Do Westerns (and Other Historicals) Have a Fighting Chance in Today’s Market?

Lately, I’ve been doing some hard thinking about the seeming “decline” of history lovers.  Why, I wonder, are western romance and other historical sub-genres of romance being turned down by some of the bigger New York publishers?  As a general rule, it seems that contemporary romance is on the upswing more now than ever before. Yet, I know many people, myself included, who enjoy nothing more than a well-written historical (especially western, in my case) romance novel.

It seems that a lot of the people who have written western romance for years, and in fact, have made their name and career in that sub-genre, are now being told they are going to have to write contemporary in order to sell.  At least, according to  the big New York houses.  I’m seeing this with my own work. I’ve submitted my latest western historical to a couple of agents recently and both of them told me they were interested in seeing something contemporary rather than a historical.  It would seem that historicals are on the way out, to be replaced with contemporary, at least as far as New York is concerned. With all the marketing studies that have been done, there must be some research that supports this theory of declining historical readership. I might be out in left field with this, but here’s my take on it.

The main obstacle to anything historical is that we don’t teach it in our schools any longer.  So kids, growing up, have no sense of what came before. They don’t learn about history in depth at all, it’s just glossed over, and with the watered-down, public educational system’s “no child left behind” program, they don’t have to care or study.  The academic programs are softened so that no child, despite lack of effort or concern, will have to worry about failure. When my son was in high school 4 years ago, his history textbook devoted a two-page spread to World War II; a one page (including a picture) write-up of Viet Nam. How can this be?  Do we care so little about the causes, repercussions, and influences of the wars our countrymen have died for that we reduce it to a one-page retelling? Shameful. There’s an old Sioux proverb that says: “A people without history is like wind on the buffalo grass.” I believe that.  And there is something within us that needs to know where we came from to give us the strength and determination to get to where we are going. Knowing our history and values of the past instills this within us.         

The next dismissal of history is in our entertainment field.  If you look at the television programming, it’s all police drama, detective and forensic work of some kind, sitcoms or reality tv. There are no historical dramas anymore other than what you see on cable, such as series like The Tudors. Growing up in the 1960’s-1970’s, I was fortunate to have been exposed to all those wonderful old historical series—westerns such as Bonanza, Gunsmoke, Lancer, High Chaparral, Wagon Train, Rawhide, The Virginian…the list goes on and on. Not only were these shows teaching history, geography, and giving us a glimpse of everyday life in those times, they also taught values. There was clearly a “good guy” and a “bad guy.” We learned about the workings of cattle drives, that lightning could stampede the cattle, that towns were built around railroads, that Matt Dillon always got his man, and he never quit.  These westerns provided entertainment, but they gave us so much more.  History provides us values of the past to carry forward into the future.  There is no other period where this is more evident than the western.

As a society, we are moving away from even concerning ourselves with history in any venue–movies, television…or reading. Sounds bleak, doesn’t it?  But wait! There’s a light up ahead. With the advent of the smaller publishing houses, and e-publishing, there is a great possibility for the writers and readers of historical fiction! New York might not realize it, but there are some of us out here who still yearn for a good old fashioned piece of historical fiction every once in a while! And thanks to the e-publishers and the smaller presses, we are going to be able to have our cake and eat it, too.  There are a lot of wonderful writers who are being passed over by NY, even people who have big names, who are being told “write contemporary or you’re out.”  Well, those people have a following already.  So how could they have that following, writing western historicals, if no one read those? Why are they being told to write contemporary?  Because New York sees it as the way the world is turning now, and they are desperate to make every dollar they can make.  That leaves the smaller presses and e-publishers to make the money on the historicals that NewYork doesn’t want to publish anymore. These smaller presses are going to build their own following, and the writers they publish will do the same.

Historicals rise and fall in popularity, but “westerns will never die.” I think John Wayne said that, and it’s very true. I write a mix, both contemporary and historical.  My heart is with the historicals, and I will continue to write them, because I know that there are people out there who read them.

Not everyone who reads a book lives in New York City, but it seems that that’s what the New York houses cater to. I get really tired of how every show on tv being set in New York or Los Angeles.  There are other places in the world! And the same is true of the books we read–they don’t all have to take place in those two places.  There are tons of other very interesting locations to set a story in, and there are thousands of people who want to read – and relate—to a variety of settings.  Exciting things can happen anywhere, any time period, as long as the writer has the imagination to make it realistic.

Society, as a whole, is responsible for the disregard of our rich heritage and past that should be remembered, written and read about, and learned about.  I love history, and though I read and write contemporaries too, there is sometimes nothing like picking up a good ol’ western and reading it.  And that’s why I will continue to write historical westerns.  There will always be a readership for them, because of the fulfillment they offer our need for a true hero and heroine, and always, a “happily ever after” ending.

I’m curious as to what your favorite historical romance is. I have so many, my list would be endless. And while I write in both genres, I can’t picture myself ever giving up writing historicals to  pen only contemporaries.

FOR ALL CHERYL PIERSON NOVELS AND SHORT STORIES, PLEASE VISIT:  http://www.amazon.com/Cheryl-Pierson/e/B002JV8GUE/ref=sr_tc_ep?qid=1316144509

Cheryl Pierson
A native Oklahoman, I've been influenced by the west all my life. I love to write short stories and novels in the historical western and western romance genres, as well as contemporary romantic suspense! Check my Amazon author page to see my work: https://www.amazon.com/author/cherylpierson
I live in Oklahoma City with my husband of 37 years. I love to hear from readers and other authors--you can contact me here: fabkat_edit@yahoo.com
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29 Comments

  1. Hi Cheryl, It’s so funny you’d post this today. I’m at a seminar for naval historians (my day job) at the Naval Academy and at last night’s reception a few of us got into a deep discussion about the severe lack of history, and therefore the disregard for it, in our high schools. The discussion came about when one of the midshipman was asked to identify a man in a photo and didn’t know Jimmy Carter. Not only a former President, but a distinguished Academy grad. The professor in the group said he teaches naval history, but has to spend a lot of time getting plebes caught up with American history first. It’s so sad. I’m so thankful I had wonderful history teachers and a family who instilled in me a love of history.

    I wouldn’t know where to begin in thinking of a favorite historical. I’ve read so many wonderful ones by the fillies alone. And even though I dabble in writing other genres my heart always returns to the cowboys of the Old West.

    Long live the historical!! (Especially the Western)

    Kirsten

  2. I always buy the westerns when I find one. Jodi Thomas has a western series she is writing now. I always buy the western historical from eharlequin every month without fail.

  3. Cheryl, your blog almost made me weep, especially the part about history being taught so little in schools. History is so fascinating and young people are growing up completely in the present. It’s like cultural malnourishment.
    As well as westerns, I love books with exotic settings. I devoured M.M. Kaye’s India books. However, my publisher wants Westerns from me, which is fine. The West is home, and I’m happy here.

  4. Hi Kirsten,

    I’m sure that is very true about the professor having to teach “background” history that everyone should have learned in high school, and even before. I saw on Jay Leno’s “Jaywalking” segment one time, where he stopped different people on the street and was asking them about the first president of the US. Many people thought it was Abraham Lincoln. Some people said “I DON’T KNOW.” I was just amazed.

    Like you, my family and teachers instilled a love of history in me, so much so that when I went to college I seriously considered becoming a history teacher, and ended up with a minor in history. I had one wonderful college professor whose specialty was English history, and he knew it all perfectly without ever using a book. He would come and sit on the edge of his desk when class started.”Oh let’s see. Where were we last time. I think we had just entered the Star Chamber with some of the major “players” in the political arena of the time…” It was like he was telling one wonderful long story. What a fantastic, rare gift he had!

    I know, it’s hard to come up with one “favorite”! I should have said “give us some of your favorites…” instead. LOL I have so many, too. One of my very favorite authors of all time, Christine Monson, wrote about 7 or 8 books that were historicals. She had such a gift. All her books were set in different time periods, but to read them, you’d think that each one was her “specialty”. Though I normally stick with westerns as my favorite historical sub genre, Christine Monson’s book STORMFIRE, set in Ireland in the late 1600’s was a book that I loved so much I bought 3 copies of it, and used it to teach from sometimes in my classes. She had such a lyrical way of writing, and knew her history backward and forward.

    Thanks so much for commenting, Kirsten. What an interesting day job you have!
    Cheryl

  5. Goldie,

    I am always so excited to see a new western or a new discovery of an “old” one. I go to the used bookstore about twice a month and have found some really good ones in there–some of the older ones and the newer ones. There’s just a stylistic difference in them, but I don’t care–I love them all!

    Thanks for stopping in and commenting!
    Cheryl

  6. Hi Elizabeth,

    WOW. I love that term “CULTURAL MALNOURISHMENT.” That is exactly what it is. You know, I guess I could have taken this even a step further and talked about how PARENTS and relatives need to foster that love of history and the past by reading to their children from the time they are babies. My sister always talked about how her youngest daughter didn’t like to read. I couldn’t imagine it. I do think that’s where it all starts, teaching kids to love and respect the past, and the history, so they can understand what has shaped our culture and the world. I tell you, when I saw those so-called “books” my kids were using at school, I was so sad, but I was angry, too. If I were younger and had more energy, I’d go to bat in that area, fighting for better textbooks from elementary school on up.

    You are such a talented writer, Elizabeth, your westerns will ALWAYS be in demand. You have such a gift!

    Thanks for commenting. I feel very sad, too, about the things our kids are missing out on.

    Cheryl

  7. Cheryl, you’re so right about today’s kids not being taught where they came from. It breaks my heart. Everyone needs to know the sacrifices that brought us to where we are. I have to have my historical (especially westerns.) They’re like a fix for me. If I can’t find a new one to read I pick up one I’ve read before. The 1800’s is where my heart is. I could never write contemporary.

    Right now, my favorite historical western author is Kaki Warner. She writes such wonderful stories. But I also read everything by Jodi Thomas and Linda Lael Miller. Their books never disappoint.

  8. Hi Linda,

    It is so sad to me that kids are missing out on these exciting lessons about what forged our nation–and I do believe that has a direct impact on everything else, in varying degrees, in our society. How can you teach love of a country you know nothing about? It’s impossible. Like you, I must have my western “fix”–(I love how you put that!)LOL I have my “keeper” shelf that I will go back to if I can’t find a new one. I have written contemporary, and of course, I love my characters and stories in that sub-genre, but on a whole, I would say I read (and write) MUCH more historical than contemporary. I am anxious to read some of Kaki Warner’s books. Heck, right now I’m anxious to get some reading time, PERIOD. LOL And you are right about Jodi Thomas and Linda Lael Miller. I enjoy their books, too.

    Cheryl

  9. Westerns are my favorite read. If they stop the historicals I am not sure I could get into read just contempory. I have always been a historical reader. I do read some comtempories but always go back to historical. Paranormals seem to be the big thing but I don’t get into them that much, I read a few but very few of them.

  10. hi Cheryl, I think any kind of historical isn’t made for TV anymore due to expense. Even shows like Cold Case and the classic Wonder Years got cancelled because they had to use other time periods, and it’s expensive to be accurate. More’s the pity. I was raised on Westerns and live in the West, so I’m just drawn to reading and writing them.

    As for kids not knowing history, I think that’s why I loved teaching American Lit so much. It’s just a great combo of the two. They had no choice LOL. oxoxox Wonderful, thoughtful post today.

  11. Hi Quilt Lady,
    Westerns are my favorite reads, too. No, I don’t think they will ever stop publishing historicals, because the smaller publishers realize that there IS a market for them and will take up the slack. I’m not big on paranormals that have to do with vampires and werewolves and such, but I do have a lot of “paranormal twists” in my short stories and in my novel, TIME PLAINS DRIFTER, that basically have to do with good and evil.
    Thanks so much for commenting, Quilt Lady!
    Cheryl

  12. Tanya, you are probably right about the expense on the historicals for tv.I’m sorry to know that Cold Case was cancelled–I always enjoyed that show when I had a chance to watch tv. I was raised on Westerns, too, and live in Oklahoma, so like you, that’s why I’m drawn to reading and writing them, I think.

    You know, I never realized how much history and literature went together until I started college. I don’t know why they didn’t put 2 and 2 together “back in the day” when I was in highschool. By the time my kids got to highschool, there was a class that was combination history and lit class for advanced placement. They both took it and loved it.

    Thanks for commenting, my dear friend!
    Hugs,
    Cheryl

  13. This is so sad, but I think my most overriding emotion is it makes me furious!! To not teach our kids real history…OUR history…should be criminal.

    And how dare the elite publishers/media/Hollywood decide what we should see and read! I firmly believe that most America would much rather see and read a western than some of this garbage we get from them. My husband also loves westerns and we specifically took Dish TV in order to order the Western Channel. He always remarks on commercials we see on tv for all this robotic, computerized, and/or cartoon type stuff they are bombarding us with now. Who the heck wants to watch this stuff that all looks exactly the same? Do they not care to be original and give us westerns instead of remaking the same movie/tv show over and over? I mean really, do we need to see another Charlie’s Angels? Give me a good western book over this garbage any day, any time.

  14. Hi Trish! I SO AGREE!!! When my kids were little was when all the computerized cartoon stuff began to show up, taking the place of Sesame Street and the old “drawn by hand” cartoons such as Mighty Mouse, Daffy Duck, etc. Even the kids would turn that computerized, digitized stuff off. It’s truly just mindless dreck. I remember one time when my daughter, who was about 5 at the time, told me “This doesn’t look ‘real’.” I knew what she meant. She was used to seeing the “old fashioned” cartoons and Disney movies, and the new stuff had a different “look” to it. Yes, I am furious, too. By the time my daughter was a senior, they were not even using textbooks in some of her classes because they “couldn’t afford a book for everyone”–but of course, there was always money for other things (yes, I live in Oklahoma…don’t get me started on SPORTS!) LOLLOL like a gym floor, etc. I certainly don’t care if I ever see another ep of Charlie’s Angels! GOOD GRIEF! Are there no NEW ideas out there???? I’m like you–give me a good ol’ western any time. I am so sorry to think of what our kids are missing out on as they grow up. I wouldn’t want to grow up in this day and age. LOL
    Thanks for commenting, Trish.
    Cheryl

  15. Re: Trish’s comment. We rarely go to the movies any more. I hate the current cynicism, the nihilism, anti-heroes, endless F-word, and no firm stance on being good and moral and right. I’m hating to hear the word “edgy.” Grrrrr. Even happily married couples have to have been cheated on/been a cheater sometime in the plot. And I’m SOOOO over hookers and call girls.

    I’m re-reading Louisa May Alcott’s Jack and Jill, mostly for the emotions it stirs in me, but also the sweetness of life back then. These kids put on plays and had debate societies and made May Baskets for their elderly neighbors. Nowadays they sext. I feel like a dinosaur.

    I love the Western channel, too and I found the obscure “Gospel Channel” which features Dr. Quinn, and a new (for me) show called Heartland. Yay.

  16. Historical westerns are my favorite romances. I also read contemporary westerns, but historicals will always be my favorites. Love those cowboys!

  17. Among my early reads: westerns by Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey, shared with me by my Dad, and Frank Yerby and Pearl S. Buck books from my aunt. We were
    exposed to all kinds of books, from Black Beauty to
    Shakespeare to actual history books. The library
    was our second home and we made great use of it!
    This love for history was fostered through all the
    reading we did.

    Pat C.

  18. Tanya, I love the western channel, too. It’s one of my favorites.
    C

  19. Lori,
    I love the cowboys, too. There’s just something about them that makes them sexy as all get-out! I love contemporary, too, but historicals are my #1 favorite, and the western ones are top of the line.
    Cheryl

  20. Pat, I didn’t discover Louis L’Amour until I was an adult, but when I found them, I passed them on to my dad until he was reading them faster than I was and giving them to me when HE got done. LOL Kids miss a lot by not learning to love history through reading.
    Cheryl

  21. Cheryl–It’s distressing, isn’t it–writing one thing you love, and being told it’s on the way out? I still don’t believe that about Western Historicals…mine sell much better than my contemporaries–but you know what? A few close friends tell me my “contemporary voice” is really better than my historical one.
    Soooo, confused. What to do?

    History is something that we really can’t learn, in my opinion. There are a few basic facts, but beyond those a reader or writer must seek out for herself the truths she wants to know.
    When I taught high school, I was to retire on the 20th of May. So, on my desk calendar–one of those big flat things, on the 20th I blocked it off in red and wrote: “Free, free at last. Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last.”
    Kids gathered around my desk toward the ends of perios, vying for my attention–god, I loved those high school kids–and one senior girl saw what I had written. “Mrs. Yeary!” she cried, “you’re happy to leave us?”
    No, I assured them, I loved then, but had to move on.
    So, she asked, “Did you make that saying up?”
    I was stunned.”No,” I said, “a famous person said that.”
    “Who?”
    “A famous person you should know. What does it sound like?
    “Well, it sounds like something a black person might say.”
    “Andddd–who do you think did?”
    She nor any of the other junior or seniors could say.
    And this was in 1991 in an expensive private boarding school. I was appalled.

    The history teacher had failed miserably.
    Celia

  22. I LOVE history and historical novels are favorites. There is something about being able to read about the factual accounts used in the novel just adds to the intrest. I attend classes with sped students and especially love history classes because I am always hearing something that sends me to read more about it! As far as a favorite book I think it was a book called “Prairie” and am looking for my copy to reread it after attending Chyenne Fronteer d
    Days this year!

  23. Cheryl, you came right up her on my soap box eith me today! Texas history is supposed to be taught in the 4th grade, but it’s not on the blasted test, so it’s skipped in order to drill and kill the subjects that will be on the test. My daughte is an elementary librarian (former 4th grade teacher) and gives lessons on history. She’s always heartbroken at how little the kids know. Reminds me of the man in the street segment on Jay Leno. He swears those dumb answers are for real. I could go on and on, but it’s hard to rant and rave and shake my fists in a comment. LOL

  24. Hi Cheryl,

    I just heard very recently in the last few months that historical romance particularly westerns are on the rise, that the romantic suspense market is totally flat right now and that contemporary romance is on the way out. I’m not kidding. I also heard within the last couple of weeks that westerns are on the rise. Go figure!

    I LOVE historicals particularly westerns. I just found a new western historical author, Frank Leslie and his books are not romance. But they are wonderful. I am enjoying them so much and intend to read his entire backlist. I love Linda Lael Miller’s books both her historical and contemporary westerns. Maggie Brendan’s books, and the Log Cabin Christmas Collection which just arrived in the mail that I can’t wait to dive in to. I just got Dakota Cowboy and The Log of a Cowboy in the mail to read for research. I read Phillipa Gregory’s The Other Queen a few months ago and loved it. Bernard Cornwell is a wonderful historical writer who is always on the NYT list. What about Ken Follet’s books? Most are historical and they live on the NYT list. Personally, I think everything is cyclical. I don’t see any of the sub-genre’s of romance going away and that definitely includes historicals. I am a history fanatic. I LOVE watching the history channel and also anything on the Science Channel that involves history like programs about Egypt, the Roman Emperors, The Dark Ages… They just aired a program about the plague in England. Look at what they said about Harry Potter. It’s too long, it’ll never sell…blah, blah, blah.

    I am in the process of writing my first western historical and loving every minute. I think as authors we should keep our eye on the market but I think writing directly to the market is a mistake. You need to write your passion, write from your heart, write the stories that make you glad you’re a writer. As far as New York and what they are looking for it seems that changes almost every day. I think that e-publishing and independent publishing is definitely in our future.

    My .02 cents,

    Cher

  25. Celia,
    Interesting concept, about not being taught history. I remember in high school having to memorize names, dates, happenings, and the eternal question that all kids ask…”Why do we need to know when Columbus discovered America?” LOL I felt the same way until I reached my junior year of highschool and had a class in American history. I had a coach as a teacher in that class, and thought it would be an “easy” class, since everyone knew that coaches really didn’t care about history and it would be mainly memory work. Boy was I wrong. He made that class so interesting, and taught things that weren’t in the book that made the people we were learning about seem like PEOPLE rather than just historical figures. That’s when I really began to love history. It is amazing to me that no more importance is placed on it than what is given in our schools. And I do believe that’s why kids don’t care about what happened “back then”–and consequently grow into adults who aren’t interested in reading historicals of any genre.

    Thanks so much for popping over and commenting, Celia. I always enjoy your thoughtful comments so much.

    Hugs,
    Cheryl

  26. Connie,
    I am so with you on those historical novels being favorites. I remember my first historical romance I ever read–SWEET SAVAGE LOVE, by Rosemary Rogers. How I loved that book! It’s still one of my favorites.
    Cheryl

  27. Caroline,
    You are so right! I’m on the soap box with ya, sister! LOL To me, it truly is heartbreaking to see how little care is give to teaching children about how this country of ours came to be, and not just the western expansion, but all the different historical aspects of it. Revolutionary times are another amazing time period that is overlooked, and I just am continually in awe of the courage and strength that it took by those men of the times to forge this nation and hold it together. Talk about exciting! Yet, kids miss out on that, too. I do not understand it, but it’s truly all about the “testing” now rather than learning and loving to learn. Thanks so much for coming by and commenting!
    Cheryl

  28. Hi Cher,

    You are so right! E-publishing is definitely in our future, and in my “present” right now. LOL I’m glad that the publishers I’ve gone with publish both in print and give the option of e-publishing, too. And I surely do agree with you about writing your passion. Anna Jameson wrote: “He that seeks popularity in art closes the door on his own genius, as he must needs paint for other minds, and not for his own.” I love this quote, because it’s so true, and something I try to always keep in mind in my own writing. Although I love to write historicals, there are some contemporary stories I’ve written that I love, too, and would not have written had I not fallen in love with the particular story. The market does seem to continually change, and I don’t believe the western will ever die. Too many people love that sub-genre. And personally, I love to write it. I feel most at home there. And ultimately, as a writer, you have to be happy with what you’ve done and have a passion for it, otherwise, others won’t care about it. Indie publishing and the smaller publishers give back control to the authors and readers.

    Thank you so much for coming by and commenting. I appreciate that!
    Cheryl

  29. I agree that Indie publishing and the smaller presses give back “control” to authors and readers. NY has ruled for a long time and it is good to see that things are changing.

    Cheers to e-pubs! They are where I have been published too. 🙂

    Cher

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