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How the #bookstagram movement has changed the way fiction is marketed, reviewed and read

Zamira Rahim
Bookstagram is changing the face of the publishing industry, and how books are interacted with online: iStock

"Let me talk to you about this book, because I have a lot of emotions going on,” begins one Bookstagram caption. Another describes a novel by Gabriel Garcia Maquez as “too flowery at times, but overall, the story moves well… would recommend.” A third frets over Toni Morrison’s masterpiece Sula: “I can’t fault the quality of her storytelling but I felt so set apart from her words... it didn’t settle in my soul.”

Literary instagram, known as Bookstagram, has changed the way fiction is marketed, reviewed and read. Book blogging has always existed on the internet, but on Instagram it collided with the influencer economy. Particularly successful users are now able to sell copies with their Instagram posts, which are more colloquial than formal reviews.

For a certain type of reader, hashtags and sponsorships ruin the literary world’s purity. But Bookstagrammers view the community as encouraging a love of reading. And publishers see their posts as a valuable marketing tool.

“When I’m thinking about reading a book I’m more likely to trust a Bookstagrammer than a journalist who has written one traditional review in a newspaper,” says Leena Normington, who works for Penguin Random House, as a producer of YouTube videos and podcasts for the Vintage imprint. She also runs an Instagram page of her own.

“The [reviewer] hasn’t got a back catalogue of posts I can scroll through to see if they like the same books I do,” she says. “There’s more context when it’s a person on Instagram.”

Bookstagram profiles are often curated by young women. Normington started hers shortly after arriving at university, aged 20, in 2009. Popular pages attract tens of thousands of followers, who discuss plotlines and character development in the comments. Some profiles feature cover images of new novels, accompanied by a pithy review. Young adult and fantasy fans dominate the community, though the classics do creep in. Clicking through the captions can feel deceptively like reading a friend’s thoughts on a new novel. The posts lack the nuance of considered criticism, but the brevity is part of the allure.

Bookstagram pages have a carefully cultivated aesthetic. They are filled with photographs of novels lying open on white sheets or glimpsed in a cafe. Sometimes the title of the book in question is unclear; the beauty, not the substance, is the point. There are images of libraries and independent bookstores. Some of it is twee: “All you need is books and coffee,” reads one post.

But there is also evidence of commercialisation. Some accounts attract around 80,000 followers and this reach brings attention from publishers. The posters receive free proof copies and host book giveaways. They enter paid partnerships with the occasional brand, such as Parker, the pen company. For the Bookstagrammer these posts generate income. For the publishers and partners, they are a grasp at relevance.

“Instagram ... influences the curation of literary lists and therefore what we read,” Jane Curry, the managing director of Ventura Press, an independent Australian publisher, told Vogue in a recent interview. “Our covers are very much influenced by Instagram.

It’s community orientated,” Normington says. “Though in the US [Bookstagram] is becoming a lot more commercialised.” She adds that publishers benefit from having a direct link with their readers, so they can see which novels people are most interested in.

Young Adult fiction often fails to win highbrow literary coverage. But fans of these more commercial novels are at home on Instagram. Normington believes the relative simplicity of the books allows their popularity to thrive online.

“Young adult is so accessible,” she says. “It’s a genre unto itself but it’s also a great way for people who don’t read to get into this world. The language is simple. There aren’t any [literary] in-jokes. And [young adult] novels can be a gateway to helping people, who maybe don’t read, find other books they like.”

Social media has connected literary communities, challenged gatekeepers and helped sell books which may otherwise have been ignored. But Instagram is an inherently visual platform and comes with obvious drawbacks. More ornate book covers attract the most attention on the site, leading to accusations that the Bookstagram community judges by cover alone.

“These photos are not inviting you in to enjoy or critique or loathe or interrogate the books. They’re not even telling you the titles of books,” wrote Hillary Kelly in a critical piece for Vulture. “[Books are] just another object, shorn of meaning and sometimes of binding, rearranged to show that their possessors’ lives are prettier, more whimsical, more creative than yours.”

It’s a common gripe. In August it emerged that Gwyneth Paltrow had once hired a personal curator to fill her bookshelves. The actress’ Instagram feed is peppered with book recommendations, such as Madeline Miller’s Circe and Three Women by Lisa Taddeo. Her attempt to try and telegraph intelligence via her shelves drew sharp mockery online. But the actress is hardly the only one picking titles with such care. At the time of writing, there are 35 million posts on Instagram with the tag #bookstagram. There are a further 1.7 million dedicated to the #shelfie – images of bookshelves. John Lewis, the department store, believes the #shelfie trend drove up bookcase sales by 11 percent in 2017.

The community’s impact has led publishers to encourage authors to set up pages of their own. “As an author, there’s certainly no expectation for you to run your own Bookstagram account,” a list of tips from Penguin Random House, published in March 2019, reads.

“That said, authors who struggle to come up with ideas for Instagram posts can look to the thriving Bookstagram community for inspiration.” Among the advice offered is to use props, such as flowers, in images.

The allure of social media has also spread beyond the commercial sphere. Last year the New York Public Library launched Insta Novels, a project bringing classic novels to Instagram Stories in an attempt to reach a new generation of readers. People were invited to read The Yellow Wallpaper and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland on the platform.

Normington acknowledges the critics have a point about superficiality but argues that this is a flaw which Instagram possesses on a broader level.

“I do pay attention to when covers are really nice,” she says. “Because I work in that industry... I know when time has been spent on a cover, that means the publisher really believes in that author’s work. When the Bookstagram community pays attention to a book, so do I.”