About two months ago, I received an unsolicited e-mail from the owner of a site called Shepherd.com. Like most of us these days, I get a lot of unsolicited mail—never mind the semi-solicited e-mails that result from purchases I’ve made or newsletters I once signed up for or authors who added me to their lists without my permission whom I nevertheless like enough not to block—so I almost deleted this one unread. But I decided to take a look and discovered that Shepherd is a book recommendations site, previously unknown to me, that has an interesting business model: it helps authors of both fiction and nonfiction to promote their books by getting them to recommend other people’s books.
I took a look at the site and realized that, although new, it’s serious. It has a lot of authors, many of them well known, and the recommendations follow a very specific format. Authors pick five books that are close in topic to their own area of interest and explain why these five are worth reading. The recommendations are short (not much more than a paragraph), and the topics are tightly defined. So I agreed to sign on.
Next step was to find a topic—preferably something that people would be eager to learn about. With Russia still set on annihilating Ukraine, I considered listing books on early modern Ukrainian history, but those would have to be mostly nonfiction and would overlap only peripherally with my novels. So instead, since most of my books are set in sixteenth-century Russia—which might as well be the planet Saturn as far as the Western literary world is concerned—I settled on the best five books set in the sixteenth century in areas of the world not ruled by Tudors. In retrospect, I should have specified “mostly without Tudors,” but we’ll get to that in a second.
After a bit of thought, I settled on my five books. P.K. Adams’ Jagiellon Mysteries, set at the glittering Renaissance court of Zygmunt I and his Italian wife, Bona Sforza, were an obvious choice; I picked the first one, Silent Water. The next three were also pretty straightforward, from my point of view: Anjali Mitter Duva’s Faint Promise of Rain (northern India); Laura Morelli’s The Gondola Maker (Venice); and Ann Swinfen’s Voyage to Muscovy (Russia during the regency of Boris Godunov, ca. 1590), which begins in Tudor England but soon moves east.
These are all high-quality books by self-published (or in the case of Mitter Duva, hybrid-published) authors. For the fifth book, I wanted to balance out the list with a well-known commercially published author, and I remembered with affection Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, a series of six books featuring Francis Crawford of Lymond and Sevigny. Francis is a Scottish adventurer, the younger son to a barony who gets involved first in the politics of his native land, then in an ongoing conflict that takes him through France, around much of the Mediterranean, and even to Ottoman Turkey and Russia before a brief visit to England sends him off once more to France for the dénouement. Every novel in the series has a chess-themed title, from The Game of Kings to Checkmate, but I have always preferred books 4–6. I read those three in the 1980s, revisited the entire series in the 2000s, then bought four of the six as e-books a few years ago but due to general overload didn’t read them again.
However, my absolute favorite is The Ringed Castle, which is mostly set in Moscow and the surrounding area in the 1550s—the court of Ivan the Terrible, where so many of my novels take place. So I picked that novel even though it’s the fifth book in the series. I sent in the list, and on August 15, as promised, it appeared online at https://shepherd.com/best-books/the-16th-century-that-dont-involve-tudors.
Here’s where it gets amusing. In the twenty years since I last cracked the spine on The Ringed Castle, I had forgotten that although the hero is off in Muscovy trying to whip the tsar’s army into shape, the heroine travels to London and becomes a lady-in-waiting to Mary Tudor. In fact, there are more Tudors in terms of pure page count in The Ringed Castle than in any other book of the Lymond Chronicles.
To be fair, the Tudors I had in mind were Henry VIII and his wives, whom I consider to be way overdone. Edward VI and Mary receive almost no fictional attention (Courtenay J. Hall’s lovely romance Some Rise by Sin is an exception.) The publishing industry also loves Elizabeth I, but so much went on during her reign that the market doesn’t yet feel saturated. Henry VII also attracts a fair bit of notice, but more in the context of Richard III and the Princes in the Tower than for his own policies and abilities.
Enter the world of social media. Once the post came out, I tagged a couple of Dorothy Dunnett fan groups, thinking they would enjoy seeing their favorite author featured and that it would increase publicity for Shepherd, and by extension me.
Boy, was I taken by surprise! The entire discussion revolved around the number of Tudors and the inadvisability of starting the series with book 5. My one-paragraph book description was subjected to line-by-line analysis and found wanting, while the other titles provoked gratitude from their authors but not much attention from anyone else. But as a result of this scrutiny, the post did get a lot of publicity—more even than the cute cat pictures I put up from time to time. So was that a plus or a minus? I’m still not sure.
This is, however, the world we live in. And compared to many Internet flaps, this one was small, contained, and in retrospect funny. I learned a useful lesson, if only that social media have an ethos of their own, and people don’t always react the way one might expect.
But most important, when you’re looking for a book or just want the fun of skimming other people’s lists of favorite books, you can’t do better than to browse the lists at https://shepherd.com. And if you’re an author interested in submitting a recommendation list of your own, you can reach out via https://forauthors.shepherd.com. Just make sure you count your Tudors first!