Friday 9 September 2016

Historical Novel Society Conference Oxford 2016 Part 2: The Next Big Thing, Re-enactors and Rebellions

Take a deep breath, dear reader; we’re going in. Saturday 3rd September marked the central day of the HNS conference. It began with a panel discussion ‘The Next Big Thing in Historical Fiction, featuring Carole Blake as Chair, with David Headley of Goldsboro Books, Nick Sayers of Hodder and Stoughton, Simon Taylor of Transworld and Jane Johnson of HarperCollins. Quite a powerhouse panel, all trying to answer the unanswerable question – yet a question asked at every conference: where is HF going? Which era will be the most fashionable?

David Headley wants to see more sweeping World War 2 sagas. Simon Taylor thinks ancient Greece. Jane Johnson wants more diversity, having ‘had enough of Tudor/Elizabethan’ and she’d like more cross-cultural HF. Nick Sayers is keen on literature in translation, referencing as an example Christina Eckhart’s Wolf Winter, the subject of which is the relationship between Sweden and Lapland in the 17th century. Carole Blake asked him if that had been ‘an easy sell within the publishing house’ – he replied that ‘It was easy because it was a wonderful read.’

Carole Blake, Nick Sayers, Simon Taylor,
David Headley, Jane Johnson
When I’m giving workshops on self-editing or pitching, I always draw people’s attention to this very point: that selling isn’t just about selling your book to the reader, the end-user. There are many different selling junctures throughout the process: you ‘sell’ to the agent, the agent sells to the editor, the editor sells in-house to the sales and marketing people who then sell to the bookseller – and eventually, if you’re lucky, your book is sitting on a shelf ready to catch the eye of the browsing customer. Phew! As Carole Blake said: ‘Every book has to be sold half a dozen times. … The editors here are not the gatekeepers. The gatekeepers are the sales teams.’

The panel members highlighted how, at every stage, a clear sense of the book’s essence is necessary. However ‘fresh’ the voice, however individual the topic or treatment, we seek to encapsulate it, whether by comparison with other established writers, or by period, or by genre or sub-genre such as historical crime. This, as Jane Johnson said, is why Tudor or Roman HF is successful: ‘It’s seen as an easier sell’. David Headley commented that ‘It’s difficult to sell a period that’s not sexy’ and Jane said that HF ‘often has feet in different genres but sales teams want to pin it down’ before adding that ‘centralised buyers … don’t seem to read. If they don’t like the look … they simply won’t stock it’, reminding us how crucial the cover treatment is to that instant assessment of what the book is, without the bother of ploughing through all those pesky words … Nick Sayers said that ‘people might think a cover beautiful but walk past, not knowing what it is.’ He also said ‘Booksellers like a label.’

You’ll have noticed by now that the conversation had strayed from ‘the next big thing’ to ‘reasons why the current big things are big’. The panel also segued into a discussion of publicity, particularly with regard to social media now that newspaper review space is shrinking more and more. Carole Blake uttered a heartfelt ‘Thank God for bloggers’. Jane Johnson highlighted how poor publicity departments in big trade publishing houses can be sometimes when it comes to tweeting about books and authors on their lists. Carole echoed this: ‘It takes up time and some authors don’t enjoy it …  there are times when the publishers sit back and let the authors do all the marketing.’

Jane’s comment that ‘As a writer you don’t want to be doing the hard sell. … Writers want to write’ will have struck a chord with many in the audience. Carole stressed, quite rightly, that if you engage with social media you shouldn’t shout ‘Buy my book!’ all the time, but instead take part in natural ‘water-cooler’ chats, establishing a presence and creating relationships rather than indulging in a digital version of marching up and down with a placard.

Finally, the panel returned to that old chestnut – that ‘You can’t write to the market. You have to write what’s in your heart – it’s the only thing that will let the voice shine out.’ (Jane Johnson). Yes, that’s true. I probably talked about this in the aftermath of the last HNS UK conference and the one before that. Heart v head, Muse v Mammon, the individual voice v genre expectations. We writers square circles like these all the time!

As I was on front of house duty after that, I couldn’t attend any of the interesting panels – though I did see the 1066 Re-enactors demonstrating an Anglo-Saxon shield-wall to the war-cry ‘Ut! Ut! UT! – great fun!

Before lunch the keynote address was given by Melvyn Bragg whose latest novel, Now is the Time, focuses on the Peasants’ Revolt – or as he’d prefer, Rebellion – in the fourteenth century.

Melvyn’s keynote was passion: he was tripping over himself at times, in his enthusiasm and his indignation. He drew contrasts between our world and the time of Richard II but at the same time highlighted the similarities. He felt the peasants – not that they were peasants, in his view – were like those who recently voted for Brexit: tired, quite simply, of not being heard, of being disregarded by the high and the mighty of the land, taking drastic action to be listened to. It was an unsettling parallel to draw – the Revolt/Rebellion didn’t exactly turn out well …

He mentioned the focus on mortality back then, perfectly understandable in the wake of the Black Death, where ‘the only cure at their disposal was prayer’, and the rise of English as the language of political debate and poetry – how Wyclif and Chaucer were creating new audiences for expression in English words, not Latin or French. He told us how much he hated William the Conqueror. He asserted ‘the rights of fiction’ to inhabit that space I was discussing in my previous post, that space between what happened and what is imaginable. If Herodotus and Shakespeare could reimagine history, why can’t we?

Delegates had much to discuss, then, over lunch. I’ll tell you about the story awards, afternoon session and gala dinner in my next post!
Essie Fox - whose novel The Last Days of Leda Grey
 comes out in November. I can't wait to read it!

Karen Maitland, one of my favourite writers

Details of the new season of my Fictionfire workshops, a day course and a retreat can be found here, and you can sign up for my Fictionfire newsletter - articles, recommended reads and resources, competitions and more.

An Oxford Vengeance is available to buy on Amazon here and here.

Part 1 of these posts on the 2016 HNS conference is here.


Anita Chapman said...

Great write-up, Lorna. I was tweeting throughout those talks so tended to miss bits. Thank you for so much detail.

Alison Morton said...

I have a feeling that your analysis of the panel on the future of historical fiction is going to be the best report to come out of the conference. Thank you!

Lorna F said...

Thanks both! I wasn't at the Future of Historical Fiction session, Alison, I'm afraid - I was at Foreign Rights and Translations. So frustrating when interesting sessions clash!

Unknown said...

Thank you for this summary. it was really interesting to read what you wrote of the panel. I am a keen reader, and often tell others of the books of some of the authors I have read, who were there at the conference. A lot of this has come from their quiet building of relationships.

karen said...

Fascinating post, Lorna. I love reading historical fiction, particularly books set during WWII or the Victorian era, but doubt very much I could write one. Interesting too, the point about books being sold several times, and how it comes down to the sales team in the end - worth mentioning to non-readers who can't understand why, once you have an agent, a publishing deal isn't always guaranteed!

Lorna F said...

Thanks, Jel Cel - yes, honest word of mouth is very powerful. Karen, I so agree that people tend to think that once you've got an agent you're home and dry. If only!

Antoine Vanner said...

I missed this session due to FOH Duty, Lorna but your splendid summary is a worthy compensation! Many Thanks - Antoine

Lorna F said...

Thank you so much, Antoine!