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.