For most of publishing history, there was one dominant mode of literary publicity: the book review. The major—and most prestigious—consumer book review outlets have changed little over the past hundred or so years. The Atlantic opened its doors in 1857; the Nation in 1865; the New York Times Book Review in 1896; the Times Literary Supplement in 1902; the New Republic in 1914; the New Yorker in 1925; the New York Review of Books and London Review of Books in 1963 and 1979, respectively. The vocation of book reviewing was, and in many ways still is, an ivory tower, an erudite field that was nearly impossible to break into without the proper connections or bylines.
The exclusivity of the field has long been a point of contention for authors and reviewers alike. In 1846, in the magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book, Edgar Allan Poe published a six-article series entitled “The Literati of New-York City,” in which he railed against the “literary quacks” in New York who were shaping public literary opinion. The attention of book reviews’ editors, he said, was “too often entirely engrossed by politics or other ‘business’ matter,’ ” so that unduly “favorable notices” had become common. Meanwhile, an author like Nathaniel Hawthorne was “scarcely recognised by the press.” In 1888, one PW contributor considered the “spectre of the book reviewer,” hinting at the enigmatic and inaccessible role book reviewing had taken on within the culture.
In 1916, under the title “Review Copies and the Trade,” PW ran a thorough and clear-eyed assessment of the influence of book reviews as a form of publicity:
“What service does the book reviewer perform in book-trade economy and for whom does he perform it?... The answer to the question is furnished by a collection of the book advertisements of such journals as the New Republic, the Nation, Scribner’s, and the Book Review, or, in fact, any other medium carrying advertising of books already published. Fully one-half of the titles will be found to be followed by one or more literary quotations from reviews.... The review may often furnish the selling slogan for the book, while even a candid and unabashed ‘slam’ may frequently contribute, or be made to contribute, to sales.”
The breadth of book publicity efforts, then, were severely limited when literary tastes and discourse were shaped by a small, elite group of reviewers at legacy media institutions. In 1911, one PW contributor complained that many U.S. cities’ local publications did not publish book reviews of their own—“They prefer to copy verbatim from the New York... papers.” And even more contemporary outlets founded with the aim of making criticism more rigorous and varied, such as the New York Review of Books and London Review of Books, continued this tradition, entrusting the powers of book publicity into the hands of the few.
Enter Digital Media
In May 2002, Newsweek published“Will the Blogs Kill Old Media?” At the time, it didn’t seem impossible. The blog (a truncation of the portmanteau weblog) burgeoned during the turn of the century, drawing readers away from traditional outlets and toward internet personalities. 1999 marked the launch of the platforms Blogspot, Blogger, and LiveJournal, with WordPress and TypePad following in 2003.
Soon, the new medium was stratified into genres—fashion blogs, mommy blogs, travel blogs. Within the world of publishing, and specifically book publicity, the emergence of the literary blog was nothing short of revolutionary. Bookish blogs cropped up one after another—Bookslut (and, of course, Gawker) in 2002, the Millions in 2003, HTMLGiant in 2008, the Awl and the Rumpus in 2009, Unwrapping Romance in 2011. These were outlets for voicy, literary-minded young writers eager to share their opinions. Blogging not only circumvented the “gatekeeping” power of anointed literary critics at a handful of publications; it also filled a growing void as traditional avenues of literary coverage began to narrow. The Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post ended their standalone book review sections in 2008 and 2009, respectively; by 2010, the Chicago Tribune, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Boston Globe, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and Cleveland Plain Dealer drastically reduced their book coverage.
Literary blogs quickly gained followings. Publicists took notice and began to pay as much attention to casual bloggers, most of whom didn’t yet grasp their newfound cultural cachet, as they did to Times critics. “The first time someone emailed me to ask if I wanted to see a forthcoming book,” former Millions editor Lydia Kiesling told Vulture in 2019, “I was so flattered and amazed, and I didn’t understand that it didn’t mean that I had to do something with it!”
Getting a book into the hands of a literary blogger could mean getting it in front of the eyes of countless readers who trusted that blogger’s taste. Recurring features like the Millions’ “Most Anticipated” and “Year in Reading” lists compiled recommendations from contributors whose praises sometimes ended up as book blurbs on jacket covers. For publicists, these sites created concentrated communities of like-minded readers to market to. “Places like HTMLGiant and Bookslut serve as a sort of hub for what’s going on, and so many writers have websites and blogs,” author Shane Jones told PW in 2010. “It harbors community.”
Few literary bloggers were paid. Many were young, scrappy, and content to be compensated in “exposure” as they began their careers. With no financial interests at stake or media legacies to uphold, they could share their honest opinions and their authentic personalities. “Bloggers have helped create a new literary discourse that benefits readers, writers, and critics,” Millions founder C. Max McGee declared on the website in 2007, and “a place where reading and discussing books for pleasure can augment the sometimes joyless drudgery that newspaper criticism has become.”
But one cannot live on exposure alone. By the mid-2010s, many literary blogs were more than a decade old, and their aging writers sought financial stability elsewhere. In 2014, Sarah J. Robbins reported on the state of the “blogosphere” for PW, speaking to bloggers and publicists alike.
“Many writers with distinctive voices have gone on to pursue paid bylines, and shifted daily reflections to social media,” independent publicist Lauren Cerand told Robbins. Indeed, such bloggers as Kiesling, Jessa Crispin, and Maude Newton began writing for traditional media outlets around this time. YA author Maureen Johnson noted that, by 2014, many online writers were also shifting away from straightforward reviews and toward a more participatory model involving “discussions that begin with a new release but quickly divert into real-time political, societal, and cultural dialogue.”
This interactive style of blogging was facilitated by the dawn of “microblogging” on such platforms as Twitter and Tumblr, which launched in 2006 and 2007 respectively. Johnson told Robbins at the time that she was “almost entirely on Twitter and Tumblr.” Tracy van Straaten, then v-p of trade book publicity at Scholastic, told Robbins that publicists “now talk about the complete social media footprint,” which includes both a writer’s blog posts and social media posts. “As much as we love coverage on the site, bloggers’ social media reach is just as important or even more important,” Ecco Press marketing manager Ben Tomek told Robbins, explaining that sometimes a tweet is as good as a review where marketing is concerned.
Twitter quickly became an essential tool not only for literary critics but for authors and publishers as well. In May 2009, PW tracked Big Five publishers’ Twitter followings. (“Although everyone’s still a little unsure of just how valuable a Twitter following is... celebrities, news organizations, and entertainment conglomerates are scrambling to get more followers on the social networking site,” we wrote.) PW found that Knopf, Grand Central, and Little, Brown had 1,581, 3,726, and 5,999 followers, respectively; as of this writing, those numbers are 285,000, 76,000, and 490,000. At the time, Hachette and Macmillan did not even have Twitter accounts; as of this writing, they have 55,000 and 25,000 followers, respectively.
In 2010, PW’s Rachel Deahl furthered this investigation with “Who’s Got Pull in the Publishing Twitterverse.” She found that, while most major imprints were finally on Twitter, “some savvy indies were more adept at using the social networking service than the big houses.” Knopf’s Twitter, which grew 15-fold between 2009 and 2010, had found special success because it wasn’t “just about book promotion” but also tried to “engage followers in a larger conversation about literature”—now a normal tactic for brand accounts in the book business. In 2012, PW published an article headlined “Publisher Twitter Followings Explode.” In it, we highlighted 16 publishers whose combined Twitter followings had grown 20 times from 2009 to 2012.
Once a social media presence became mandatory for book critics and book publishers, authors followed suit. Publicists pushed authors to establish online presences and cultivate followings—in other words, to do their own publicity. This meant not only promoting their books on social media but also crafting a public identity to attract potential readers. “Authors need to work just as hard as their publicists to promote their work,” a 2014 op-ed for PW explained. “Coverage by a wide network of bloggers, a Facebook post by a celebrity author, or a viral op-ed in Huffington Post gives you a lot of exposure and often translates to sales.” This remains true today: “A novelist friend told me that social media is pretty much mandatory these days,” wrote Julie Poole in a 2021 Soapbox for PW. “Publishers expect writers to become their own publicists and marketing team.”
Authors’ followings were soon factored into book deals. “These days,” wrote Julie McCarron and Michele Matrisciani in a 2019 PW article, “a huge following on social media... is a must for a book deal,” and the number of one’s followers prompt publishers to green-light book proposals, since a large following makes for more reliable publicity. Some publishers attempted to reverse engineer book deals by combing social media—including YouTube and Instagram, which launched in 2005 and 2010, respectively—for new projects, since established fan bases meant built-in publicity.
Readers Enter the Picture
At the same time, readers themselves became “content creators” on social media. Just as blogs self-stratified into genres, users on YouTube and Instagram created their own subcommunities. On YouTube, enthusiastic readers carved out a corner called BookTube; on Instagram, Bookstagram.
Since the advent of the internet, readers have used various websites to stay connected and talk about books. “Consumers started telling each other about books with Amazon customer reviews a decade ago,” a December 2008 PW article noted. “Now they’re doing the same at BN.com and through general-interest gathering points like MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter, and at a plethora of sites like LibraryThing, Shelfari, and Goodreads, dedicated to book conversation.” (Publishers now regularly arrange book giveaways through Goodreads to get books into the hands of consumer reviewers.)
But on BookTube and Bookstagram, readers cultivated their own brands and online followings, becoming what we now call “influencers.” Like the trusted and relatable literary bloggers before them, BookTubers and Bookstagrammers became a key source for book recommendations for many readers. (As of this writing, there are 78,000 videos and 8,800 channels that use the #BookTube hashtag on YouTube, 73,290,494 posts under the #Bookstagram hashtag on Instagram.)
On YouTube, BookTubers’ videos—which mostly comprise unpacking book hauls, reviewing books, and making recommendations—have such titles as “Books you NEED to Read in 2022 *my favorite books that you’ll LOVE”; “I read 13 popular books... you need to read these!!”; “The only books I have ever given 5 stars”; “Book shopping haul | new books + new reads”; “Books I’ve read recently! Review & book talk.” BookTubers might even make videos about other BookTubers, reading their favorite books or critiquing their content. Such sites as She Reads and Book Riot have published lists of the “best” BookTubers.
Bookstagram, which postdates YouTube by seven years, largely supplanted BookTube. Such outlets as Buzzfeed, PopSugar, and even the Celadon Books website have published lists of the “best” Bookstagrammers. Bookstagram content, for the most part, tends to comprise photos of books against pretty backgrounds, with captions containing the Bookstagrammers’ thoughts on said books.
This simple combination can be potent. Popular Bookstagrammers can amass tens and even hundreds of thousands of followers, and some Bookstagrammers have even used their success to break into publishing proper; Morgan Hoit (@nycbookgirl), for instance, is now a senior marketing manager at the Random House Publishing Group, while Yahdon Israel (@yahdon) is a senior editor at Simon & Schuster. And recognition for Bookstagram’s influence continues to grow. In 2020, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators published a guide to “Understanding Bookstagram.” Through the CreateSpace independent publishing platform, Amber Nicole Payette published the 2017 book Post Your Best Bookstagram Photos Ever: Create Unique Content and Get Noticed.
This invites the question: noticed by whom? Usually, the answer is publicists. “@flatiron_books has blessed me with what is almost definitely my most anticipated book of 2022,” recently posted one Bookstagrammer with 41,000 followers, under a photo of her hand triumphantly clutching a copy of Julia Armfield’s Our Wives Under the Sea. This sort of promotion has become a standard publicity tactic—what influencers call “PR mail.” Publicists may scroll through Instagram to identify literary influencers with followings that would complement certain titles and send them galleys. But whereas early literary bloggers were surprised to receive such offers from publicists, today’s literary influencers actively court them.
Then, in 2016, came TikTok. As of 2021, the video-sharing platform has surpassed Instagram as the most popular app among young Americans. And TikTok’s literary segment, BookTok, has garnered more influence
than BookTube and Bookstagram ever did. In 2021, this reporter wrote a story for PW entitled “How TikTok Makes Backlist Books into Bestsellers,” using Colleen Hoover’s 2016 novel It Ends with Us, published by Atria, as a case study of the app’s unprecedented bookselling power. As of this writing, videos with the #BookTok hashtag have racked up a combined 42 billion views, and videos with the hashtag #ItEndsWithUs have 10 million (most of them clips of young women crying after finishing the book).
“From a marketing and publicity perspective, we jumped on the TikTok trend as soon as possible,” says Ariel Fredman, Atria senior associate director of publicity. To leverage the app’s influence, the publicity department connects with BookTok influencers to get books into the right hands. “It’s not just about sharing books,” Fredman adds. “It’s about sharing the right books to cultivate relationships.” (“One of the fun parts of my job is scrolling through my FYP on TikTok and randomly finding someone cool to send a galley to!” a marketing coordinator at an independent publisher recently tweeted.) Fredman also tailors her publicity efforts to the Atria books that are currently trending, keeping them “top of mind when talking to media and pitching trend stories.”
In the case of It Ends with Us and other books anointed “BookTok favorites,” including many of Hoover’s backlist titles, popularity on the app directly translated to sales. The common TikTok refrain “#BookTokMadeMeReadIt” is no exaggeration: in 2021, the year It Ends with Us started circulating on the app, Hoover’s print unit sales were 693% higher than in 2020. In response to BookTok’s selling power, Barnes & Noble stores across the country have erected “BookTok shelves” for shoppers to browse the app’s most buzzed-about books. Unique to TikTok, B&N director of category management Shannon DeVito says, is “the staying power of these titles once they start trending on the app.” The bump in sales that follows a book’s popularity on BookTube or Bookstagram, on the other hand, is usually just a “flash in the pan.”
Beyond the designated BookTok section, many B&N stores also group and display books that are emblazoned with stickers from celebrity book clubs. Book clubs have been around for decades, but today’s major book clubs are a far cry from the pay-to-play model of the Book of the Month club and other subscription programs, although those continue to find success. Instead, in the wake of Oprah Winfrey’s staggeringly successful Oprah’s Book Club—a club that has taken several forms over the years, including its latest, paired with a streaming talk show on Apple TV+—there are more celebrity book clubs than one can count. These include Reese Witherspoon’s Reese’s Book Club, Jenna Hager Bush’s Read with Jenna, and Sarah Jessica Parker’s Book Club Central—all major sales drivers—in addition to clubs led by young, digitally savvy actors Emma Watson, Emma Roberts, and Kaia Gerber. “There’s something beautiful about a celebrity book club that allows us to imagine having a conversation with Oprah, Jessica Pressman, author of Bookishness: Loving Books in a Digital Age, told PW in April 2021.
Of course book clubs are nothing new. “Publishers have nothing to fear, but much to gain from the multiplication of book clubs,” PW declared in 1879. “There are thousands and thousands of persons who through the agency of book clubs might be made cooperative purchasers of books, who now never enter the market at all.” But celebrity book clubs, which are largely hosted digitally, transcend geography to bring books to the attention of readers and reviewers across the country.
In 2019, Vox deemed Reese’s Book Club “publishing’s secret weapon,” after its selection of Where the Crawdads Sing led to an astronomical bump in sales; that same year, PW selected Witherspoon as a PW Notable. Witherspoon picks one book each month, posts it to the @reesesbookclub account (which as of this writing has 2.2 million followers), and promotes it for the rest of that month, which includes getting a yellow sticker slapped on the book’s cover. “While a Witherspoon selection doesn’t necessarily mean a title will become an immediate bestseller,” PW wrote, “it does mean a jump in sales, and a selection often provides a spark that can drive future sales.” Even the simple act of posting about a title can have a tangible impact. “One of the biggest things for a single book can be a major celebrity posting about it on social media,” Morgan Hoit, then associate marketing manager of Avid Reader Press, told PW in April 2021.
Despite the newfound power of celebrity within book publicity—that a single Instagram post from the right person can bump book sales, for instance—the practice of book reviewing, which also influences literary consumption, has been largely democratized. Publicists are eager to connect with readers and writers—as well as podcasters, YouTubers, Instagrammers, and TikTokkers—outside of establishment media, who now wield considerable power of their own. This is largely thanks to the book blogs that blazed a trail for nonestablishment reviewing in the internet’s earliest days.
Today, most of the influential literary blogs of the 2000s are defunct; their home pages look as if petrified in amber. When Bookslut shut down in 2016, founder Jessa Crispin wrote in the Guardian expressing nostalgia for “the early days before money invaded the internet—the early 2000s in particular.” She recalled a time when the nascent internet allowed writers more freedom, and “the online book culture was run mostly by enthusiasts and amateurs, people who were creating blogs and webzines simply for the pleasure of it, rather than to build a brand.”
The concept of the “brand,” however, is not going anywhere, especially when it comes to book publicity. At every level of the publishing industry, brands must be cultivated—by publishers, authors, critics, bloggers, and influencers alike. Moreover, as the internet becomes increasingly participatory, consumer-driven book promotion looks to be the future. Readers are looking for genuine recommendations from other readers, which is the kind of publicity that money can’t buy. Of course, this kind of publicity can be engineered—strategically putting books into the hands of celebrities, influencers, and consumer reviewers—but organic word-of-mouth is still a powerful force.
It is worth noting, however, that this more democratic mode of book publicity is not all good news for publishers’ publicity departments. Without a small, elite group of reviewers single-handedly shaping book coverage, responses to books have become more diffuse, therefore harder to control. The “literary quacks” Poe bemoaned for being too caught up in politics and business at the expense of hard-hitting criticism—they no longer hold all the cards. While publicists can place books into the hands of influencers, they cannot necessarily control their responses to books—or, for that matter, the responses of other readers with Twitter accounts. A book can earn praise in a major publication or receive a celebrity book club’s seal of approval but generate a groundswell of negative criticism online, as we saw with the 2018 novel American Dirt (the book was lauded by the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times and selected for Oprah’s Book Club, but attracted widespread accusations of racism on Twitter and in other publications). A publicity department can no longer shape a book’s narrative when that narrative is in the hands of countless readers and writers with online platforms.
With the proliferation of publicity channels—legacy media and grassroots digital publications; major celebrities and niche influencers; professional book reviewers and amateur Goodreads reviewers—promoting books has never been so multifaceted, so far-reaching, and so out of publishers’ hands.