Have books become a brand? In the first of a planned series of webinars focusing on branding as a metaphor for modern times, the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) hosted a conversation aimed at illuminating how books have become recognizable brands. Jarrett Fuller, contributing editor to AIGA's Eye on Design publication, moderated a discussion between graphic designer Anna Jordan; Jack Cheng, author of See You in the Cosmos; and Alana Pockros, engagement editor at the Nation.

The idea for the conversation came from Pockros’s essay on the topic. “When Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You came out, I was noticing that a lot of writers I followed on Twitter were receiving galleys with boxes of merch, like hats and tote bags,” she said. It caused her to dig deeper, and she realized that books were in fact part of a larger conversation—one that’s so easily forgotten given the sometimes perceived “smallness” of the publishing industry and literature at large. To that point, Jordan explained, “It’s kind of amazing to see, for example, Chip Kidd’s design for Jurassic Park become the icon for a movie, only to then become tattooed on a fan’s body.”

The design of the book cover, and all matters of working with the art and production department, tends to continue unabated without a direct line of marketing strategy for branding a book for shareability on such social media platforms as Instagram and TikTok. Still, there has been an increase in interest in publishers looking to gain influencer support through the creation of early buzz through exclusive swag.

“Publishers use [merchandise and swag] to advertise,” Pockros says. “There’s all these communities [on social media] that are dedicated to showcasing what galleys and swag they’ve received from publishers.”

Author Jack Cheng started his career by self-publishing his book, which was successfully funded through a Kickstarter campaign at a time when crowdfunding books was still largely unheard of. He has since gone on to publish with traditional publishers. Being in the self-publishing trenches before the advent of Bookstagram and BookTok, Cheng said, he has noted that “there was already a standard in 2017” for cover designs that stood out on social media “that has only gotten more visible over time.”

Panelists discussed whether social media is the reason for books becoming brandable. Though branding, they agreed, didn’t seem like a prevalent concern during the production process in their experience, it certainly exists, they said, for authors, and how they position themselves on various platforms. “It’s hard to not see yourself as a brand,” Cheng explains. “The biggest thing on a Stephen King book cover is his name.” In other words, it’s part of the job, and many authors have been active on social media to project a certain persona.

In advertising language, a brand is contingent on devices like logos and slogans, yet with books, the brand extends across both the object and the author, including the conversations surrounding the book. “When Kaia Jordan Gerber shared a picture of herself reading Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts on social media, it brought up the conversation about the ‘status galley,’” noted Pockros, explaining how, in recent times, books have become an intellectual status symbol for celebrities and other noteworthy names. “People form parasocial relationships which adds to the branding of a book,” she added.

Though books are indeed being branded - made into status symbols - there is a sense of excitement factoring into the conversation surrounding books that end up being so visualized on social media and in public. “I feel very cynical about it, but if people are getting excited about literature, I think that’s awesome,” Pockros said. Cheng and Jordan both echoed the sentiment, with Jordan going on to express optimism for both the book and the book cover as ongoing brands: “It re-enforces that books aren’t going anywhere,” she said. “We’re celebrating books now more than ever.”