This is the third year that I’ve taking a statistical look at the state of the sapphic historical publishing, based on the new book listings included in the podcast, as well as my database of earlier publications. (See previous summaries for 2018 and 2019.) As always, there’s a bit of squishiness in the data, not only because it depends on which books I know about, but due to the fuzzy edges of the categories I include. This especially affects just how “alternate” a historical fantasy can get and still feel like it belongs within my remit. The other significant fuzzy boundary has to do with gender identity, where I tend to be generous about including books my audience might find relevant even when the characters don’t easily fit in the category of “female”. But if I started second-guessing titles when I come to do the statistics, it would make this task too hard. So I take the database as a given. The comparative data for 2018 and 2019 has been updated somewhat with titles identified later, so the numbers may not always match with what I gave in previous years.
With three years of data where I’ve done a fairly thorough month-by-month search for titles, I have some hope of being able to identify actual trends and not just anecdotal snapshots. So let’s plunge into the geeking out. A much more abbreviated version of this analysis will be summarized in the podcast.
The basic data is:
So let’s look at that to start.
One striking thing is that, within a very rough ballpark assessment, the numbers are strikingly consistent. It will be interesting to see if the self-pubbed percentage simply fluctuates a lot or whether 2019 was an outlier. But the overall number of titles is consistent enough across these three years that it makes it easy to compare other factors without having to normalize to the total.
Who is Publishing?
With the number of named publishers in the 50s each year, does this mean that the same set of publishers are putting out books regularly? Definitely not. There are only 7 publishers who have put out at least one sapphic historical title during each of the last 3 years. Four of them are queer-focused publishers: Bella Books, Bold Strokes Books, Sapphire Books, and Supposed Crimes. Two are imprints of major publishers: Harper Collins and Tor.com. The last is Lake Union Publishing which is an Amazon imprint for literary fiction. Not technically self-publishing but not entirely a mainstream publishing model either. The offerings from Harper Collins have been speculative fiction, romance, and literary fiction, while Tor.com is specifically a speculative fiction imprint. As for the queer publishers, for all intents and purposes, the relevant books from Supposed Crimes are all by Geonn Cannon, mostly his steampunk historical fantasy series. Sapphire Books is primarily putting out US-set romances with no fantastic elements. The titles from Bella Books are balanced between realistic and fantasy-tinged settings and are primarily set in anglophone cultures. Bold Strokes Books is more focused on realistic settings with only a few fantasy elements, maybe half are romances, and slightly more variety in geography though still dominated by US and British settings. I’ll get into those aspects later for the whole dataset, but in general these most consistent publishers reflect the trends for the whole.
But consistency doesn’t tell the whole story. As noted above, 11 named publishers put out 2 or more titles in 2020. Four of them are on the 3-out-of-3 list above. The other 7 illustrate some of the other dynamics. Little, Brown and Company (including Little Brown Books) published 4 titles, coming in second only to Bold Strokes, which is noteworthy for a mainstream press. They have a lot of diversity of setting in a small list: 16th to 20th century, and set in four different countries (though limited to Europe and the USA). Only one of the four looks to have a romance plot. Past and Prologue Press put out three titles, all in the same series (the press is a one-author imprint), which may be an isolated event. Bywater Books put out 2 titles and just barely missed being on the 3 out of 3 years list. (They’ve published historic titles in 4 of the last 5 years.) Ninestar Press is a relative newcomer to the field but looks like they’re going to have regular historic offerings. Inkyard Press looks like it focuses on 20th century settings for the most part, with a more literary bent rather than genre-historicals. Persephone Press may be another single-author imprint, it’s hard to track down information on them online due to search interference from an earlier unrelated publisher with the same name, which also focused on women’s and lesbian fiction. Entangled Publishing contributes 2 titles set in earlier eras than the usual.
Overall, books from publishers that put out at least 2 titles have been making up a quarter to a third of the overall total. But as a proportion of the titles from named publishers, the rate is an even more consistent 41-44%. Three of the most consistent recent publishers only had a single title in 2020: Bella Books, Supposed Crimes, and Lake Union Publishing.
So what does this say overall about the state of publishing? There’s a large and dynamic pool of publishers who are putting out the occasional sapphic historical, but a very small number who do so consistently. And—needless to say—none who focus specifically on that genre.
There’s an interesting increase in titles from mainstream publishers (which I’m defining as “do I easily recognize the imprint as being part of one of the big houses”, with the acknowledgment that the big houses include a lot of minor imprints that I’m not likely to recognize). The 10 and 11 titles put out by mainstream publishers in 2018 and 2019 have nearly doubled to 18 titles in 2020. But given that overall numbers are relatively flat, this implies that those stats are balanced by fewer titles from other sources. Applying the same subjective “do I recognize this name” to identify the major queer press titles, it appears that’s where the difference is coming from, with a noticeable dip in 2020. I’m not saying that specific books have been sold to mainstream presses rather than queer presses. Anecdotally, it’s unlikely that most of the books published by mainstream presses would have been submitted to queer presses instead. But it raises the question of whether mainstream embrace of queer historical stories will add to the diversity of the market or simply shift it.
But let’s move on to content. Due to the complexity of the analysis, the comparative material for 2018 and 2019 is only my original analysis, not updated for any later additions. Books are grouped by general era, with more distinctions made during the more popular settings.
Overall percentage set before the 19th century:
In general, the distribution in time is fairly consistent. There’s been a slight increase in representation for pre-19th century settings, mostly in the Early Modern era (16-18th century), but no obvious eras that are losing popularity. And there’s still significant over-representation of the 19th and 20th centuries.
It’s hard to parse out the intersection of time and place to track specific settings. But it can be interesting to track some that can be easily identified. The following are some themes that stand out from the overall dataset, viewed for the last three years. Pirates are down, Civil War is up (though it has been more popular in earlier years), the Regency holds fairly steady, and the French Revolution, though never highly popular, holds steady. I don’t track this sort of this systematically enough to be able to say anything really meaningful, though.
Analyzing geographic settings gets a little fuzzier, since a story may have multiple settings. Even when a very common setting (e.g., England or USA) is the primary setting, I want to note a secondary setting if it is otherwise unrepresented. So more than usual, don’t expect the numbers to add up to 100% here. Locations are identified by the modern political name for the region (with rare exceptions where the historic label is the one available, e.g., Yugoslavia).
At the highest level, let’s compare on a continent/region basis. I’ve split out “UK and Ireland” into a separate region from “Europe” due to the disproportionate representation of the former. And I’ve bundled together North and Central America due to the small numbers of the latter. Regions are listed in descending order of popularity in 2020. The three most popular regions will be split out below, but for the others, I’ve listed the 2020 settings, and then in parentheses, other settings appearing in previous years.
It is inevitable, I suppose, that the fact that my survey draws almost exclusively on English language literature means that the popular settings will reflect the interests and defaults of Anglophone writers. In 2020, US settings and UK+Ireland settings each made up about a third of the total, while “other Europe” accounted for a fourth of the total. That leaves about 10% for the entire rest of the world. But this is actually an improvement over the previous two years. US settings are down from 40% in each of the two previous years. UK+Ireland has varied more but is down from 40% in 2019. Continental Europe is higher in 2020 than the two previous years, and that “rest of the world” statistic has functionally doubled over the average for the previous two years. One somewhat-mixed positive aspect of this is that the stories set in non-US/non-European locations are primarily being written by authors with roots in those regions (though not always in the specific culture being depicted). So while I’d love to see more geographic diversity, I’m happy that what we’re getting isn’t all coming from cultural outsiders. (I confess I’m less concerned about cross-cultural writing within the Anglophone sphere, though I know how annoying some British people find the American fetishization of certain aspects of British history.)
Drilling down a bit into those three most popular categories, I tagged books with US settings by specific state or region, but this is usually based on the information in the cover copy, so there are a lot of gaps that might be filled in by someone more familiar with the books. In terms of general region, over the last three years, the Midwest gets the least love (and is dominated by Chicago stories). But the Northeast, South, and West trade off who gets to be the most popular. No specific trends otherwise.
When specific states are identified in the cover copy, there have been 34 different states mentioned over the last 3 years, with the number for any given year ranging from 11-18. Most of these are singletons in any given year. Generally in a given year only4-6 states make repeat appearances. Of these, the consistently popular states (making the grade each year) are New York, Massachusetts, and Illinois.
The UK & Ireland group has included books set in Ireland and in Scotland each of the three years, but in very small numbers. While we’re talking about who gets what sort of representation, Ireland seems to exist primarily during WWI, while Scotland is either medieval or Victorian.
Doing a similar analysis of continental Europe as I did for the US states, there have been 14 different countries (or identifiable regions) used as settings over the last 3 years, with the number for any given year ranging from 7-9. In any given year, a minority of the mentioned countries appear only once, which implies that we get random clustering. One year we’ll get a couple stories in Yugoslavia with none in other years, another year we’ll get a couple in the Netherlands with none in other years. The most consistent locations, with at least one story set there in each of the three years, are France, Germany, Greece, Italy, and non-specific Scandinavia. France is popular during WWII and the French Revolution (each accounting for a quarter of the French titles) but doesn’t seem to exist at all during the 19th century. (Where are the stories of decadent-era Paris?) With the exception of a duology with a medieval setting, Germany exists only in the context the two World Wars. Greece exists only in classical or mythic eras (and mostly mythic). While it’s not entirely surprising that the “non-specific Scandinavia” settings are mostly early medieval (since more recent settings use more specific country names), it also exists almost exclusively as a fantasy/mythic location. Italy, too, is confined to specific tropes: imperial Rome and the Renaissance.
As with the dearth of stories set outside Europe and the USA, these patterns are to some extent a consequence of the Anglo-centric interests of the authors. Continental Europe exists to provide a limited set of stock set-pieces. While some of these stories are being written by cultural insiders, I suspect the growing awareness about cultural appropriation has less influence when Anglo writers use continental settings, than it might have elsewhere. Or I might be overthinking things based on an admittedly limited data set.
Tropes and Content
When we get to my analysis of themes, tropes, and sub-genres, I am most at the mercy of my limited knowledge about the content of specific books. Eventually I hope to be able to crowd-source more data on these topics (when I figure out a safe way to make my spreadsheet generally available). In the mean time, I make a stab at coding each book for whether it has a romance plot, whether it has fantasy elements, specifically whether it has a cross-time plot (which doesn’t necessarily mean fantasy, see my discussion of what I mean by “cross-time” here). I also try to keep track of whether a story has sexual content, and what type, but this can rarely be determined from cover copy. The majority of titles have a big question mark in this field in my database.
But with those big caveats, it seems consistent that, when it’s possible to make a solid guess without reading the book, about half of the titles have a strong romance plot (though not all of those are capital-R-Romances), with maybe 20% definitely being Not Romance, and the rest unclear.
It’s a bit easier to make a good guess on whether a book has fantasy elements, and so far about a third of the titles each year fall in this category. Of course, this depends very largely on how I’m classifying whether a fantasy is “historic enough” to be included in my project. But I think it does speak to the extent to which people like adding “something else” into the mix when they write f/f historicals. (I know I do. I’m not going to criticize!)
Since I don’t even have a vague guess about the sexual content in most of the books in my list, there’s not much point in discussing that data.
And finally, when I have the time, I try to add a list of keywords and tropes to help find books for specific interests. This is very spotty, since I don’t manage to do it for all books in the database. (It’s a very daunting task to try to tackle for the 700+ books I have logged! I haven’t even managed to fill in the publication and setting data for many of them.) But just for fun, I dumped the tags into a text file and sorted out to identify the most frequent ones.
Tags relating to gender identity and gender presentation head the list (though largely because I’ve combined several different items). We seem to be fascinated by characters who cross gender lines, whether for practical reasons or as an expression of gender identity. Another item that pops up regularly are plots involving conflicts around social class, or where there is a servant-employer relationship between the characters. Witches and magic show up regularly, and specific events that I’ve included in the topic tags include Regency, WWI, WWII, US Civil War, and French Revolution. Sub-genres that I’ve noted on multiple occasions include horror, mystery, suspense, detective stories, and westerns.
One piece of data that may be of interest to nobody but myself has to do with my ability to identify books for the new book listings ahead of their publication date. I generally do my final exhaustive search for new titles about 2 weeks before the On The Shelf episode goes live. My ability to identify relevant books depends on multiple factors. Has there been advance buzz? Has the book been included in other people’s lists of upcoming books? (Since no one else is specifically looking for the intersections I’m interested in, this always involves sifting through titles with only one or two of the characteristics I’m looking for.) Is the book coming out from one of the publishers who do enough historic titles to be worth checking, and who have a forthcoming books page on their website? (And how talented are their cover designers at signalling that a book is historical, since I don't always have time to click through and read all the blurbs?)
The last line of defense is: can the book be identified on Amazon via combinations of the keywords “historic” with “lesbian”, “sapphic”, or “f/f”. (Which has led me to a deep understanding of quite how dysfunctional and broken the Amazon keyword system is. How dysfunctional? Some months I have to specifically exclude keywords like “Dickens” and “Shakespeare” because for some reason someone has tagged a bunch of works by those authors with the word “lesbian”.)
The books I most often miss in my advance searches are self-published works where the author didn’t create an Amazon entry until actual publication. The books I most often miss until I’ve passed the window for mentioning the book on the podcast are books from mainstream presses where the sapphic content is so carefully scrubbed out of the cover copy that it leaves no trace for my searches to find.
In general, I identify a slight majority of titles prior to publication. Pulling the data for the Jan 2020 to Jan 2021 podcasts, 58 out of 101 were announced the month they came out. Of those, only 2 titles were published either through Amazon digital or with no named publisher. 35 out of 101 were included the month after publication, of which 20 were self-published (using my Amazon/no-name proxy). The remaining 8 titles were included 2 or 3 months after publication. These are a mixture, maybe half self-published, and the rest simply slipped past my notice for a while. I generally don’t mention books in the podcast more than 2 months past, though everything goes into the database, of course. Comparing the database to the podcast-content spreadsheet, it looks like there are only two 2020 titles that I found out about too late to include in the show.
So what are my overall conclusions? I don’t have many of significance. Based on the last 3 years of data, the field of sapphic historical fiction feels relatively stable and consistent. Overall publication numbers don’t seem to be changing much. The fluctuation in self-publication numbers is hard to interpret and may not be meaningful since many of the “named publishers” are self-publication operations. There’s a small and shifting group of established publishers, both large and small, contributing to the genre, but none that specializes in it, and none where sapphic historicals make up a large enough proportion to be a focus. There has been an increase in books from major mainstream publishers, but that is offset by a decrease in books from the established queer presses.
Books set in the 19th and 20th centuries are still the vast majority (ca. 70%) though this may be decreasing. Books set in either the USA or UK+Ireland are still the vast majority (ca. 66%) though, again, this may be shifting. Although some really interesting work is being done with settings outside of Anglophone countries by authors with personal connections to those regions, the types of stories told about many non-Anglophone countries reflect stereotyping and a reliance on stock historic mythologies rather than reflecting a diversity of storytelling. On the positive side, this means there’s a lot of conceptual space available for those who want to write new, refreshing stories that don’t fall in those stock categories. We just have to convince the readers to appreciate them as much as they appreciate yet one more WWII wartime romance or one more cross-dressing western adventure!