6 Winning Ideas for Self-Publishers Straight from “Downton Abbey”

by Joel Friedlander on January 7, 2013 · 8 comments

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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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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?

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    { 6 comments… read them below or add one }

    Ernie Zelinski January 8, 2013 at 2:05 am

    One of the most important points in this blog post is:

    “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.”

    This is about being creative. Most authors (like 99 percent) won’t get this, however. Creativity has to be applied to marketing, too. Problem is, most authors are looking for a formula and like sheep follow what the rest of the herd is doing when it comes to marketing.

    Here are some great quotations to place true creativity in perspective:

    “The great creative individual . . . is capable of more wisdom and virtue than collective man ever can be.”
    — John Stuart Mill

    “The radical invents the views. When he has worn them out the conservative adopts them.”
    — Mark Twain

    “There is no great genius without a mixture of madness.”
    — Aristotle

    “When starting out, don’t worry about not having enough money. Limited funds are a blessing, not a curse. Nothing encourages creative thinking in quite the same way.”
    — H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

    “Creativity varies inversely with the number of cooks involved in the broth.”
    — Bernice Fitz-Gibbon

    “Creative people often feel highs of joy and lows of sorrow that others may never experience, and perhaps could not even handle if they did. Little wonder many outside the creative world mistake (or dismiss) eccentric responses of the spirit as weakness or mental illness. But in the end, these dismissive souls will never know what it is to be moved by tears by the beauty of rose or brought to joy by sunlight filtering through the leaves of spring or autumn. The creative walk in glades invisible to those outside their realms.”
    — Duncan Long (a truly creative cover designer and creator of great Facebook posts, in my opinion, anyway)

    “Empty pockets never held anyone back. Only empty heads and empty hearts can do that.”
    — Norman Vincent Peale

    Incidentally, I often ask authors to name one thing that they have done to promote their books that is truly unique (something they have come up with that no one else has done previously). Guess what? 99 percent can’t name one thing and most get really mad at me for pointing that out.

    One last quotation:

    “What Is Your WOW Factor?
    This applies to both the service/product that you provide to the world and the way you market it.
    Make it edgy, make it snappy, and make it punchy.
    Even make it raunchy — but make it different!
    Real different!”
    — from “Life’s Secret Handbook (Reminders for Adventurous Souls Who Want to Make a Big Difference in This World)”

    Ernie J. Zelinski
    International Best-Selling Author
    “Helping Adventurous Souls Live Prosperous and Free”
    Author of the Bestseller “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free”
    (Over 175,000 copies sold and published in 9 languages)
    and the International Bestseller “The Joy of Not Working’
    (Over 250,000 copies sold and published in 17 languages)

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander January 8, 2013 at 10:18 am

    Great stuff, Ernie, thanks for that. Have you ever done a book of quotations? Seems like a natural for your.

    Reply

    Fiona Ingram January 7, 2013 at 7:33 am

    Hi Joel, I loved this post because I love Downton Abbey and have been amazed at Julian Fellowes’ ability to keep his viewers guessing, coming back for more, and becoming so totally involved in the loves and lives of the characters. I think you have given excellent tips based on a winning formula. I subscribe to your blog and have learned a lot from your information. As you so rightly said above, lessons abound where we look for them. I recently read a great post about how writers should use the lessons from The Hobbit in their marketing plans!

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander January 7, 2013 at 9:17 am

    Thanks, Fiona. Although I haven’t seen The Hobbit yet, I’ll look for those lessons.

    Reply

    Diana Jackson January 7, 2013 at 5:48 am

    Hi Joel
    An interesting post which I heartily agree with. Well researched for the period, plots and subplots making the drama fast moving and stimulating to watch makes Downton Abbey a success.
    When I started my Riduna series from the mid nineteenth century, the second one Ancasta taking the story to the next generation, my first comments were… enjoyed Riduna…. loved the descriptions of Alderney…. moving…. etc but the comments from readers for my second Ancasta Guide me Swiftly Home has been…. I’m in the middle of reading it and I loved the bit where..appeared again and….. I cried buckets when ……….It’s great where we read how the children feel and not just the main characters….The emails, tweets and notes on the bottom of Chrstmas cards all show that the readers are connecting with the characters. I’ve likened my novels more to a costume drama, where you get a depth of community and family. It’s not a style which suites everyone, because some readers prefer just one main character.
    Anyway thanks for the post Joel. Excellent

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander January 7, 2013 at 9:16 am

    Thanks, Diana and good luck with your series, it sounds like you’ve got your readers hooked.

    Reply

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