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Is historical romance a dying genre?



Over the past few weeks, there has been a lot of talk on Threads about the current state of the historical romance genre. Specifically, is it experiencing a (potentially fatal) decline in popularity? The above from Cat Sebastian is just one of many great posts on the topic. The discussion began (I think) when Harper St. George noted how her daughter told her she would sell more books if she dropped the "historical" from the description of her romances. As the conversation continued, Sarah MacLean chimed in and encouraged romantasy readers to pick up historicals because of the similarities between the subgenres. Adriana Herrera expressed frustration that historical romance is declared "over" when BIPOC authors have just started to thrive in the genre. Many readers expressed sadness that historical romance seemed to be on the wane. Faye Delacour made this hilarious video that recapped many of these points.

 

But ~is~ historical romance dying? Well, as often happens with internet discourse, many people disputed this characterization! A few authors and readers pointed out that historicals have a large built-in readership and that while they aren't wildly popular right now a la romantasy, it is still a solid evergreen genre. Others argued that the anxiety about the genre dying has to do with the fact that historical romances aren't blowing up on TikTok like romantasy and dark romance, but that doesn't mean the genre is losing its readership.

 

I agree with those who contend that reports of the death of historical romance have been greatly exaggerated, but I also think that the concern over the fate of historical romance is coming from somewhere, specifically the status of the histrom in traditional publishing. It does seem that historical romance IS on the decline (or, at the very least, undergoing a significant evolution) within traditional publishing. Put simply: big publishers are putting out fewer histroms than they did in the past and they don't appear to be investing in the genre in the way that they used to.

 

There are many reasons why this is happening, including the popularity of indie historical romance. Within the trad sphere, though, the changing position of romance generally, I think, has not necessarily benefited the historical subgenre. As ever, traditional publishers are under pressure to make the most profit possible out of each book, and that seems to have led to a change in how romance is situated in the market. Big publishers increasingly package and market romance to appeal to a general readership (see illustrated covers and the ever-murkier line between romance and women's fiction). This shift has not benefited historical romances, which are less easily disguised as general fiction. I think trad publishers are increasingly optimistic that readers who don't necessarily self-identify as romance readers will nevertheless buy and enjoy romances, given the success of writers like Emily Henry, Sarah J. Maas, etc. A contemporary romance is much easier to present ambiguously whereas a historical romance, still carrying the signifiers of the bodice ripper, is harder to present as anything other than what it is: a romance. (Of course, there should be no stigma attached to romance reading, but that's another topic altogether...)

 

Do these market forces mean that the genre is really on the decline? I don't think so! First, indie historical romance authors continue to kill it. Second, as the popularity of Bridgerton and Jane Austen adaptations show, readers and viewers still very much love and seek out historical romance content in all of its forms. Even within traditional publishing, this reality means historical romance will always be there and, yes, be popular.

 

This point reminds me why we can't lose sight of the fact that readers seek out historicals because they are HISTORICAL. I don't think we need to or should, as authors and readers, primarily pitch historicals through their similarities to other subgenres. Readers have long sought out historical fiction (a genre that in the UK, at least, really took off during the Regency era itself!!) because there is something particularly satisfying about stories set in the past. Historical fiction has a direct bearing on the present because it is prelude; this element gives historical fiction unique power to speak to the present. As long as people yearn to read about the past and how people found happiness in it, historical romance will have a strong readership.

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