Recently I came across a post on BookBub’s blog titled “23 Books That Will Have Your Book Club Talking All Summer Long.” As I skimmed through the list, I noticed a pattern. Over half of the novels were set in the mid-20th century, in the 1930s-1960s. Is this a trend, or just the reading tastes of the author of the list?
I think it’s a trend. First, all of these are new releases, books that are being published in June and July 2019. Second, beyond these books, I’ve seen others getting buzz that are set in the mid-20th century. Books like last year’s Tangerine by Christine Mangan, a psychological thriller set in the 1950s. Then there’s the recently published Sold on a Monday by Kristina McMorris set during the Great Depression and Learning to See by Elisa Hooper about photographer Dorothea Lange, focusing on her early career in the 1920s-1940s.
Not long ago, books set in this period were considered a tough sell. The period wasn’t old enough to be considered historical, but it’s not contemporary either. One explanation for why they’re trending now is the rather obvious—as time passes, certain periods become historical. Many people define historical as 100 years or more in the past, when few if any people alive today can remember the period. But if you define historical as over 50 years ago, or create a new subcategory between historical and contemporary, anything up to the 1960s is fair game. But why is this new tweener category working now?
I think what we’re seeing is what I call a trend echo. In recent years, fiction set during World War II has been popular. When a trend hits, there can be a bit of an acquisition frenzy, as editors and publishers try to meet demand. It typically takes about a year from acquisition to a book appearing on store shelves, but sometimes publishers will rush that schedule. They all want to be first to market. Why? If the trend is big enough, the market quickly becomes flooded. Demand has been met, and then some. The sales of new authors' books intended to capitalize on the trend start to slow. Suddenly, retailers (and therefore editors) don’t want any more of those books they had been desperate for six months ago. I don't believe World War II fiction ever reached frenzy level, but we may be seeing signs that the trend is past its peak.
This is where the trend echo happens. The market stabilizes with a few top authors supplying the needs of faithful fans. The more casual readers have gorged themselves and grown tired of the trend. So agents, editors, and publishers start thinking, how can we appeal to these same readers, but stand out? If fiction set in the 1940s is working but there’s too much competition, let’s try fiction set in the 1930s or the 1950s.
The trend echo is a trend in itself, with varying degrees of success. Vampire novels were big starting in the late 1990s and as that fad became overpublished, more books focused on other paranormal creatures like zombies and werewolves appeared. Amish fiction was flying of the shelves around 2010, and I remember when the market reached its saturation point, I saw a lot of proposals for Mennonite fiction. Coloring books for adults came next, sparking similar sophisticated foolproof creativity books like extreme dot to dot books and series like Querkles, a color-by-number book where you fill in circles to produce a hidden image.
As you can see from these disparate themes, it’s almost impossible to predict what the next trend will be. It’s usually sparked by the surprise success of a single book or author, and it's almost never an unprecedented concept. The chick lit boom of the 1990s was launched by the success of Bridget Jones Diary by Helen Fielding. The trend was so powerful that publishers created dedicated imprints, like Simon & Schuster's Downtown Press, devoted to novels about a single woman in her 20s to early 30s, living in a city and juggling her career and social life. It was followed by a brief attempt at books targeted at the same female readers but featuring a male protagonist officially called Lad Lit, and unofficially referred to as Dick Lit. Genres can also have trends. The late 1990s saw romance novels shift away from historicals with Western settings. But like clothing styles, book trends do get recycled: chick lit and cowboy romances have both recently been making a comeback.