Publishing panels can be a bit stuffy, but that was far from the case at the latest PubTechConnect event, "Book Lovers on the Internet: Connecting with Readers in Digital Ways," held at New York University on June 12. The event, produced by the Center for Publishing at NYU's School of Professional Studies in conjunction with Publishers Weekly, was packed, and brought some of the internet's leading books personalities under one roof to discuss the internet's effects on literary culture.
The panel was moderated by New York Times social editor and former MashReads podcast host M. J. Franklin, and panelists included Cristina Arreola, the senior books editor at Bustle; Jane K. Lee, senior manager of content and community at Epic Reads; Emma Straub, author of Modern Lovers and The Vacationers, and cofounder and owner of Brooklyn independent bookstore Books Are Magic; and Jess Zimmerman, editor-in-chief of Electric Literature. The group discussed a wide range of internet-focused book-related topics, including whether the internet has changed literary culture for the better or worse, how to effectively use social media to talk about (or promote) books online, how book criticism has changed in the digital era, and which authors were best at using social media as part of their work or brand.
If there was one major takeaway from the evening, it was that all of the panelists believed that the internet has served to expand literary culture and its reach. Straub described literary activity on the web as "a good cocktail party, where it's always busy and you're not the only one there," and Lee noted that readers who might have had a hard time finding others with similar tastes before the age of social media no longer have that problem. "You can really find your tribe online," she said, adding that this makes the internet an ideal tool for "having a one to one conversation with the people who love to talk about books" in a way that allows authors, publishers, and others to really "zero in on readers."
Zimmerman agreed. "Historically, being a book lover off the internet was either very personal," she said, "or very academic. And what the internet allows us to do in changing the way we interact with books is see what people connect with...[,]how people form identity communities, and how those communities affect what they read and how they read it."
Any big forum has its downside, of course. For Straub, that's the needless culture of one-star reviews on sites like GoodReads or Amazon. "Is that the best use of your time?," she asked. "To me, rating things is not the point. The point is finding the books that speak to you and finding the other people who those books speak to—if you want to. Or just enjoying the book."
Enjoyment was a big talking point, and all panelists seemed to concur that the internet's role in books culture was better suited for positive conversation and bridging gaps than for severe judgments. "I think having this dichotomy of good or bad is reductive and not productive for what [Bustle's] audience wants to read about," Arreola said. "Thinking about the Bustle audience is something I spend a lot of time doing....So many books come out every week and there's no way you can do justice to all of them. Not all of them are for our readership." Elaborating, she noted that she worked to make Bustle "a space where you can come and talk about books that you love"—a tactic made easier by the lack of "women's lifestyle brands prioritizing books right now," she said, making exceptions for outlets like Elle and Real Simple.
The personal touch sometimes takes some of the critical edge out of books conversation online. Like many outlets, Bustle is fazing out professional book reviews, and Electric Literature did away with its reviews a couple of years ago now, Zimmerman said. Instead, these websites are prioritizing personal essays from a diverse group of writers, and both of the aforementioned sites have a women-focused editorial strategy.
Which social media platform was best for books discussion was a matter of debate. Arreola prefers Instagram, where Bustle has the most reach, as does Lee. That said, Lee added, "Facebook groups have become a thing over this past year, because it becomes a forum discussion in a way that hasn't existed in a while." Epic Reads, she added, uses their page, "Year of Epic Reads," as a space to present reading challenges every week, such as "Read a book with your favorite color on the cover," or "read a book with the word 'love' in the title." Straub, who was an early adapter to literary Twitter, still prefers that platform, as does Franklin: "Twitter is for sure the Bad Place," he said, "but I cannot stay away." Zimmerman pointed, reluctantly, to Facebook. "We have a two-year-old piece get 200K hits over the past few days over a Facebook post. Facebook is late capitalism—once you succeed, you just keep succeeding, but it's really hard to break into it."
In terms of authors and book-related brands using social media well, some of the names mentioned included Kristen Arnett, Colson Whitehead, Roxane Gay, Elizabeth McCracken, Lauren Groff, Riverhead Books, and Belletrist. And Straub cited Saeed Jones—whose upcoming book How We Fight For Our Lives was a Buzz Book at this year's BookExpo—as a perfect example of how internet culture's effect on books has been for the positive. "The gasp in the audience when Saeed Jones's name was mentioned is because of the internet," she said, "and that's only good."