What does the book industry owe its influencers?
Last month, The New York Times published a glowing story about BookTok, TikTok’s book community, and its impact on the publishing industry. If you’re not familiar, picture 10-second book trailers, and videos of women crying as they throw a copy of a tragic romance across the room. And it works—the Times piece reported that sales for one such tragic romance, Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles, is currently selling about 10,000 copies per week, a nine-time increase from its best sales in 2012, when the novel won the Orange Prize.
“Many Barnes & Noble locations around the United States have set up BookTok tables displaying titles like ‘They Both Die at the End,’ ‘The Cruel Prince,’ ‘A Little Life’ and others that have gone viral,” wrote Elizabeth A. Harris. “There is no corresponding Instagram or Twitter table, however, because no other social media platform seems to move copies the way TikTok does.”
Bibliophiles on other social media platforms had a thorny response to that last bit. Bookstagrammers, which is what people who run book-focused Instagram accounts call themselves, spoke out the loudest. “Don’t erase bookstagrammers and BIPOC literary creators because we’ve been here doing the work,” said one of my favorite bookstagrammers, @booksteahenny, in an Instagram story.
“When are you going to write a piece on the ways publishing refuses to pay bookstagrammers?” wrote popular bookstagrammer and host of books podcast, The Stacks Pod, Traci Thomas. “You could talk about the ways bookstagrammers of color help make Black and brown authors bestsellers and are constantly told by publishers that they don’t have the money to compensate these readers of color for their efforts in successfully marketing their books.”
The literary community on Instagram, particularly readers of color, objected to the Times’ erasure of their hard work and the willingness for publishing representatives to say, on the record, that they pay TikTokers for their publicity. In response, Thomas hosted a virtual town hall on April 14, that brought together bookstagrammers, publishing industry experts, booksellers, and representatives of indie presses to address those criticisms.
Instagram might not be netting the same book sales and TikTok, but, its creators argue, its engagement with authors and texts is more in depth and proven over years’ of hard work. For example, one black bookstagrammer, Crystal Forte of @melanatedreader, led a summer-long buddy read of Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning and the Stamped Remix, co-written with Jason Reynolds. Starting on Juneteenth and lasting through the end of July, Forte planned read-alongs for both books, including reading schedules, annotation guides, trivia, Q&As and giveaways. She curated and hosted live discussions for each part for each book, breaking it down into adult midday, adult evening, and YA discussions. It was an incredible amount of unpaid work that resulted in, Forte reported in the town hall, Stamped’s selling out on Amazon twice.
“Folks are asking to be paid for cover reveals. When you’re doing the cover reveal, the publisher is giving you the specific set of directions…that they have researched. Perhaps even a giveaway. It’s a lot of labor for the people who do them,” said Reggie Bailey of @reggiereads. “If I slide into a publisher’s DMs, and I ask for a book, I don’t wanna be paid for that. You just sent me a book. But if you ask me to go live with Malcom Wright, that should come with a payment. The publisher asked me for that for a reason.”
“If we’re providing you with access to the author or books for a giveaway, is that not also bringing engagement to your channel? Is that not mutually beneficial?” responded Sienna Farris, vice president of multicultural marketing at Simon & Schuster.
“Oftentimes I’m asked to do a live, and I have a larger following than the author,” said Thomas. “So it’s not mutually beneficial…Book sales lead to money for the publisher, author and the bookstore. But not for the time that the bookstagrammer put in.”
For the Times, Harris cites that Random House Children’s Books work with around 100 influencers on TikTok without specifically mentioning pay. Farris, in the town hall, confirmed that Simon & Schuster is not paying any TikTokers for their content.
Whether or not the industry values their time and effort, creators on Instagram and Twitter are sticking around—and even digging in for a fight when it comes to diversifying the industry. A new account, @DearPublishers, has just popped up in the last week in response to Simon & Schuster’s recent decisions to publish Mike Pence and Jonathan Mattingly, one of the cops responsible for the death of Breonna Taylor.
“Simon & Schuster’s lack of accountability…reflects the deep-seated issues of racism and oppressive practices within publishing. For this reason, it is necessary to hold publishing houses accountable to change,” the collective writes on Instagram. “We stand in solidarity with the employees of Simon & Schuster demanding change. We demand that publishers become transparent in their practices. We demand accountability for the companies that, less than a year ago, pledged to ‘stand against racism and violence.’”
“If you see that someone is doing an amazing job on Instagram, especially BIPOC, and publishing has this problem with diversity, bring these readers in to be a part of your house,” said Bailey in the town hall. “Getting in the door leads to a lot of different possibilities.”