What historical fiction means to me: Beverley Cousins, Commercial Fiction Publisher at Penguin Random House.

‘From a publishing standpoint, I have no doubt the prize can subconsciously elevate historical novels in the minds of readers, booksellers and the media. And of course it will help the winner, and those shortlisted, to stand out from the crowd.’

The HNSA was delighted when Beverley Cousins, who has a wealth of publishing experience both in Australia and the UK, and is Commercial Fiction Publisher at Penguin Random House Australia, was happy to share her views on historical fiction and the inaugural ARA Historical Novel Prize. In this interview Beverley throws a publisher’s lens on the historical fiction genre, she reveals the appeal of historical fiction for her and she also discusses the impact of winning literary prizes. Read on to find out what publishers look for in a historical novel and what might make yours stand out!

In your experience as a publisher of historical fiction, what is its particular appeal?

The first word that springs to my mind is ‘escapism’. I know that can have negative connotations – but surely the chance to be transported from our modern world into the minds, the homes and the conflicts of those who have lived before is what primarily draws us to historical fiction. It gives us the familiar and the different.

Historical fiction can bring history to life in such a glorious and vivid way, whether by fictionalising real figures or events, or in stories told from the perspective of the everyday man or woman. While I love becoming lost, say, in the machinations of the Tudor court or the palaces of Cicero, I particularly enjoy stories about an ‘average joe’ in extraordinary circumstances: a foot soldier in the Napoleonic Wars, or an orphan in wartorn Europe, or a 1950s shopgirl who dreams of more than marriage. 

I think historical fiction’s appeal also lies in its ability to retell history from different perspectives, and by doing so hold up a mirror to our modern world. For example, currently much historical fiction is centred on female protagonists, living in times when women’s choices were limited. Historical fiction can remind us how far we’ve come – and perhaps also how far we still need to go!

Of course an added bonus of this genre is that we get the chance to learn more about the past and key historical events, some famous, some not so famous.

Finally, perhaps the appeal for readers of historical fiction is how broad and varied our options are! One day we can be riding a chariot next to Boudicca, and the next we can be sipping tea in an Edwardian drawing room, or chasing down a killer in 1940s LA. 

How do you think the ARA Historical Novel Prize helps raise the profile of historical fiction in general?

Well, in general, genre fiction struggles to gain the respect and recognition it deserves – it is all too easy to write it off as lightweight entertainment. A prize of this calibre offers it that respect, by acknowledging the extraordinary amount of work required and the talent and skill necessary to bring history to life.

From a publishing standpoint, I have no doubt the prize can subconsciously elevate historical novels in the minds of readers, booksellers and the media. And of course it will help the winner, and those shortlisted, to stand out from the crowd.

What are the benefits for a publisher for a high-profile contest with significant prize money?

As I’ve said above, to win (or be shortlisted for) such a prize is an invaluable marketing tool for publishers and publicists. ‘Discoverability’ and ‘Recommendation’ are two words never far from a publisher’s thought process, and this prize would no doubt have a positive effect on both.

Extensive research is, of course, a necessity for historical fiction – and a serious obligation for any author in this genre. So from a purely financial perspective, the prize money will grant the winning author greater research funding going forward. Many historical novels are set outside of Australia, so such a sizeable prize pot would also help supplement any required international travel (post Covid, of course!), and/or the employment of research helpers.

And, it goes without saying, an added benefit for a publisher is that the prize money may incentivise more writers to try historical fiction!

Which sub-genre of historical fiction are you pleased to see eligible, and why do you feel it is important?

While I don’t actually publish historical novels for children, I’m so glad to see them recognised in the prize. It’s an enormous task to bring something ‘old and black & white’ alive for young readers, and to teach them even when they don’t know they are being taught!

I’m also glad to see that one of my own personal favourite sub-genres – the parallel narrative – is eligible. Contrasting the past and present is something I personally enjoy reading.

What do you think makes a standout historical novel?

As I’ve said, it’s all about ‘bringing history to life’ – so the better an author does that, the more standout their novel is for me. It’s about building a compelling cast of believable characters in a vividly realised setting, with all its sights, sounds and (most probably) smells… 

And it’s so important to get the balance right: on the one hand creating a credible, authentic and factually accurate world, while on the other not layering on that research so heavily it bashes the reader on the head at every turn. The other real skill is creating a believable narrative voice and dialogue, while keeping the language accessible and easy to follow. Research and authenticity are important – but so too, in my mind, is readability.

As with any novel, strong compelling characters are key, whether they are real or fictional, high-born or low-born, Stone Age or Golden Age. 

And I think the historical novels that stand out are ones that really get the reader thinking, particularly those stories that draw parallels with the modern world and can raise questions about both the past and the present.

About Beverley Cousins

Beverley Cousins, Commercial Fiction Publisher at Penguin Random House Australia, had twenty years’ experience of London publishing before moving Down Under in 2007. During her career, she has worked with a number of international brand-name crime authors, including Minette Walters, Colin Dexter, Nicci French, Sue Grafton, James Patterson and Janet Evanovich, and is currently the publisher of bestselling authors Judy Nunn, M. L. Stedman, Candice Fox, Nicole Alexander, Joy Rhoades and Deborah Rodriguez, among others.

You can find Beverley Cousins on instagram or at www.penguin.com.au

This interview was compiled by HNSA Marketing Coordinator, Lou Greene. Lou was winner of the HNSA First Pages Pitch in 2017 and she long-listed in the Richell Awards. Last year, as well as being short-listed in the HNSA short story competition, she was a recipient of an ASA Mentorship Award. Lou has an MA Modern History and has recently completed a dual timeline, novel manuscript. Find out more about Lou’s writing from her website, or connect with her via Instagram or Twitter.

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