By Caitlin Davies, Danielle Hernandez and Georgia Rees
After a powerful resurgence in popularity in recent years, the 2014 New York Times bestseller We Were Liars now has a prequel. Snapped up by Hot Key Books, an imprint of Bonnier Books UK and one of the first publishers to be on TikTok, the prequel to this TikTok sensation already has an innovative marketing campaign brewing around it. This week we interviewed Emma Quick, Senior Marketing Manager at Bonnier Books about the campaign, discussing the different challenges of marketing a prequel, the role of social media marketing in the YA community and the unprecedented influence of Booktok.
You’ve spent a few years working in children’s publishing now, is young adult fiction a particular interest for you? What is your favourite genre to work in?
It’s hard to choose a specific genre as a favourite, but I do absolutely love YA. It’s such an interesting and ever-evolving space, particularly on the marketing side. You have to be extremely on the ball with trends and the interests of young people, where they spend their time and what their core values are. It’s something that really does change from year to year, and that’s what makes our job so fun and creative (although equally quite tricky!).
Could you briefly sum up the process behind putting the campaign together for Family of Liars?
We Were Liars had a massive impact on the YA community when it came out in 2014, and saw a massive resurgence around 2020 on BookTok. It was a polarising book, with some people adoring it and other people just being incredibly angry about the ending. With such a huge readership, our number one priority for the prequel was awareness. We wanted to make sure those super-fans were in on the announcement and cover reveal, to help generate as much buzz as we could pre-publication, and just ensure that everyone knew that the book was coming! The whole campaign had a focus on influencers for that reason, particularly those on TikTok who had helped the 2020 resurgence in popularity. TikTok was crucial to the campaign, so wherever we could we were creating moments throughout the campaign that were “TikTok-able.” From announcement reactions, to extensive ‘in-world’ proof packages that invited readers to return to the world of We Were Liars, plus challenges and readalongs along the way, we gave readers as many opportunities as we could to create content around the books.
We also knew bookseller engagement was going to be a massive factor for the success of Family Of Liars, so we treated booksellers almost as influencers, getting them involved as much as we could throughout the campaign, with messages from E. Lockhart, proof packages and a special invitation to the read along.
E. Lockhart’s signature is a twist that can be incredibly difficult to discuss without spoilers, and Family Of Liars is no exception to this! In the original We Were Liars marketing campaign, the proofs had a phone number to call so you could discuss the twists with someone who had read the book after you reached the “Oh-my-god-WHAT” moment. We wanted to still give people the space to do that without accidentally spoiling the book for the rest of the world, so with every proof and early copy that was sent out, we also sent an in-world “cease and desist” letter “from” the Sinclair family lawyers, linking to a discord channel set up for that purpose and demanding that no spoilers were revealed on any other platforms.
What are the main differences when marketing a prequel rather than a debut novel?
For some prequels (for example Terciel and Elinor by Garth Nix), the prequel can act as an entry-point to the series whether you’ve read the other books or not, which is ideal because you can create a campaign that targets existing fans and new readers too. For Family Of Liars, there is a massive spoiler for We Were Liars on page one, so that’s definitely not the case here! It meant that we had to create a campaign that included We Were Liars, and try our best to ensure no readers accidentally picked up Family Of Liars first. When compared to a debut novel however, it can be easier: E. Lockhart already had a huge fanbase we could tap into for pre-orders and buzz, a lot of which was quite organic. With most debuts, you’re starting from scratch building a fanbase for the author, so you have to do a lot more outreach and buzz-building to create advocates for the book.
Has accommodating to an already existing fanbase created any unexpected challenges or has it been an advantage?
We Were Liars is a perfectly formed standalone, you could argue it didn’t need a prequel… but then you could also argue that an ice cream sundae doesn’t need chocolate sauce and sprinkles – doesn’t mean it isn’t more delicious with it! I was nervous that people wouldn’t want to risk spoiling such a perfect novel by reading the prequel, but luckily with early readers spreading the word that this was a brilliant complement and expansion to the We Were Liars universe (and in fact, some of those original fans actually preferring Family Of Liars), readers were generally intrigued and excited more than they were cautious!
How do you see the role of social media in book marketing?
Word of mouth has always been important when marketing a book – ideally, you want readers to see a book EVERYWHERE – in your advertising, in people’s hands on trains, but also in recommendations from their friends and favourite influencers. Social media is how that’s happening more than ever, particularly with the rise of BookTok. BookTok creators are recommending books in incredible detail, and because of the TikTok interface and algorithm, those videos are showing up on the feeds of new readers outside of their circle of friends. For a publisher, it gives us three brilliant opportunities to push our books: organic owned channels, influencer channels and in-platform paid ads/sponsored posts.
The genre of YA lit has been part of many trends on booktok, the We Were Liars novel especially, how did this factor into your campaign plan?
I’ve talked a little above about the importance of fan engagement for this campaign, with a primarily TikTok focus. We used both paid and organic influencers, and then used that content again within our digital advertising campaign. We’re also lucky enough to have our own TikTok channel with a huge reach (@HotKeyBooks), which meant we could have a social schedule that regularly talked about the book, behind the scenes process and promote engagement.
TikTok also helped us to make this campaign more global; we worked very closely with both the US and Australian publishers to help ensure we were pushing a consistent message across channels, sharing our influencer content and readalong schedules to maximise global reach. We find that just because a TikTokker is in the UK, it doesn’t mean their video hasn’t got the potential to go global and impact book sales across the world. The way TikTok works as a platform lends itself to international publishers working much more closely with one another.
What would be your biggest piece of advice to marketers when incorporating social channels like TikTok into their campaign plans? What are the common pitfalls to avoid?
My advice would be to think as creatively as you can. TikToks (and social in general) shouldn’t feel like adverts, even if they are. Making sure you’re offering something of value in all of your content, whether it’s entertainment, immersion in the world of the book or a sneaky author insight. Work closely with influencers who fit your target audience and are trusted voices, and try not to put all of your eggs in one basket. It can be tempting to just go with one influencer with a huge following, but there’s no guarantee that video won’t flop. I try to work with at minimum three influencers in each campaign, and ensure we get usage rights to use those videos as adverts too.
I also try to keep in touch with what makes me put a book on my TBR – even marketers can be convinced by the right ads and TikToks, so make a note of anything you think is special or works really well!
Has digital surpassed more traditional channels for marketing YA fiction?
I would say absolutely yes – the current generation of YA readers (by that I mean the assumed age of YA readers which is generally 13–18, although we know readership goes significantly older than that) are digital natives, more so than any other generation before them, and spending a major part of their day online. When I’m planning a campaign, the first thing I do is identify the audience a book is for, and the next thing I do is figure out where to find them – more often than not it’s online. That said, I’d like to give a nod to schools and libraries here, which will always remain an important component of all children’s books campaigns!
This is also a generation far more conscious of what advertising is, and so it takes creativity to engage with them on a meaningful level. Not to hark back to TikTok, but it does give you an opportunity to be creative and exciting with your marketing and convince them to read your books and interact with the brand in a way that doesn’t feel so much like an ad.
Finally, digital has so much more room for testing, experimenting and optimising. Marketers may be creative, but they also have to be data-driven, and using the results and data from digital advertising campaigns can make your (often small!) budget reach a lot more people from your actual target audience, not just more people.