The Merch-ification of Book Publishing

From Esquire:

to your local bookstore, hitting the library, or logging on to Amazon. For others, however, it involves opening up a thoughtfully designed box that includes a copy of the book, alongside gifted items like a custom tote bag, a scented candle, beauty products, and maybe even a box of tea. If you’re a book influencer, the latter is often the case.

One might say that Sally Rooney started it all when it comes to covetable book merchandise that takes over the internet, though she’d likely reject that attribution. I anxiously awaited the release of Rooney’s latest novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You back in September 2021. I placed my pre-order at my local bookstore because, at the time, I thought that this was all a reader could do. Oh, how wrong I was! Leading up to publication day, I started seeing authors, journalists, and generally cool internet people post about the Beautiful World tote bag and the Beautiful World bucket hat and even the Beautiful World umbrella. Although sometimes, as a writer, I receive an ARC or a promotional bookmark (for these, I am grateful), I knew there was no way I was getting my hands on any of that premium merch. Instead, I showed up at a coffee cart pop-up in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, (sponsored by AirMail and Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, Rooney’s publisher) and won myself a tote bag the old fashioned way—by answering a Rooney-themed trivia question correctly. (“What’s the most commonly consumed beverage in the world?” Tea, of course).

In the months after the book’s release, the tote was often a conversation starter around New York City. When I stopped by a bookstore, sometimes I’d get a comment from a bookseller about the merch frenzy. A few writer friends asked how I managed to get my hands on one, while strangers who didn’t know about the book even commented on its beautiful design. It was a noticeable reaction for a simple canvas bag. In the year and a half since Beautiful World and the merch-induced frenzy of its release, the promotion of books via social media marketing and influencer relations has become even more elaborate. Now, many publicity and marketing campaigns are created with influencers in mind, with TikTok video-worthy PR boxes and branded swag that’s designed to create a social media moment upon a book’s publication. The question, then, isn’t if influencer culture is changing book marketing and publicity, but how.

mma Cline’s latest novel, The Guest, published on May 9. In preparation, Cline’s publisher, Random House Books, distributed advanced reader copies (ARCs) to book influencers, packaged alongside a tube of Supergoop sunscreen, a box of Tate’s Bake Shop cookies, a pair of sunglasses color-coordinated to the book’s cover, and a handful of other goodies, all aptly themed around the novel, which takes place at the end of summer on the East End of Long Island. The influencer mailing also came with a coveted Random House Books tote bag. Marisa Gates, the content creator behind the TikTok account “smallcasualbooktok,” posted a 15-second-long video displaying the contents of the box in February, remarking that The Guest is her most anticipated book of the year. The views, and the enthralled readers in the comments, quickly followed.

“I wish all books came like this,” read one comment. “I have never been more jealous of anyone ever,” read another. Gates, who later posted a full review of the novel in a separate video, never anticipated that her platform would grow to this size, or that she’d receive these types of responses. In fact, she told me that, “as someone who is anti-capitalism and [anti-]overconsumption,” her goal when starting her account was to show how one can build their book collection by using the public library and buying books secondhand. After nearly two years on TikTok, she now has nearly 6,000 followers on the platform. Book publishers frequently pitch her on forthcoming titles to review, which are often sent with accompanying swag, including items customized to reflect a book’s title or cover art, as well as related products from other brands that fit with a book’s theme, e.g. the Tate’s cookies, a brand founded in Southampton, N.Y.

Link to the rest at Esquire

PG has his doubts about how effective videos are for selling books, but is happy to hear/see information that shows videos, separate and apart from other advertising/promotion activities do move the sales needle.

There’s also the platform issue. If ten people view the video, creating it was a waste of time.

Should an author spend substantial time and effort to develop and grow a large online presence as opposed to working on another book? What about paying a successful BookToK influencer to advertise/plug the book?

1 thought on “The Merch-ification of Book Publishing”

  1. Re: the effectiveness of video, you are correct that it depends on the size of the audience for the video. I’ve said before, but the YouTubers I watch who do crowdfunding for their projects can actually see in real time the effectiveness of mentioning their project in each video. If they forget to do it in one video, fewer contributions. If they mention the project, contributions go up.

    But follow the Miles Vorkosigan rule here: don’t do yourself what you can get an expert to do for you. In other words, if an author does not already have a large enough platform through videos and podcasts, etc., then the next option is pitching to the people who do have a sizable audience on those platforms. At least with YouTube and the like you can see how many people were watching a particular video. I was listening the other day to an author who said she makes a point of offering up something for the audience of a given show / blog. Free books, usually, but I think she may have mentioned merch.

    Indies and trad writers are in the same boat here. Trad writers have been increasingly called upon to have their own marketing plans, but a lot of them have had anecdotes about publishers failing to stock copies of their books for book signings and whatnot. So the advantage goes to indies, who have to rely upon themselves from the get-go, and can be more nimble.

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