Jarrett Fuller

June 2022

“Books Aren’t Going Anywhere”: A Roundtable Discussion on Publishing and Branding in the Age of Bookstagram

Illustration by Beatice Sala.

Of all media, the book is perhaps the most enduring. Continually outliving the narratives about the demise of publishing, how people don’t read, and the end of print, books are more popular than ever. Despite everything, printed books continue to outsell ebooks and on social media, there are thriving and vibrant communities (BookTok, Bookstagram, etc) where people around the world gather to discuss the newest releases.

In many ways, books have become brands all their own. For high-profile releases, publishers release complex marketing plans, complete with merchandise and fashion drops to create interest. We still buy books because of their covers and then post about what they are reading like we used to wear t-shirts of our favorite bands. How has social media changed literature and publishing? What is the goal of a book cover in a digital age, when our attention is pulled in a million directions? What is the relationship between books and branding?

We sought to answer these questions at the first in a series of online conversations we’ll be hosting throughout the summer on how branding intersects with our daily lives. This first conversation, which took place on Zoom last month, was moderated by Eye on Design’s Jarrett Fuller and featured a panel of people approaching books from different lenses: a critic, an author, and a designer. Though publishing is constantly changing, the one thing we agreed on: books are here to stay.

Alana Pockros is the engagement editor at The Nation, where among other things, she monitors conversations happening online. She is also a contributing editor at Cleveland Review of Books, and a cultural critic, focusing primarily on art and the visual world. Her pieces for Eye on Design have been shared widely by The Aspen Institute, YouTubers, and the “BookTok” community.

Jack Cheng is a Detroit-based author who writes technology-minded stories for both kids and adults, including the award-winning novel See You in the Cosmos. His first novel, These Days, was published independently via a successful kickstarter campaign in 2012.

Anna Jordan is a graphic designer based in Rochester, New York, specializing in book cover design. Anna is also an Assistant Professor in the MFA Visual Communication Design program at Rochester Institute of Technology.

Jarrett Fuller: The inspiration for this conversation came from an essay written by Alana called When Did the Book Become a Brand?, as well as a series of other articles she’s written for Eye on Design about branding and book publishing. Alana, could you summarize the kinds of trends you’ve been writing about lately?

Alana Pockros: That first story came about because of some conversations that were happening on Twitter after Sally Rooney’s latest novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You, was released. She’s a popular author — but this book really made a splash. I was noticing that a lot of writers I follow were getting review copies sent to them alongside boxes of merchandise. Hats, tote bags, things like that. It was silly, but also there was something about it where I was like… okay, this is an interesting tactic.

What I realized is books are no longer these things that exist in a vacuum. There’s all this branding that surrounds them — and publishers send swag to people they consider influences in order to advertise and sell books. There are communities on YouTube and TikTok dedicated to showcasing what they’ve been sent by publishers. So it’s influencer marketing, extended to the book world.

Read an edited transcript of the event on Eye on Design.