Which centuries are the most popular in today’s historicals?

Sarah Johnson

The Historical Novels Review, the quarterly print magazine of the HNS, organizes its reviews primarily by century.  Novels set in ancient times (BCE) are grouped by broader historical era, and we have separate categories for multi-period novels, timeslips, historical fantasy, and alternate history. (We also review children’s titles and nonfiction.)

Earlier this year, I did a breakdown of the number of adult fiction titles reviewed in our Feb 2013 issue according to these groupings and posted the results in our Facebook group.  A lively discussion ensued, and people replied with questions and comments.  When did the 20th century get to be so popular?  (Actually, it always has been.)  Where did all the medievals go?  Is this trend due to the prevalence of Downton Abbey-style novels and fictional biographies about early 20th-century figures?   Is the reign of the Tudors over?

And so I thought to widen the timeframe and look at adult novels covered by the HNR over the entire past year.  The following table shows the results, which include numbers for our upcoming May 2013 issue – both print reviews and  “online exclusives.”  A disclaimer: we’re counting all adult mainstream/small press novels sent to us by publishers over this period and reviewed, not necessary all historical novels published in the US and UK… but the magazines aim to be as comprehensive as possible.


HNR titles by century


Some observations:

  • The 20th century strongly dominates, with the 19th century in second place.
  • The “Dark Ages” are pretty dark.  Historical novels set in the early medieval period aren’t very common, at least until you get up to the 11th century (with 1066, and all that).
  • There’s a large blip in popularity with 1st-century titles, most of which have Roman settings and/or cover biblical fiction set around the time of Christ.
  • Moving forward, once the 16th century rolls around, we start to see greater quantities of historicals.  It’s not just Tudor England, though; this covers about half of the 16th-century total (and Tudor royalty about 1/3 of the total).  The rest are set in locales as diverse as Italy, Japan, Jamaica, Bohemia, India, and North America.
  • There are fewer novels set in medieval times (5th through 15th centuries), total, than in the 16th century.
  • Multi-period novels have a strong showing.  These are nearly all novels with parallel timelines: one set today, one in the past.
  • Historical fantasy novels are set all over the place.  No setting has a majority.
  • If you count up the number of novels set between the 17th and 19th centuries, they still don’t add up to the number with 20th-century settings.
  • 40% of all adult novels reviewed over the last year are set in the 20th century (1960s and earlier).  Another 28.4% are set in the 19th century.

Here’s a chart that shows the breakdown for the last year in visual form.

Popularity by Century

What are your thoughts on the above?  Does this reflect your reading preferences?  What time periods would you like to see more (or less) of?

Posted by Sarah Johnson


  1. Marie Parsons
    April 13, 2013

    This is interesting. Does it reflect all books published in 2012, or only books actually reviewed in 2012? I am surprised there were not more Roman period (Classical) books last year, with Ben Kane, SJ Turney, Gordon Doherty, Harry Sidebottom, Ruth Downie, Kate Quinn, and many other authors writing in that era (although admittedly I may have publication dates all wrong). I tend to read as much ancient world fiction as I can find and am always hungry for more.

    • Sarah Johnson
      April 13, 2013

      It covers titles reviewed in the HNR magazine between last August and this May (four quarterly issues). There are books out there that we didn’t receive from publishers, and couldn’t review, but I suspect those would be spread out through all eras and wouldn’t affect the results to any great degree. Roman period novels, such as those written by many of the authors you named, can be found in the Classical category (what we use for BCE) and in the 1st-3rd centuries. The data cover just mainstream/small press books, not indie/self-published, which HNS also reviews, and I believe at least one of the authors you listed falls into that category. An interesting sidenote – if you were to browse for reviews of ancient Egyptian titles covered by the HNS (via the menu at the top of this page), there’s only one mainstream title from the last year, but many indies.

  2. Mary Tod
    April 13, 2013

    Fascinating, Sarah. Any theories on why?

    • Sarah Johnson
      April 13, 2013

      I agree with what you said on the FB group – it could come down to familiarity, due to personal connections (parents, grandparents) with earlier years in the 20th century. I also wonder if photography has something to do with it, in the way it can make an era seem more tangible to us. The cycle can be self-perpetuating in a way. The more we hear about a period (16th c, for example), the more comfortable and familiar we become with it, and the more publishers and readers gravitate toward it.

      The later the setting, too, the broader appeal it will have for readers who don’t consider themselves historical fiction readers – and the possibility for greater sales increases publisher interest.

    • Maryka Biaggio
      April 14, 2013

      Yes, perhaps it’s also a reflection of the popularity of genealogy research and peoples’ desire to connect to a tangible past. This period is near enough that we know people who lived during it, but far enough away to engender a nostalgia for what some may perceive as a simpler time (at least when it comes to technology and the explosion of information). Thanks, Sarah, for this great analysis of time periods in historical fiction.

  3. Margaret Skea
    April 13, 2013

    So should we be looking at gaps in the market and choosing a ‘niche’ era to write in? Or would that only work for indie publishing? Are mainstream likely to only want more of the same?

  4. Richard Lee
    April 13, 2013

    I think nothing indicates better why indies can thrive in historical fiction – particularly epublished hf. There’s a hunger for fiction in periods that mainstream publishers can’t make money from. Indies have a lot of advantages here: world rights, minimal set up costs, quick payment and good margins. The downsides are limited marketing spend and the perception that they are less well written – but I think that will change over time.

  5. Tim Hodkinson
    April 13, 2013

    I don’t suppose there is any data around corresponding sales in these respective eras?
    e.g. there were only 9 books set in the 14th century, but if one of them was 1356 by Bernard Cornwell, perhaps it sold more than all the other books set in the 20th century together. I suppose I’m asking if we know what the most popular centuries for HF is with readers as opposed to number of books published.

    • Sarah Johnson
      April 13, 2013

      Mary Tod did a reader survey last year about historical fiction, and she may have more to say about popularity with readers. Also, Publishers Weekly tabulated bestselling titles in the US for 2012 last month, so we have some data on sales. Cornwell’s 1356 appeared in January, so it will appear on next year’s PW list. His success won’t necessarily translate into deals for other authors writing in the 14th century or the broader medieval period, though.

  6. Margaret
    April 13, 2013

    I’ve noticed the same thing when adding new listings at http://www.HistoricalNovels.info. Some months it seems like as many new historicals are set in the 20th century as in all other centuries combined. But the time periods that interest readers seem almost reversed, except that the 19th century has a huge following. The most visited of the time-period pages are the Ancient History page (3124 visits in March), followed by the Medieval page (2302 visits), Prehistory (1422 visits), and the 19th-century Europe, 19th-century America and American Old West pages (4671 combined). The 20th century trails at 52 visits for the directory page that funnels visitors to specific periods within the 20th century.

  7. Derek Birks
    April 13, 2013

    I’ve a sneaking suspicion that many readers enjoy immersing themselves in periods where some great series of events dominates the lives of the people at the time and throws up engaging stories and interesting characters. The reader’s interest is drawn to episodes such as the civil war, 1066 etc and the power of Rome especially in its early years.
    The 20th century is almost an aberration as reader interest is generated by the very proximity of the events. The era of the world wars were not that fascinating for the generation that lived through it but very interesting for the generations that have followed.
    There is also, I am sure, a discrepancy between what publishers are confident of selling and what readers want to read about. There is an element of trending here and I can’t see how publishers can ever be ahead of the trend. This does give indie writers an edge but probably without the marketing clout to influence the pattern of sales.

  8. Danielle Huffman-Hanni
    April 13, 2013

    Interesting list and survey. I wonder if there is any bump from TV series, I know ‘Downtown Abbey’ was mentioned, and movies set in a particular time period for books published with those particular subject matters or vice versa?

  9. Veronica Scott
    April 14, 2013

    Very interesting! I write paranormal romance set in Ancient Egypt 1550 BCE (one published by Carina Press in 2012, the next one coming in September), which I realize doesn’t count as “historical fiction,” because I do take some liberties. I had the feeling there weren’t too many other books set in that tine frame currently but I’ve always been fascinated by it. Not Cleopatra – she’s much “too modern” LOL. Thanks for the interesting info!

  10. Richard Abbott
    April 14, 2013

    What a fascinating survey, thanks for compiling this. Several comments above suggest that the figures would look a bit different if indie authors were included, and I for one would be very keen to see how the picture changes. Of course I admit to personal bias in this, and also in the ancient (2nd mill BCE) time frame. Are the raw figures for that study available?

  11. Sarah Johnson
    April 14, 2013

    Yes, the numbers would be very different if indies were taken into account. In addition to what Richard Lee mentioned above, many authors writing in eras considered unmarketable go the indie route because that’s the only way to get their work out there. In addition to ancient Egypt, the early medieval period is another where I can think of many recently published indie novels, and hardly any that are mainstream/small press. It would be harder to draw overall conclusions based on the HNS data (which could be compiled if someone wanted to trawl through all the indie reviews) because they reflect what’s submitted and for which a reviewer could be found. It wouldn’t be a comprehensive picture by any means, but worth looking at. I’m sure the spread of coverage for indies wouldn’t be so dramatically skewed toward the modern era.

  12. Ann Brownson
    April 14, 2013

    So what’s up with the 4th century? Just boring, or what?

    • Sarah Johnson
      April 14, 2013

      Well, the 4th century had the Council of Nicaea (maybe a couple novels about that), and the birth of St. Jerome (patron saint of librarians – even fewer novels about that). Gore Vidal’s Julian is set in the 4th century, and there are some others, but yeah, overall it’s not a real happening place for historical fiction.

  13. Martin Lake
    April 15, 2013

    This is great information, surprising in some cases. It’s interesting that the 17th century is comparatively unpopular, there was an English Civil War and the settlement of America. Thought-provoking. Think I might start work on a 21st century novel.

    • Sarah
      April 15, 2013

      I believe that the 17th century is picking up, especially in Britain – I keep seeing more and more titles, although they may not be reviewed here. The tudors seem to be done to death.

      Of course, every year that passes is one more year of the 20th century that can be considered “historical fiction”. And WWII has always been popular. And yes, I’m seeing a big Downton Abbey bump in publishing (as well as reprints of titles such as THE PASSING BELLS).

  14. Lisa Orr
    April 16, 2013

    Sarah, did you happen to look at whether there were differences depending on the setting? I’m wondering if the numbers for American historicals would look the same, especially with all the Civil War era novels coming out in time for the 150th anniversary.

    • Sarah Johnson
      April 16, 2013

      Hi Lisa, there were some questions about the settings when I looked at just the novels covered in HNR’s February 2013 issue, so I went through and tabulated them. (I didn’t examine geography and timeframe simultaneously.) Here’s what the breakdown looked like, using the countries’ modern names:

      The UK has 84 titles; the USA has 54; France has 13; Australia has 8; Canada and Italy have 7 apiece; Germany has 4; Ireland, South Africa, and Spain have 3 apiece; Cambodia, Sweden, Japan, Singapore, Gibraltar, and “various” have 2 apiece; and a large number of countries are represented by one title (Greece, Chile, Cuba, Trinidad, Argentina, Kenya, Austria, Bahamas, Romania, Vietnam, Latvia, Russia, Brazil, and the Ukraine).

  15. Peter Prasad
    April 16, 2013

    Great data. Adds fuel to my desire to finish my novel about the Hittites. For safety, I chose to write about a time with no written record.

    • Richard Abbott
      April 19, 2013

      Peter, sounds great! I for one would like to see more coverage that far back. But maybe this thread is not the right place to tell me more

  16. Derek Birks
    April 17, 2013

    I feel moved to write about the 4th century just to fill the gap!