Welcome back to Smith Publicity’s Industry Innovations Series! In this new 12-part blog series, the Smith Publicity team will explore various industry-related topics: from the evolution of self-publishing to the explosion of podcasts to social media and how it’s changed book marketing and much more. Each month, we will discuss how different innovations have evolved and their impact on our work as book publicists and the industry as a whole. Let’s dive in…
How We Market Books in the Online World Today
Today, one of the internet’s driving forces is social media. When we talk about “media,” just a decade ago, we might not have lumped social media into the conversation at all. But in the past 25 years, as we’ve moved quickly and urgently into the digital age, non-traditional mediums like podcasts and social media have begun to usurp the traditional, especially whendiscussingt book publicity.
Social media is still in its infancy, with some of the longest-standing social media sites coming into existence only in the early aughts. You’ll notice that most of the platforms mentioned in this article, and their corresponding bookish communities, came into being well into the 10s. Nevertheless, in the past 25 years, social media sites individually have evolved rapidly to keep up with the attention economy of their users, optimizing and adding features to maintain relevance as much as possible. Utilizing social media, monetization, and the influence of online personalities can do incredible things for books and authors. But how did we suddenly arrive in the strange land of algorithms, trends, and memes?
Realistically, the online book community has existed for as long as there have been personal blogs. However,h blogging hasn’t changed as ferociously as social media, which houses most of the online book community today. In theory, social media hopes to keep us social, providing an unlikely place forthe community in a big, divided world. Book nerds, understandably, began to connect and discuss their favorite thing accordingly online.
It’s important to note here, before we dive further in, that the online book community as we know it today, as it functions on Instagram and TikTok in particular, has young adult readers and the creation of the YA genre specifically to thank. One might even argue that the online book community was the driving force insolidifyingf YA as a genre. With young people able to adapt and intuit the inner workings of such a powerfulcommunication tooln, it’s no wonder that internet culture has been and largely stays consistently withinthe teen culture. And this cultural and generational phenomenon has opened more and more opportunities for books and authors outside of YA fiction as time has progressed.
Without further ado, let’s examine the online book community and how the past 25 years have digitally shaped the book world as we know it.
In 2005, an unassuming video-sharing site called Youtube graced the internet for the first time. Before Youtube morphed into the strange streaming service/social media hybrid that it is today, in the beginning, viewers enjoyed the simplicity of mindless videos like “McNuggets” and “Shoes.” Comedy became a prominent and very successful sect of the platform, prompting creators like Fred and Miranda Sings to create mock vlogs. From these joke accounts,authenticl vlogging accounts began to gain popularity, and the growth of Youtube skyrocketed, reaching its prime between 2012 and 2016.
Made up mostly of pre-teens, teenagers, and young adults, Youtube’s main demographic was young, bored, and hungry for content. And Youtube’s creators, “Youtubers,” of the same demographic, were eager to provide that content. At the time, Facebook’s menial status updates still had the parents of Gen Z and Millennials alike rolling their eyes at their kids for consuming the seemingly random thoughts of peers or strangers on the internet. Today, those “random thoughts” are clearly thoughtful and clearly influential in a generationally unique way that the kids bothsharedg and consuming them at the time understood long before they were ever monetized.Thiss is an extremely sped-up version of Youtube’s strange and enthralling history. I could go on, but we’re here for the books!
Realistically, people have likely been “vlogging” or video blogging since video creation. Vlogging has undoubtedly never been unique to Youtube, but vlogging did shape the platform exponentially. And as sharing your life, thoughts, and interests in the form of videos on the internet gained popularity, naturally, those of us who spend quite a bit of time reading and obsessing over books gravitated toward the vlogging format as well.
Booktube, as it was coined, like most subcommunities on social media sites, doesn’t have an exact origin, but it’s estimated to have become a little less nebulous in 2010. Booktube is a sect of Youtube where the book community could share thoughts in videos or comments about all things books. Creators, or Booktubers, would do everything from reviewing and recommending to more creative ventures like exploring a bookstore or reorganizing their bookshelves on camera by color, for example. This is where verbally reviewing books online found its feet. No longer would a reader have to wait for and read written reviews by reporters they didn’t know. Now, readers could get recommendations from creators they felt they knew personally, and whose opinions and life experiences aligned with their own.
Creating on Booktube started as a hobby, something fun and silly to do to share with your friends or just to pass time. Some even treated it like a video diary of their reading habits, something non-creators could do on platforms like Goodreads. But soon, viewers took interest, audiences began to form into homogeneous fan bases, and Booktubers began making content with more purpose.
Booktube morphed, like all of Youtube, when monetization became part of the equation. The content itself stayed largely the same, but the power and influence of Booktube became a commodity. And the long-winded format of Youtube videos began to bow slightly to short-form content elsewhere.
Instagram came into the internet world at the tail end of 2010, with one of the earliest uses of #bookstagram on an Instagram post dated 2014. Instagram offered social media users visibility, volume, and content viewing efficiency that its predecessors, mainly Facebook and Youtube, were powerless to provide. One might argue that Twitter truly pioneered the short-hand with which most social media platforms trend toward today, as it predates Instagram by 4 years, priming our attention spans to flit from post to post, rather than stay fixed to any one post for too long. In any case, Instagram offers its users a fool-proof posting format and infinitely better discoverability. Compared to Facebook’s community focus and Youtube’s long-formatted videos that require more creation time and dedicated and established audiences, the possibilities of Instagram’s anonymity and posting format allowed anyone to post like an influencer.
Instagram’s visual element is really what set it apart in the online book world. As the online book community began nerding out about mainly visual things like foil page edges, dust jackets, and hardcovers vs paperbacks, as well as posting book covers on their Bookstagram accounts, book covers understandably got a total makeover. We saw an even sharper uptick in this kind of thing when the pandemic began and most shopping moved online.
Now, it’s nothing new that you can tell, even if you aren’t aware of it, what genre a book is (and how old it is, for that matter) just by looking at the cover. Historically, high fantasy covers have always read very differently from self-help, for example. But this focus on visual cues increased when people were no longer picking books physically off of the shelf. The need to grab attention was no longer a competition between your book and the other books at the bookstore. Instead, books on social media have to contend with other book content, on top of the massive amount of content about literally everything else you could ever think of for consumers’ attention. Therefore, these visual genre cues have become more acute and noticeable. The best example might be the romance genre. I challenge you to find a newly released, traditionally published romance that does not have bright or pastel colors and cartoons of the main characters on the cover.
In any case, the Bookstagram community is still alive and well today, perhaps thanks to its willingness to “monkey-see, monkey-do” with its competitors. When Snapchat began gaining traction, Instagram introduced its own version of “Stories,” adding even more functions than its competitor. As TikTok has skyrocketed in popularity, Instagram hastily ushered in its “Reels” feature. All of this in a pretty successful attempt to stay relevant. And as we know, in the game of social media, you stay relevant or you die.
Before we discuss the infamous TikTok, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the main true, book-only platform. There are many other book-focused apps and social media platforms that are emerging (shout out to Storygraph, Copper, and more!), but perhaps the most influential is Goodreads.
Goodreads came on the scene in 2006, and has gone through many phases since. Today, Goodreads as a platform functions very differently from other social media platforms. It’s a place to review books, track your reading habits (and that of your friends), set reading goals, and discover your next read. The yearly reading challenge on Goodreads has become prolific among the online book community, where readers can set a goal of how many books they hope to read and the site automatically lets them know if they’re behind, on time, or ahead of their self-imposed challenge.
The reviewing and rating system on Goodreads has been one of the most influential functions, now making its way onto its recent parent site Amazon, where consumers can view a book’s numbers before hitting that “Buy Now” button. Goodreads has also become a great tool for authors to connect with readers, mainly by running giveaways for their books.
If you are not on TikTok at this point, I applaud your self-control! TikTok naturally filled a void in the market and in our hearts that the departure of Vine (rest in peace) left wide open. Already widespread among young people pre-pandemic, 2020 found the rest of the world itching for entertainment that TikTok was tripping over itself to provide! With everyone staying home, bored, sad, and desperate for lighthearted entertainment, TikTok had ample time to sink its hooks in our wavering attention spans.
BookTok quickly emerged from the cacophony of opinions, education, goofy dances, and overall tomfoolery to be found on TikTok. In a space driven by the serendipity of a spectacular algorithm, BookTokers very easily found each other and their audiences. BookTokers are doing it all! Recommending, reviewing, showing off covers, making jokes about reading habits and tropes, and vlogging like there’s no tomorrow! Because TikTok has offered perhaps the most discoverability of any of the apps mentioned so far, BookTok can be an incredible tool for an author.
On the one hand, TikTok’s algorithm has allowed users to genuinely share previously invisible books with the masses. On the other, TikTok’s powerful and predictable formula has removed some originality in the eyes of the consumer. Because BookTokers are trying to appeal to the formula, users are likely to see the same list of books in a slightly different configuration in every other video. Regardless, the “As Seen on BookTok” shelf at your local bookstore speaks for itself. BookTok is a force to be reckoned with!
The kairos of TikTok’s popularity is important to note here as well. As division and tension continued through 2020 and beyond in the United States, and the pandemic brought us back to the things our busy lives keep us from doing, the sect of TikTok that provided education thrived. This trend made room in the BookTok community for nonfiction in a way we haven’t seen before on social media, where nonfiction and fiction are being recommended almost interchangeably. In some cases, BookTokers are even encouraging primarily fiction readers to try nonfiction!
The Changes Online are Continuous
Whether you have grown up alongside the internet, were thrust automatically into the brave new digital world, or watched it all unfold before your full-grown eyes, the internet is a fascinating place. Aging rapidly, we’ve gone through the early growing pains of the internet in the blink of an eye, and we are growing still! It’s a wonderful time to be an author, with the world at your fingertips, and your audience just a click away. The next 25 years online are sure to be just as exciting!
Written by Shannon Donaghy