Notebook: Influencing (Part One)

by Ann Kjellberg, editor

Needing a floral budget over here at Book Post #Bookstagram

Bookstagrammer and podcaster Traci Thomas of “The Stacks” gathered publishers and fellow book influencers together for a Town Hall a few weeks ago (report here) on the relationship between Bookstagram and the book business. Traci began with a useful set of provisional descriptions of Bookstagram, showing its reach as a cultural enterprise:

It’s a hashtag, gathering together social media posts to do with books;

a collection of people who use Instagram as a platform to engage with all things books;

a force in the publishing industry using images, videos, real stories, and live events, book clubs, buddy reads, and other creative means to influence and shape the literary landscape for millions and millions of readers;

a tool used by publishing, booksellers, and authors to market and promote their books;

a community of people who are committed to using books as a way to improve themselves, question the status quo, and transform the world around them;

a group of people who have found friendships, community, and deep bonds with one another through books.

Traci referenced a recent assertion in a New York Times story on BookTokers (book recommenders on Tiktok) that BookTokers’ influence outweighs other social media platforms’ in sales and that they are paid (sometimes substantially) by publishers. Bookstagrammers challenged this sidelining of their work, and indeed my own conversations with booksellers have indicated that they’ve found Instagram to be a powerful force in book sales, though I don’t know numbers relative to BookTok. The BookTokers in the Times piece were home-bound White and Asian teenagers; the Bookstagrammers Traci gathered for her Town Hall were Black, many engaged with well-established book advocacy groups like Well-Read Black Girl and independent Black-owned bookstores like Loyalty Books. It was a theme of the Town Hall that Bookstagram had created a medium for nourishing a Black reading audience to which traditional publishing had not done justice. This theme reached a lyrical crescendo when author Kiese Laymon came on to say that as an author he
was told by publishers, editors, and agents there was no audience or community for the stories I wanted to tell … I use every opportunity to the thank the Bookstagram community because you have shown publishers, editors, agents, and writers that there is not only an audience for the work they have neglected; you have shown and proved that there are communities of readers longing to critique, share, and make the work we have created resonate … I’m a better writer because of the critique and the love I feel from Bookstagram communities … You have changed publishing in this nation, you have changed our writing forever, we should give you way more than credit for that.

Traci had to collect herself a little after that encomium.

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Having put a lot of time and effort into cultivating this form of expression, and delivered a lot of value for publishers, these Bookstagrammers were asking publishers why they weren’t being paid like other “influencers,” the BookTokers in the Times piece and well-compensated social-media figures in beauty and fashion. The publishers were attentive. They expressed unfamiliarity with the financial incentives cited in the Times, though it did seem that some had retained third-party “agencies” and “influencer companies” for social media work (“deeper levels of content engagement,” to use their lingo). The publishers’ representatives were deferential to the innovative and influential work of Bookstagram, saying that all this is new territory and they are still feeling it out and are ready to listen, if not to act.

This whole discussion raised an interesting question for me as a book reviewer (which I batted back and forth a bit with Traci on Twitter). Of course in the world of journalism you would never be paid by a publisher to talk about a book or to interview an author. Bookstagrammers are not journalists, but do their followers understand their recommendations as spontaneous? Bloggers spent years trying to demonstrate their fidelity to journalistic standards, to be given press access, etc. Livestreams with authors, “cover reveals,” group read-a-longs and giveaways are among the more developed offerings that publishers have been coaching Bookstagrammers to execute, usually with no more benefit to the Bookstagrammer than a copy of the book—perhaps early—and a chance to share a visit with the author with their followers. In beauty and fashion it is perhaps well understood (is it?) by consumers that the people they follow on social media are in a commercial relationship with the products they wear and talk up. There seems to be a pretty well established (if not universally adhered to) expectation that paid-for content is marked “sponsored.” (The BookTok posts linked in the Times article did not seem to be identified as paid content.) Book publishing and selling certainly doesn’t have the margins that commodities like cosmetics and clothes do to reward their promoters. But paying a regular person to pretend they like a certain shampoo already seems a bit questionable; paying someone to embrace an idea seems to raise deeper concerns. There may be a reason beyond disposable assets why coverage of books has been more resistant than that of other products to pay-to-play arrangements … (Read Part Two of this post here!)

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