As bookstagrammers and YouTube stars continue to gain popularity, publishers are increasingly turning to these online influencers to spread the word about their books. And at a November 14 PubTechConnect breakfast event, organized by Publishers Weekly and the NYUSPS Center for Publishing, a panel of experts shared their views on what’s working and what isn’t working when it comes to planning and executing influencer campaigns—and perhaps most importantly, how to tell the difference.

“I think we all like to think about influencer campaigns as being free marketing and publicity,” said Kristin Fassler, v-p, director of integrated marketing for Simon & Schuster’s Atria Publishing Group, who moderated the day’s program. “But even if we’re not spending a lot of money on influencer outreach, it is a huge investment of an even more valuable resource—and that’s time. It takes a lot of time to find and research these influencers, to cultivate them, and to build a relationship of trust so that you can deliver an effective pitch that will motivate them to go out there and spread good words about your book.”

Fassler explained that Atria’s influencer campaigns tend to focus more on volume—that is, creating a lot of “touch points” for potential readers—which helps create brand awareness and generate sales. But she also acknowledged that each book is different and that some books may benefit from targeted campaigns geared toward specific audiences.

“Given that it is still something of an emerging technique, it’s hard to say that every book needs an influencer campaign,” said Leslie Prives, senior director of consumer engagement and analytics at Penguin Random House. She talked about the kinds of books that benefit most from PRH’s influencer campaigns—for example, titles that have already reached those who get PRH email newsletters or follow PRH social media accounts but still need a boost, and, on the flip side, titles that need to reach an audience that doesn’t interact with the publisher at all. Prives also spoke about reaching out to influencers on sites such as Goodreads ahead of publication, a practice she said not only helps build buzz for forthcoming titles but can offer insight into how best to market a book. “There are books where we as publishers want to let the readers lead the message about how the book might be promoted,” she noted.

Suzanne Skyvara, v-p of communications for Goodreads, said publishers should be reaching out to Goodreads members, but judiciously. Publishers need to do their homework, and then reach out to Goodreads community members in “a very personalized” fashion, she added—even if that means many hours spent sifting through the Goodreads “shelves” or parsing reviews. “It’s a lot of work,” Skyvara noted, echoing Fassler’s earlier observation. “But remember, you’re going in for the long-haul here. You’re going to build relationships over time with these people.” And the key to success in any influencer campaign, she stressed, is “trust and authenticity.”

Influencer marketing traces its roots to industries such as fashion, beauty, and luxury travel, where it is now a prime marketing tool. But books, the panelists suggested, are also a good fit for the approach—especially since people who read tend to be very passionate about books.

Brittany Hennessy, author of Influencer: Building Your Personal Brand in the Age of Social Media and cofounder of Carbon, a tech firm that builds solutions for influencers, told attendees that, if the goal of a campaign is to capture direct sales, then it needs influencers with 10,000 or more followers on Instagram (the threshold for activating the platform’s swipe-up purchasing function). But, she added, there are many influencers below that threshold “who can create great content” that publishers can then repurpose—“which, I think, is something people always forget to use influencer marketing for,” she said. “Once an influencer makes that photo and lets you use it, you can now disseminate that photo. And influencer-created content works better than brand-created content, always, always, always.”

Hennessy urged publishers to look broadly at which influencers might work for them. “I think something that every industry does wrong is that they only look for influencers who are in their industry,” she said. “Plenty of people read who never talk about reading. You really can reach out to anybody, as long as they like what you’re talking about.”

And the thing about books, observed Karah Preiss, cofounder of Belletrist, an online community for readers created with actress Emma Roberts, is that reading has a positive image on social media. “There’s a number of young girls starting their own bookstagram accounts because they want to show people that they are reading,” Preiss said. “We want to appeal to those girls.”

For Belletrist, that means cultivating a hip approach. “We don’t want to look like a Target ad, or TJ Maxx,” Preiss noted. “I’ve always said, ‘Let’s be more Supreme for books than whatever is not Supreme for books.’ ”

So far, so good, Preiss said—books and reading are taking off on Instagram. “There is such enthusiasm—especially because, on social media, it is so hard to cut through the noise, and I think being a reader gives people something to say,” she added. “It’s not just posting a selfie. Being a reader can really set you apart.”

And when publishers hit the wall in their organic influencer outreach efforts, there is always the option of paying for help. “Every industry says they don’t have a lot of budget—that’s a common thread,” said Adam Small, cofounder of digital marketing firm Southern Made. But, Small added, planning can make getting help more affordable.

The panel agreed that influencer marketing has been positive for publishers, and Fassler said she expects it will continue to grow as publishers sharpen their focus and develop metrics for evaluating campaigns. “We know there are lots of consumers hungry for a new read, and we also know that word of mouth is the most compelling driver of book sales,” she noted. “I think influencer campaigns bring those things together.”