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


Illustration by Beatrice Sala.

This conversation took place as part of our Summer Salon, which explores the intersection of branding and culture. Our next Zoom event on Thursday, July 28 asks “What’s The Role Of TV Branding In The Streaming Age?” — register here!

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. 

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.

JF: Jack, you’re a former designer who worked in advertising and then published your first novel on early Kickstarter. At the time, you were known on the internet as someone who wrote about tech. In a way, the Kickstarter campaign meant having to build upon your own brand — and you did some of the things Alana is talking about while crowdfunding. I’m curious: How did you think about marketing and selling your book to readers? What was that experience like, and how is it different from publishing with a publisher?

Jack Cheng: The truth is, I didn’t think much about how to get the first book out there at the time. It came naturally because the book is about these two 20-something year olds in New York, and one of them works in creative tech circles. It was a natural extension then, to say to all my design tech friends: here’s something that might be up your alley. I designed the cover, I type set it myself, and I was so focused on getting the book done that all I did was make a bookmark. That was my merch! 

For my second book, a book for young readers published by Dial Books, which is part of the Penguin umbrella, I had very little involvement in any of the design or publicity. And that’s very normal for authors. There wasn’t TikTok at the time it was released, or any bookstagrammers out there. But now, as an author, it definitely feels like there’s more swag around today. It’s more visible. 

JF: We sometimes think of marketing and design as separate, but Anna, as a cover designer, are you involved in any of these kinds of conversations?

Anna Jordan: No, I haven’t had art directors bring it up with me personally. And I appreciate that because that’s not my creative process: for it to work, I have to seclude myself in a bubble and not look on social media. So what I’m thinking about as I’m designing and talking to the art director, are things like: What do we want the image to evoke? What visual metaphors would be appropriate? And I’m thinking about the reader, too. I’m designing it for them, so that the image and type that’s integrated holds some surprise or reward; where midway through the book, a reader might make a sudden connection between the cover and what they’re reading. 

While it might not be the way I work, I do think that it’s kind of amazing that Chip Kidd’s design for the Jurassic Park book cover became the icon for a blockbuster movie. And now, people have that logo as tattoos, t-shirts, totes. To see your design on a tote bag, on swag, is pretty exciting. It’s exciting that books are getting so much attention. 

AP: It’s interesting to hear that it’s not part of your process, Anna. Obviously designers all have different processes. I have heard many tell me that what they see on Instagram often becomes the seed of an idea for them. 

In terms of the influence of marketing and social media on what a book cover might look like, I don’t think that influence is necessarily a good thing. It’s just a thing that happens. This feeds into something else I’ve written about — the tension between a designer’s ambitions and sales, and where they meet each other…I’d be curious if at the end of the day you have to change things for marketing departments?

AJ: Of course. Sometimes the AD will approve the work. Then it gets to the marketing department and they say no, and it gets killed. They do have the final say it seems. 

JF: To return to your point Anna, about how exciting it is that books are getting attention: Social media of course plays a big role in that. It’s 2022 and people are still interested in books! That’s a positive thing. Jack: You’re an author who is active online. You have a newsletter and a podcast. I’m going to ask something that sounds judge-y but it’s not: Are you a brand?

JC: It’s hard if you have an online presence not to see yourself as a brand, because what is branding but a filtering of communication to convey a specific persona or being? I’m wondering about the title of this conversation, “the book as brand.” What about the author as a brand? We’ve had that for a long time. What’s the biggest thing on a Steven King novel? It’s his name. So I wonder if the book being a brand is indicative of how authors have been brands for a long time. Sally Rooney is known to not be so open to the media. So if publicity can’t parade her around, what you have instead is the physical object. And the swag around it. 

AP: That’s a great point. The iconic Philip Roth book covers — they are basically his name. That’s the case with a lot of authors, especially deceased authors. They have a legacy name and that’s what’s used to sell the book. 

JC: Right now, I’m finishing my second kid’s novel and we’re starting the cover design process and I was just sent a sketch from the cover artist for input. It made me realize something: I often hear from preteen audiences that when they’ve finished a book, they want to know whether there is a sequel. There’s a lot of personal connection between them and the covers, too. So I was asking my editor: Should this new book, which has nothing to do with my first YA novel, have some kind of connection? Visually? Typographically? Color wise?

What about the author as a brand? We’ve had that for a long time. What’s the biggest thing on a Steven King novel? It’s his name. So I wonder if the book being a brand is indicative of how authors have been brands for a long time.

JF: We’ve been talking about books as a brand and authors as brands. But there is another angle here — and social media is crucial to it. Today, there is a sense that a brand creates community. You want to be associated with certain brands, or you wear your favorite band t-shirt to be associated with their “brand.” Books online also work that way, we’ve already mentioned “Bookstagram.” What do you think about that side of it?

AJ: It’s pretty amazing that a book can be a powerful intellectual status symbol, and the fact that the cover has a lot to do with that makes what we do as designers pretty important. I think about that a lot. If we’re reading a self-help book at the pool or the beach and we’re embarrassed about it, we’ll hide the cover. But if it’s a cool novel that looks great with our beach towel, we’re going to flaunt it. And I don’t see that as a negative thing. It doesn’t take away from the intellectual rigor of the literature. It’s exciting. 

We could all be reading on our e-readers and no one would know what we’re reading. But people are still buying physical books and they’re flaunting them — and the fact that someone wants to be the person who reads the Sally Rooney book and everyone on the subway knows it, I think that’s a positive thing. 

AP: It makes me think of that Cindy Crawford photo of her holding a book — that photo was everywhere. It opened up a conversation about the status tally and on the one hand it’s so annoying, but it’s also cool that people are talking about books. We see people getting excited about reality TV all the time, but getting excited about literature is less expected. 

JF: When I was in design school 15 years ago, we were taught that the cover has to stand out on the book shelf. That now seems so quaint. What do we do when it has to stand out amongst all the other stuff in the world? Everything on Netflix, everything on the news, it’s all content competing against each other… 

AJ: I personally never think about social media or tote bags or hats when I design a cover, but I do keep two limitations in mind. One: The cover has to work as a small image in a tiny thumbnail but also as a huge poster at a book signing event. It has to be scalable. And two: It probably should work in black and white for e-readers, because as a reader, I get a lot of joy in covers and I believe we should be judging books by their covers. 

I get a lot of joy in covers and I believe we should be judging books by their covers. 

JF: So what can other forms of book branding do that covers can’t on their own? Alana, you write that merch allows us to engage with literature in new ways…

AP: If someone gets a tote bag for a book and they wear it around town, first of all, people see it in a way that they don’t usually see books — because we don’t carry books around us in the same way. But there is another aspect to merch, an element of status symbol. On its face it’s icky, but it does exist. If a publisher sends out only 100 hats, there is some sense of people asking, where did you get that? It was something you were sent specifically. It creates a sense of excitement. It’s like if a brand drops a certain number of sneakers. It’s an intention of the brands, or the publisher, who say: “We’re going to create scarcity that creates a sense of need.” 

JF: It creates hype.

AP: Right. I hope people read it, too, of course. I hope It goes beyond the surface!

JF: Me too. Maybe I’m a cynic, but I roll my eyes whenever I hear that something is “branded,” but actually, this conversation has been quite optimistic when it comes to publishing, branding, and books. What are the three of you excited about when it comes to the future of publishing?

AP: I feel cynical about a lot of this, too. But I think as we said earlier on, if people are getting excited about literature, that’s awesome. As someone who likes to write reviews of cultural objects, I never expect that there is a huge readership of the books I’m reviewing or reading. If branding allows authors to get more readers and gain larger audiences, and have people reading their work, that’s great in my mind.

JC: I fully agree. It’s hard enough to make a living as an author, and anything that can make it more feasible, I’m all for it. Whether we call it branding, or if we just call it familiarity with a person’s art and work. We need to establish trust between an author and their reader — and I think branding is important there because there is so much other noise today. 

AP: I am actively living my life trying not to be cynical, so I am optimistic about a lot of things. That books are cool. That people on Twitter are talking about them. That we are publicly celebrating cover design and that they’re infiltrating popular culture. In grad school, there was so much talk about the fact that books were disappearing and it’s just not the case. Books aren’t going anywhere.

Our next Zoom panel discussion on Thursday, July 28 continues to explore the intersection of culture and branding, asking “What’s The Role Of TV Branding In The Streaming Age?” — register here! 

AIGA Eye on Design Summer Salon

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