We are big fans of the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) series, Downton Abbey. It’s a period piece set in and around an incredible castle in early twentieth-century England.
The “upstairs/downstairs” stories of the trials and tribulations of the characters in Julian Fellowes‘ scripts have captivated so many viewers, it has become the most popular Masterpiece Theatre presentation of all time.
When you see a drama or series with this much power of attraction, it’s interesting to try to figure out what they are doing right, and to see if there’s anything we can learn from their success.
What does this have to do with self-publishing? I think quite a bit, looked at the right way.
Lessons from Downton Abbey
- Attention to detail counts—Throughout Downton Abbey’s production there has been an effort to get all the historical details exactly right. From the costumes to the table settings and the references to contemporary events, every note strikes true. For self-publishers, attention to detail can also be crucial. Seeing to the details of editing and proofreading your manuscript is where this starts, but self-publishers also need to arrange lots of other details like discounts, ISBNs and distribution agreements to make sure they don’t miss out on opportunities.
- Stories that evolve keep us interested—The Downton Abbey story started in season 1 in 1912, the beginning of a tumultuous and world-changing time in England. As the story progresses, we get to see the characters and the culture within which they live evolve towards the modern world. Watching this evolution is fascinating as we see one world transforming into another, and the characters trying to make sense of it. Self-publishers, who have started off as authors, need to understand what keeps readers coming back over and over. Every fiction writer I’ve read who has moved into indie publishing has stressed two things: the importance of working on new books, and that the fastest way to build a readership is with a series of books in which characters and storylines continue to evolve.
- Helping your audience will help you—The drama of the first season of Downton Abbey sprang from a fairly complex and arcane wrinkle in the inheritance laws at the time. This could have been glossed over, ignored, simplified or dispatched with a minimum of explanation. But it wasn’t. Instead, the subject was returned to repeatedly and explained more than once so viewers had little chance of confusion. Likewise with self-publishers, staying in touch with your readers, getting feedback from peer reviewers and early readers, polling your blog visitors are all ways we can make sure the people we’re talking to are following what we are saying.
- Don’t be afraid to go over the top—The most notorious event from season 1 of Downton Abbey was a death that was unpredictable, scandalous, a not-very-well-kept secret, and completely shocking because it happened in the midst of a very reserved and strait-laced era. Of course, it also riveted our attention and created endless sub-plots as the story continued. Self-publishers may have to learn some of the lessons of publicists to get the word out about their book in a crowded marketplace. Staying within the lines of what other authors have done won’t do the trick, and creating promotions or other marketing events that truly stand out from the crowd will get you a lot more attention for your books.
- Keep up with the times—Part of the fascination with Downton Abbey is the combination of standard period-piece theatrics and the up-tempo, multi-tasking energy of our modern culture. There are many, many stories going on all at once, and you don’t spend very much time on any one before another story becomes the focus of attention. Julian Fellowes put it this way:
“I think the secret is to making it more like a modern American television series… with lots of plots going on—big plots, little plots, happy plots, sad plots. To have it all packaged together seems to be right for the energy of now. It seems to meet what the audience wants. It sort of looks like a classic period drama from the 70s with everyone in bustles and ringing for lunch, but the energy is much, much more modern. I think that is what works for us.” (The Hollywood Blog)
Keeping up with the ever-shifting habits of today’s readers is equally important. Today you can retail books, stories, long nonfiction, serial fiction, combinations of print and web content, video instruction based on nonfiction books, and lots more. As the technology of reading continues to change, we need to keep up with our own readers and be where they are.
- Be memorable—In the end it’s the characters that attract us to Downton Abbey, and their stories that keep us coming back for more. From the mysterious Mr. Bates to the mercurial Thomas the footman, from the proper Mr. Carson to the dreamy Matthew Crawley, the intrigues, loves, crimes, and idiosyncrasies make each of them memorable. For self-publishers, that’s the role that author branding can play in establishing an identity in the marketplace. Taking that branding to the next level, making it the reflection of an intriguing persona, creating a brand that will be remembered, is what we work towards.
Great fiction can be as good a guide as any to achieving success with readers (or viewers). Lessons abound where we look for them. The third season of Downton Abbey began last night and will continue for the next couple of months.
I wonder what we’ll learn this year? If you’re a fan, have you gotten something unexpected from the series?