From The Los Angeles Review of Books;
CAROLINE CALLOWAY’S CAREER so far has been indicative of many publishing trends. With help from her parents, she paid to develop her craft as a writer, studying at NYU and then art history at Cambridge. She started building her online presence by purchasing an initial bank of Instagram followers. From there she earned a large audience (some 684,000 followers at present), using the platform as an outlet for a significant quantity of self-published writing in the form of relatively lengthy, witty, discursive photo captions. With her followers in place, she was then able to secure an agent and a book deal with Flatiron Books, receiving a reputed $375,000 advance for a memoir. After failing to deliver the manuscript, she is now self-publishing the book under the title Scammer; the release date keeps getting pushed back. In addition to Instagram, she is on Twitter and Patreon, where she has offered her “closest friends,” at $100 per month subscription, a private conversation; and until just a few days ago she was producing literary-themed erotica for subscribers on OnlyFans, a self-described adult entertainment site. She sold her content as “softcore cosplay of hardcore literary heroines,” and added: “you’re cultured as f*** if you subscribe.” Some might call this an “aesthetic of bookishness.”
During her creative writing training at NYU, where she worked with David Lipsky, she met another talented young writer, Natalie Beach. In 2019, Beach chronicled their difficult friendship in an exposé that reveals how susceptible she was to Calloway exploiting her. As Calloway was breaking into Instagram, the friends traveled together in Sicily, where they took glamorous travel shots — mostly of Calloway — and worked together to write the captions and stitch together the overall narrative that made up the account Calloway named #Adventuregrams. Beach reports to have enjoyed the idea that she was participating in making an important cultural artifact, feeling close to beauty and greatness that she could not hope to touch on her own. She writes of those initial Instagram posts, “I began to believe that what we were making mattered to my career (for the first time I was being paid to write) and to our readers around the world. It was 2013, and the internet felt like the future of writing, at least for girls.” She continues:
I believed Caroline and I were busting open the form of nonfiction. Instagram is memoir in real time. It’s memoir without the act of remembering. It’s collapsing the distance between writer and reader and critic, which is why it’s true feminist storytelling, I’d argue to Caroline, trying to convince her that a white girl learning to believe in herself could be the height of radicalism (convenient, as I too was a white girl learning to believe in herself).
When their time in Europe was over, Beach used this experience in her effort to secure work: “I placed #Adventuregrams at the top of my résumé, describing myself as an editor, or if the listing called for it, the personal assistant to Ms. Calloway.” Meanwhile Calloway enrolled at Cambridge and moved to England, where she continued to grow her fan base, now branding herself as the beautiful young American abroad. The friendship strained when Calloway tried to underpay Beach to manage her apartment as an Airbnb rental. After failing to secure anything meaningfully better, Beach agreed to work with Calloway again, this time as an editor for her book manuscript, expecting 35 percent of any profits. She ended up being more of a ghostwriter. “The Caroline character we created together was a fantastic YA protagonist,” Beach reports: “she loved and was loved, looked good crying, stomped around an idealized New York in her ‘I-deserve-to-be-here boots.’” When Calloway’s agent praised the proposal, for a memoir “of a life that wasn’t mine, adapted from Instagram captions,” Beach could not help but feel proud.
For a time, then, “Caroline Calloway” was not a solo act but rather a co-production, as Beach was a key writer of Calloway’s content. That Calloway did not properly credit her work is worth noting.
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Calloway in fact sits at an important crossroads: between the self-branding social media influencer economy and an evolving book publishing world. Calloway told Beach that “she took a series of meetings with literary professionals who informed her that no one would buy a memoir from a girl with no claim to fame and no fan base.” She was probably right: it increases your chances of getting a book contract if you are already famous on the internet. We know that the mainstream industry would rather not take risks on books that won’t sell. If they are going to offer advances to secure potentially hot titles, why wouldn’t they want to acquire books that come with a pre-made audience?
Long before COVID-19 hit, bookstore sales of literature have been trending downward; big chains have been closing branches. Advances have been shrinking. It has become harder to make a living as a writer. Marketing resources are dedicated to a dwindling crop of stars. Narratives about publishing’s yesteryear tend to be a bit pastoral, but there are truths to be gleaned from this lore. It was once more possible that an author could get published on the strength of their work — perhaps the editor even came upon it in the slush pile, and recognized a raw talent and so undertook to cultivate and mold that talent through substantive editing, followed by a marketing push trying to appeal to the right readers. No doubt on occasion this kind of gamble is still possible. But the best way to arrive at an editor’s door is with an army of social media followers already in place, or even better with a following and a viral story that will be spun out into the manuscript. A prospective publisher will want you to produce a book consistent with your brand, and they will want you to use the social media following that you already have in order to maximize the work’s sales. Taylor Swift put it as well as anybody: these days artists get record deals because they have fans, not the other way around.
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Self-publishing is one of the book industry’s gig economies, as individuals seeking to earn must increasingly be “exposed more directly to external markets” rather than working with traditional firms. There is no value added from an official editor, only behind-the-scenes help from whoever you hire temporarily or convince to work for you for free. There is no advance, and no marketing budget except what you can front yourself. This is not an easy way to make money. Many more authors earn a pittance doing this work than make a livable wage. To up your chances at success, if you have the money or social power you can get a ghostwriter or a freelance editor to work with you behind the scenes, as well as an expert in market share optimization. You need the resources to do this; many people are excluded from even trying. Calloway has been fortunate in this respect. Still, having come to book publishing with a marketable brand, she has to do the daily work of maintaining it. Even if her book is never published, that failure is content for her social media platforms, where one primary source of her self-branding activity is the idea that she’s an inveterate con artist who is just fooling around. Her book is called Scammer for a reason.
Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Review of Books
PG suggests the OP demonstrates how intellectually shallow traditional publishing has become. If Instagram followers are the target market for a book, how much more lighter-than-air can an industry become?
And, of course, self-published authors all belong in the same down-market bucket.