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That #wonderful world of Bookstagram

Appealing: A book displayed in cozy boho retro style   | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStock

Every evening, when Mridula Gupta returns home from her job at a digital marketing company in Pune, she either spends her time reading books or setting up perfect flat lays featuring books to post on Instagram. In all her photos, the books sit snugly on her favourite prop, an ochre-coloured sweater, amid white roses, scribbled notes, elaborate bookmarks, and coffee cups with latte art.

Gupta, 26, is particular about the colour scheme of her photos — she prefers “warm filters with yellow hues”. It takes her at least three-four hours to curate a week’s worth of photos. “Instagram is a visual medium, so photography is important,” she says. “Apart from the books, of course.”

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Gupta is one of the thousands jostling for space on ‘Bookstagram’. In this world, books are not just markers of intellect but importantly, objects of art. Book lovers post almost exclusively about books, often throwing in tousled sheets and dainty tea cups into their photos for good measure, all to attract an audience. Once bookstagrammers crack the code of popularity, their ‘followers’ multiply. Followers become their ammunition to approach publishers and request them for books to review for free.

“Numbers really matter,” says Gupta, who took three years to get nearly 10K followers. “Publishers first ask you how many followers you have, how many people see your ‘stories’. Only then do they give you books to review. But once you have

An image from the Instagram profile of Mridula Gupta.

An image from the Instagram profile of Mridula Gupta.   | Photo Credit: Instagram

built a rapport with them, they send you a list of their new releases every month. And they give you a copy of the book(s) you want. We review the book(s) on Instagram or Twitter or Goodreads or Amazon or our blogs — sometimes on several of these platforms. It’s an unspoken rule that you have to review the book on at least one social media platform.”

Instant connection

Given its obvious appeal and wide reach, #Bookstagram has transformed the way books, especially works of fiction, are marketed, read and reviewed today. Publishers continue to send piles of books to traditional media houses for reviews, but they also spend time collaborating with bibliophiles on various online platforms to promote books in unique ways.

This model combining offline and online mediums is what works today, says Shabnam Srivastava, Deputy General Manager Marketing, HarperCollins India. “Reviews, testimonies and word of mouth matter a lot, whether they’re on community platforms like Goodreads, a marketplace like Amazon, or a tribe-led space of influencers on Instagram,” she says.

Unlike the analytical, often long, and sometimes acerbic reviews in traditional media publications, book posts on Instagram are short, snappy, and emotional. They have an instant appeal, especially in this age where the notoriously distracted goldfish is said to have better attention span than us.

“Imagine hanging out with friends at tea time, but on social media. That’s what Bookstagram is and that’s what makes it so relatable,” says Resh Susan, who has 58K followers. “You’re at your raw self. You say what in the book worked for you, what didn’t. And you strike an instant connection with other readers as well as authors.”

An image from the Instagram profile of Resh Susan.

An image from the Instagram profile of Resh Susan.   | Photo Credit: Instagram

Feedback from her followers helps Susan tailor her content accordingly. Does that mean she promotes only those books that could attract more followers? “No, no,” she clarifies hastily. “I don’t hype up books. I try to be as honest as possible. And publishers know my taste, so they give me what they think I might enjoy.”

Tricks of the trade

The platform appeals equally to authors. When he was rejected by several publishers in 2015-16, Aditya Nighhot began posting about his self-published book on Instagram. With only a trickle of followers, he struggled to generate sales. But when he gave review copies to a few popular bloggers, he began to learn the tricks of the trade. His book was republished by Fingerprint Publishing.

As bloggers don’t charge for review copies, the author has to bear only the book and shipping cost, says Nighhot. Sometimes, authors give online reviewers an Amazon gift card. “Only some genuine bloggers with about 10K-20K followers charge ₹2,000-3,000 per post. But that’s fine because if I go to a bookstore and ask for a pile-up display, I’ll be charged ₹10,000-15,000 a month,” he says. “The store will take a share of the sales, and I will only get 10%-20% as royalty. The good thing is that if you’ve got the online sales going, it translates into offline sales as well.”

Bookstagram has given everyone a voice, a platform to praise or tear apart books; it has led to democratisation of opinion. “But there is a problem with that,” says Jai Arjun Singh, journalist and author of three books. “Anyone who finds a way to draw eyeballs can be seen as a critic of some importance. We now have hundreds and hundreds of ‘reviewers’ whose reviews are more like consumer guides.”

Singh, who clarifies that he doesn’t know much about the platform, is not off the mark: several book posts on Instagram are bulleted and are rarely over 50-100 words long, and the number of hashtags is sometimes as long as the posts.

Dead petals

Singh, who also writes book reviews for this newspaper, says his author friends complain bitterly about how poorly their publishers market their books. “And they have been harassed for free copies by Bookstagrammers with just a few hundred followers,” he says.

Vivek Tejuja, culture editor of Verve magazine, agrees. He doesn’t think many even read the books they are gifted (“They’re even willing to review a book on the public policy of sanitation!”) and is upset that publishers seem okay with that. Tejuja has 11.3K followers on Instagram where he extensively reviews books and interviews authors, without the props and frills. “According to most Bookstagrammers, everything is beautiful, heart-rending, emotional, sensitive, picturesque. There’s nothing about characters and plot points in these posts,” he says. “Frankly, all I see are pictures of dead petals.”

But both Singh and Tejuja grant that social media has played an important role in challenging the so-called gatekeepers of the literary world. Singh recalls the time he wrote a blog post about a Chetan Bhagat book and got pilloried for it. As a fan of popular culture, he says he is happy “when the canons of high literature are discomfited a bit” but emphasises that only someone with a breadth of reading can be trusted to give a good review of a popular book.

Another advantage of Instagram is that there is a lot of chatter on books and genres (such as fantasy, horror, romance and Young Adult fiction) that are not lucky enough to be reviewed by mainstream publications. “No one here is judging you for what you’re reading,” says Tejuja.

Given that the platform is beneficial for authors, publishers and book lovers, Gupta wonders why Bookstagrammers are not paid. She tells me that she was horrified on learning that some authors reached out to fellow Bookstagrammers offering as little as ₹10 for a post. Gupta, who doesn’t call herself a reviewer (“I only post opinions”), selectively accepts books from new authors and charges ₹300-500 for posts on those books. She provides the disclaimer that these books have been ‘gifted’. “We put in a lot of hard work — we invest in photography, we write compelling captions, we think about what hashtags could work. We should get paid,” she says.

Nighhot worries that Bookstagram, chock-a-block with advertisers and authors, may no longer work for his third book. He tried everything, from launching book trailers, to conducting quizzes on his books, to organising book-signing events, for his second book. “Now I need to think of new ways of attracting readers,” he says grumpily.

radhika.s@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Apr 15, 2021 3:41:54 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/that-wonderful-world-of-bookstagram/article33819497.ece

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