Why influencer publishing is having a big moment

With social media celebrities turning to book publishing, guaranteeing bestsellers and hype, a look at what’s motivating this switch. And what it means for authors without a strong online presence

May 03, 2024 03:55 pm | Updated May 04, 2024 02:59 pm IST

Influencers are now trying out the role of author and often creating bestsellers.

Influencers are now trying out the role of author and often creating bestsellers. | Photo Credit: Illustration by Sasha

Last month, Penguin India, the largest English language books publisher in the subcontinent, threw a party in Mumbai. An impressive affair by all accounts — a five-star hotel as the venue, stars and recognisable faces in the crowd, and enough food, drinks and conversation to satisfy even the hardest-to-please guests. “We had Durjoy Datta dancing, Ankur Warikoo doing some creative stunts with the attendees, and tote bags, books and other merchandise as party favours,” says Pallavi Narayan, head of communications and brand partnerships at Penguin Random House India.

Other headliners that evening included actor and author Neena Gupta, radio jockey Stutee Ghosh, and sexual health educator Tanaya Narendra aka Dr. Cuterus. Penguin Palooza is what they called the event, designed to celebrate the “book influencer” — someone who has carved out a space for themselves online, doing book reviews, author interviews and other literary content. Their followers could even be a modest 5,000, a far cry from the millions a fashion or food influencer attracts. Over the last few years, Indian publishers have taken a cue from their counterparts in the West as they increasingly consult social media influencers to create a buzz around the latest releases. But what we are now seeing are influencers trying out the role of author themselves and often creating bestsellers. According to entrepreneur Ankur Warikoo, famous for his YouTube videos on personal finance — his most popular video (4.4 million views) is on “how to pay a 25-year loan in just 10 years” — when he first decided to pen a book, “I was writing for an audience that doesn’t read or has never read.”

Actor and author Neena Gupta with book influencers at last month’s Penguin Palooza. 

Actor and author Neena Gupta with book influencers at last month’s Penguin Palooza. 

Sexual health educator Tanaya Narendra at last month’s Penguin Palooza. 

Sexual health educator Tanaya Narendra at last month’s Penguin Palooza. 

Last month, style blogger and fashion entrepreneur Masoom Minawala launched her first book, She’ll Never Make It (Juggernaut Books). Minawala has a following of 1.3 million on Instagram. On April 14, she put up the first post about her book on her Instagram account — the cover blurred, and a heartfelt note about what she called her “biggest project”. The next day, she revealed the cover of the book and announced its release. The same day, the book hit No.1 on Amazon in the overall books category, with over 800 orders placed in a single day.

Fashion entrepreneur Masoom Minawala at an event promoting her book ‘She’ll Never Make It’. 

Fashion entrepreneur Masoom Minawala at an event promoting her book ‘She’ll Never Make It’.  | Photo Credit: Instagram.com

In March, entertainment content creator Malini Agarwal aka Miss Malini launched her second book, Under the Influence (HarperCollins India), with a star-studded party in Mumbai. Agarwal was early on the influencer front. “I was always this face on the scene of Bollywood that used to document it as a creator before the word ‘influencer’ was coined,” she says.

Since the release of her book, Agarwal has embarked on a pan-India book tour, with both free and ticketed events that involve a show, workshop or curated interaction. While ticketed events are “a regular format abroad”, the trend is catching on here as well, especially with authors who are celebrity influencers, says Shabnam Srivastava, general manager-marketing at HarperCollins India. “Because their book launches have an added dimension in terms of the extra activities, they become almost a cultural event, which necessitates a pre-registration or ticketed entry.”

Entertainment content creator Malini Agarwal aka Miss Malini at the launch of her book ‘Under the Influence’.

Entertainment content creator Malini Agarwal aka Miss Malini at the launch of her book ‘Under the Influence’.

In Agarwal’s case, her ticketed book launch included a chance to collaborate with her — the golden ticket sought by budding creators and influencers to boost their own following.

Addressing non-readers

Both Minawala and Agarwal, and other influencer-authors before them, have brought us books that are an extension of their online personalities. Warikoo’s books address the idea of self-improvement and financial management in different ways. “In Minawala’s case, it is her own story, probably the first time that a story like this has been told with absolutely brutal honesty,” says Juggernaut’s editor-in-chief Parth Mehrotra.

Agarwal uses her journey to success as a way to connect with and inspire up-and-coming content creators. In fact, the books penned by most of these social media influencers could be clubbed in the self-help category. For instance, Warikoo, who has over 10 million followers across YouTube, LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, is the bestselling author of Do Epic Shit (2021) and Get Epic Shit Done (2022). He says that he knew he was “not writing for the quintessential reader. I was writing for an audience that has the attention span of a goldfish, and is used to reading vertically and not horizontally.”

Entrepreneur Ankur Warikoo interacts with influencers at last month’s Penguin Palooza. 

Entrepreneur Ankur Warikoo interacts with influencers at last month’s Penguin Palooza. 

As a result, he says, several people come up to him to confirm that his is the “first book they have ever completed”. Warikoo’s latest, Make Epic Money, which released this January, has followed the success of his earlier books, selling more than 100,000-plus copies within just 40 days of release.

Today, the idea of the “influencer” is an interesting one, and comprises both people who have begun their careers online — engaging audiences with entertaining content — and those who are domain experts with full-time careers outside of social media. The latter would include doctors such as Siddhant Bhargava or a historian like Manu Pillai. There are books being written by both sets of people. About penning her second book, Agarwal says, “I thought of who the book is for and what relevance it will have. Who is going to pick up this book?”

“People who either adore me and want to know more things about me, which might be a limited number, but also those who want to become creators themselves, which is 46 million-plus, right? I had to then ask myself, ‘Is what I’m saying relevant to them in some way?’”

But what really motivates influencers to become published authors? “A book is a long-lasting thing, it’s more permanent. It’s not something on your feed that will disappear. People still look at books as something that gives you authentic information,” says Poulomi Chatterjee, publisher, HarperCollins India. “Books make you sound intellectual. Anyone who has written a book can very much say, I’m in the league of authors,” says Agarwal, adding that it’s not easy to get a book published by a traditional outfit.

Partnering with the book influencer
For book influencers, churning out content daily can be stressful and labour intensive. And while publishers might not pay for promotions, higher follower count can convert to brand partnerships and collaborations outside of publishing. A book influencer who racks up thousands of followers becomes a potential avenue of marketing for brands other than books looking to find a ready audience that they might not have reached otherwise. Shreya Punj, who worked in publishing and now runs The Editor Recommends, a page that makes publishing accessible for aspiring authors and has over 25,000 followers, says “Once the account hit 10k, I was approached by content creator platform TagMango. They wanted me to conduct workshops.” And, Punj says, the smaller number for followers for book and publishing influencers might not be a bad thing at all. “Now, brands prefer accounts with the kind of audience that can purchase their products. Hence the move towards niche accounts with high engagement rates.”

Profit and loss

Traditionally, India has had a pretty conservative understanding of books, readers, and what book promotions mean. It’s not uncommon for both readers and publishing houses to be heard using terms such as “commercial” and “literary” books — which is not just a way to talk about sales numbers, but also content and sometimes, even quality. “People never equated social media creators or someone on the Internet as worthy of being able to write a book, because the belief always was that social media creators were a little frivolous,” says Agarwal. Resh Susan, who has run her blog and Instagram page titled ‘The Book Satchel’ since 2015, and has a following of 54,000 on Instagram, adds: “Some authors and readers look at book content creators and think they are not serious readers. That reviews should be long pieces, and not mere captions.”

But as with every good conversation, this one has been growing too, changing to adapt not just to external factors such as trends and tastes, but also to internal examinations and enquiries. And with this change, publishers have found a whole new pool to fish in, and have begun to turn to the Internet and social media to find out what people, especially the younger demographics, want to read about. And who understands young people better than the influencers who have made it their business to capture the attention of millions of such people. “I think the sweet spot is having something interesting and compelling and thought-provoking to say, but to say it in the simplest way possible, so that you’re democratising your ideas instead of gatekeeping them. That is what works on social media,” says sexuality educator Leeza Mangaldas, who wrote The Sex Book (HarperCollins India) in 2022. For Mangaldas, the big question is: “how do you compete with a smartphone?”

Of course, publishing is a mixed bag, full of hits and misses. “If you actually look under the hood, a lot of social media influencer books, the second and third titles have not worked as much as their first. Which will indicate that you are fundamentally signing on someone who is a storyteller in a short form. When it comes to a book, it works in some cases, doesn’t work in others,” says Anish Chandy, literary agent and founder at Labyrinth Literary Agency. While the sales might be higher than usual in the case of an influencer’s book, it still doesn’t mean profit for the publisher. “Whether publishers are turning a profit on these books, that is going to be a function of what the publisher is paying to acquire the book, and eventually how much the book sells.” But Chandy adds that profit or loss, what definitely works is that “the publisher’s biggest headache” — having the book discovered by an audience — is taken care of. And for that “the publishers are willing to pay a premium”.

That social media stars come with a dedicated following is certainly a big part of things, including the book’s success. “The big advantage that a Minawala or a Warikoo enjoys is that they are not reliant on traditional media for publicity. They have a direct channel of communication. That is their power. And their power is in the millions,” says Juggernaut’s Mehrotra. Just the two biggest English-language publishers in the country, Penguin Random House India and HarperCollins India, publish 300 and 250 new titles, respectively, every year. Chandy says that with over 10,000 registered publishers, and a massive self-publishing machinery, it’s nearly impossible to arrive at a number when it comes to English language books published in India today. To stand out in this market, the ability to have a direct channel of communication with millions of potential readers is nothing short of priceless, not just for the authors, but for their publishers too.

And more and more, publishers are beginning to adapt to new ways of telling a story. They don’t just have to think outside of traditional ideas when it comes to books by influencers, but also traditional narratives and formats. “Sometimes, we use the format they have already been using on their social media pages and other places. Like in sexuality educator Leeza Mangaldas’ case, we used a Q&A format for her 2022 book, The Sex Book, which mimicked the format she uses in her content online,” says Chatterjee of HarperCollins India.

The impact influencers have made on the economy, on brands and on people’s minds is irrefutable. “When there’s no denying that someone has made a mark, then everything opens up for them,” Agarwal says, adding that by that logic, it’s not surprising that the doors of publishing have opened up for them too.

While Chandy says that social media might be more important when it comes to certain genres and categories, such as self-help, compared to, say, literary fiction, one thing is certain. “The day of the author just writing a book and sending it out to the publisher, and having no presence or putting in no effort to market or publicise the book is over.”

A view from the other side

T.C.A. Raghavan, author and former diplomat, whose fourth book, Circles of Freedom (Juggernaut Books), has just released, says that the proliferation of social media for book marketing has made a difference because “the traditional ways of buying books are under stress. The number of bookshops is much less than it used to be. Space in newspapers about new books and reviews is also crunched. And so social media certainly creates an impact. If you’re not on it, and your publisher is not good at it, then it is a handicap”. Raghavan adds that for his books, approximately 70% of the promotion is still via traditional channels. That’s not to say that he doesn’t want to utilise social media. “I think everyone wants to have younger readers. Regardless of the platform, you get an opportunity, you make use of it.”

The larger landscape may not be as altered as it seems, he says. “My gut sense is that social media creates awareness about the book and the author, and more people come to know about your book releasing relatively quickly than they would have in the old days. But not all of that translates into sales,” he insists, adding, “I’d like to think that books are commodities which sell slowly. In the end, if you aggregate sales over a long term, everything evens out, even the enormous immediate impact of social media. I would like to think then that it depends on the quality of the book and not the profile of the author — offline or on social media.”

swati.daftuar@thehindu.co.in

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