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The Nostalgia Effect on Book Sales

Well, you can’t blame publishers for trying.

With the success of the Edwardian-era PBS soap Downton Abbey, whose premier drew some 4.2 million viewers, an enormous number for public television, the publishing world sees a skirt to hang onto. This bonbon of a series looks at life at a grand manor house in England, the interactions of servants and masters, and the fading power of well-born Britons in the face of the harsh realities of the first world war.

So, naturally, publishers want a piece of that.

While January isn’t a bad month for bookstore sales – people often use their gift cards then, though perhaps many more received cards for Amazon or BN.com or iTunes for their electronic purchases – it can still be a bit of a drag after the holiday season. So, according to a New York Times article on this doubtless short-lived phenomenon, publishers are repackaging many existing titles that somehow touch on World War I or the decline of the British aristocracy in the first decades of the 20th century, to appeal to a Downton Abbey-besotted viewing audience that also reads books.

Nothing is new here, of course. Tie-ins have always been with us. And the series itself is a mishmash of Upstairs, Downstairs, the Forstye Saga some of the concerns of Henry James novels and others books and television shows and movies (including creator Julian Fellowes’ own screenplay for the Robert Altman film Gosford Park). It plays to a nostalgia for grand houses, the continuing allure of family intrigue and, of course, beautiful costumes.

But the tie-ins here seem somehow quaint, too, like the series itself. The hope for a sale, any sale, and the plaintive Twitter feeds (along the lines of “if you like this, then you must read our novel about a family during the same era!”) are reminders of the fragile book industry. And they are, one hopes, probably going to have some positive effect on sales.

At least the hoopla isn’t about another young-adult novel concerning vampires or featuring a post-apocalyptic showdown.

Most writers don’t have the benefit of a distantly related television show to spur sales (or even publisher interest). Most have to rely on their own platform to engage with an audience. It’s a lot of work.

But it’s also worth it, and, one hopes, longer-lasting than the carry-over effect of hitching one’s publishing wagon to a shooting star.

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