There has always been an immense amount of pressure on publishing houses in terms of scheduling, consistently releasing and, most importantly, promoting new books. This pressure has only been intensified by COVID-19 and the huge backlog of books. The Bookseller announced that on September 3, over 250 hardback books will be released. With these books being published during a pandemic, combined with the sparse number of outside advertisements being used due to prospective readers staying at home, there is more pressure than ever on marketing books online. Has this put more stress on the importance of having a large online following for authors? In this week’s issue, we look at just how vital social media is for attracting readers to pick up your book.
The comparison of Bernardine Evaristo and Margaret Atwood illustrates how an author’s following influences their novel’s marketing campaign significantly. Prior to 2019, Evaristo had published eight works, two of which had been adapted into BBC Radio 4 plays. To contrast, Atwood had eighty-three published works since her career began in 1969, and The Handmaid’s Tale was adapted into a hugely successful television show in 2017. Imagery from the TV show was drawn on heavily during the marketing campaign for The Testaments. The campaign began with a tweet from Atwood announcing the book in 2018. It included a global press conference, a special edition Sunday Times Style magazine, and culminated with a Jack Arts stunt involving eight ‘handmaids’ walking through the streets of London to Waterstones Piccadilly to begin sales at midnight.
In contrast, very little detail can be found on the marketing campaign for Girl, Woman, Other. Evaristo even joked during her Booker acceptance speech that she had never made her editors much money. These feminist books, both published during the same year and both through imprints of Penguin Random House, went on be jointly awarded the Booker Prize in 2019. This accomplishment could suggest that the marketing campaigns were based on the strength of the author’s following, not on the strength of the novel itself.
There is always an element of risk involved when publishing a book. Although there is plenty of analysis based on how similar books have performed in the past, it’s still difficult to know how much engagement a new release will get. One way to easily determine how a new release can reach many people is to use the author’s social media; if they have a large following they will likely receive more publicity for a new book.
As publishers rely heavily on data, the analytic insights on Instagram or Facebook are a ready-made data set for publishers to estimate the reach of advertisement for a new release. This has given rise to the “influencer” book, with examples such as Mrs Hinch, who has over 3.5 million Instagram followers, and has had several books that have topped the bestseller charts in the previous year. Perhaps this is a way of engaging with a new audience for publishers; people who don’t typically follow book news or are not avid readers, and are more interested in a particular influencer’s niche are attracted to these types of books, as they are dedicated fans of this particular influencer. This would suggest that having a large following on social media means you are more likely to get a book deal, and achieve huge sales.
However, Kim Kardashian, arguably one of the biggest celebrities in the world, with a following of over 183 million, created a book of her selfies that sold only 40,000 copies worldwide. This serves as a prime example that followers and engagement on social media do not equal a bestseller, and both the quality and the relevance of the book have to be taken into account. Mrs Hinch’s book aligned closely with her brand, whereas Kardashian’s, while aligning with the brand, did not offer any extra value to a reader. Publishing cannot base its success on follower counts, as although this is an important (and cheap) marketing tool, you cannot rely on this alone to sell books.
Therefore, we must question: has social media changed the way books are published, or perhaps why they are published? If an author has a small number of followers are they less entitled to a marketing campaign? In order for the book industry to move forward, it is important for publishers to encourage the promotions of books based on their own merit, rather than the authors’ followers count before small, lesser known authors are unable to market their work.
One way of combating this is to focus on what you may have missed: have a look at The Bookseller’s list of September releases and pick out books you perhaps wouldn’t have chosen before, check out what other people are reading on GoodReads or the recommendations of friends, and rely less on what you have seen on social media.