There was a lot of discussion at the conference over whether your book will only sell if you use Marquee Names (famous people everyone knows about, like Cleopatra).
I had no idea this was an issue. I actually dislike marquee names; I read historical fiction to learn about lives I’m not familiar with, and I have a fierce reluctance to say or read anything that’s been said before.
Not everyone’s like this. Someone at my work likes Henry the Eighth so much that she reads every book she can find about him. You’d think she’d get sick of hearing the same story over and over again.
At a marquee name panel, Margaret George pointed out that we’re a celebrity-conscious society. Most of us are drawn to famous people. Also, marquee gives readers a feeling of safety. If a reader liked one book about the Tudors, he knows he’ll enjoy reading another one. History is difficult for most people, said C.W. Gortner, so they like familiar stories.
Vanitha Sankaran was frustrated by this mindset. “People read fantasy and science fiction when they know nothing about the story. Why not history?”
C.W. Gortner said sometimes a marquee setting, like the Civil War, can be just as effective as a marquee character.
Someone asked if an author could start writing marquee names, build a platform, and then branch out. Susanne Dunlap said this doesn’t help. Publishers can decline a book – and often do – even after a writer is popular.
Dang. I always thought if you write a bestseller, you can do whatever you want.
Margaret George said if you want to pull away from marquee you should go for it, but be prepared to make less money. You might have to switch editors.
This is a great fear of mine. During another panel, Michelle Moran talked about getting “orphaned”; losing your agent or editor. I raised my hand and said, “I’m getting the sense this happens to everyone at some point in time. Doesn’t anyone stay together forever?”
They laughed and said that yes, getting orphaned is pretty common.
Susanne Dunlap said teenagers are more likely to read non-marquee names because they’re not familiar with the history anyway. All stories are new to them.
She also said a good hook is more important than marquee names or settings. “Nuns behaving badly” is a good non-marquee hook.