the attention, the public becomes fixated on their words, actions and appearance and read/watch/listen to/buy the products that record them. This naturally spills over into the world of book publishing. Tomes penned by celebrities crowd bookstore shelves after garnering huge advances--editors know these books will sell on the sole basis of the author's name, whether or not they are well-written. Perhaps the same promise of guaranteed sales lures editors of historical fiction. Readers of magazines and newspapers want nothing more than to follow the sordid shenanigans of celebrities--don't readers of historical fiction want the same? Unfortunately, this outlook reduces historical fiction to little more than dated scandal sheets.
Readers of historical fiction want more--much more. As one respondent said, "I'm interested in reading stories about the human condition with splashes of drama and trauma, not just about someone's past 'tabloid' life in particular." One of the aspects of historical fiction that draws readers to the genre is the depiction of the texture and complexities of past times and places that are so different from our own. Focusing on the scandals of a particular person often limits the focus and excludes much of this richness. Sometimes the best strategy for an author of historical fiction is to create fictional characters based on historical models but broadened to embody specific aspects of the cultural milieu. The author is not bound to the particular details of a single life but can draw on different sources to provide rich and varied possibilities to the reader. Theme rather than trivia takes center stage; the work illustrates the human condition, rather than one human's condition, at a specific moment in history. Time and place become characters in their own right, forces that shape destinies and determine the futures of nations and peoples. The genre's broad scope and attention to underlying philosophies is what appeals to many readers of historical fiction and what they look for in the novels they read. But they certainly won't find it if historical fiction becomes nothing more than celebrity biography packaged in an antiquated veneer. The question, I suppose, is how to let editors know what we, as readers, want.