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Social Media and Acquiring New Stories: how publishers use online trends to choose manuscripts

The ever-resilient publishing industry always manages to see what’s coming. If they don’t, their business suffers and their existence balances precariously on the spines of their bestsellers.


But by keeping a close eye on online trends, particular hashtags, specific influencers and viral posts, publishers can work out which books will gain attention, traction and buzz.


Social media has always had an impact on acquisitions processes within publishing houses, as every business must have an eye for growth and profit. But is relying on social media to determine which books should be in the hands of readers really a good thing?

The cover image shows a person looking at their social media insights page on a white android phone in front of a pot plant, 2019. Image: Georgia de Lotz on Unsplash.

The Positives


What Readers Want

There are tonnes of positives that are directly caused by publishers’ interest in online algorithms. Firstly, content is diplomatic: the books and stories that get disseminated are – apparently – what readers want.


The books that go viral on BookTok are the ones that readers are interested in picking up for themselves, and sharing them in these social spaces means that these books become part of the zeitgeist.


The Love Hypothesis by Ali Hazelwood is one such story. Originally written and produced online as a fan fiction of two much-loved Star Wars characters, this book was hugely popular with its readers and was eventually acquired by Berkley, an imprint of Penguin Books. Soon, it was appearing on BookTok, making the virtual rounds as one of the most popular romance reads of the season.

A copy of The Love Hypothesis stands on a wooden table against a white wall. The cover image features the two romantic protagonists and includes a TikTok sticker. Photo: Madeleine Corbel, 2022.


The physical world of print collided with the digital world of buzz, and The Love Hypothesis is still being shared as a reading recommendation online eight months after its release.


Informed Risks


Catching hold of these trends online is a sure-fire way for publishers to learn what might work in the future.

For instance, The Love Hypothesis sparked a re-hype of ‘enemies to lovers’ romance tropes, resulting in BookTokkers and Bookstagrammers curating and sharing book recommendation lists. By consuming these trends, being active on social media and reading the digital room, publishers can work out what readers are hungry for and choose their titles accordingly.


The marketing strategies of publishing houses pivoted to focus on social media spaces: Bookstagram influencers are approached with free reading copies, hashtags are researched and collected like loose change, and excitement is generated through shareable reels.


All up, watching and monitoring online trends through social media means that publishers can make and market a book with very little risk – they know that their target audience will be interested.


New Authors


Another benefit of algorithms is that it’s easier for budding authors to market themselves to publishers. Martin Hughes, publishing director and CEO of Affirm Press, an independent book publisher in Melbourne, says: ‘I still think by far the biggest difference social media has created is in what is considered author potential.’


The online communities made by authors in response to their work or their branding can have a huge impact on whether their book gets chosen by a publishing house, according to Martin. ‘How many followers people have on various platforms is always a selling point these days when trying to drum up retailer support,’ he says.


In short, the more followers you have on social media, the more a publishing house will take note of your writing.

 

I still think by far the biggest difference social media has created is in what is considered author potential.


Martin Hughes, publishing director and CEO of Affirm Press

 

Connectivity & Community


According to the What’s New In Publishing blog, ‘63% of publishers say finding new audiences will become more important for them’ in 2021.


Online, readers are repeatedly exposed to news about a book’s release that is timely, easily circulated and quickly digested. They are also able to share the content themselves, generating traffic to their own platform: then comment, like, chat, message, subscribe, DM, Tweet and create reels to share their own review.


Never has it been this easy to have such a widely networked book club – and publishers are taking full advantage.

But are book trends really indicative of what readers want? Is social media a healthy way to acquire new books and market fresh releases?



The Negatives


Repression & Representation


Despite our tendency to assume that viral videos are representative of what the public is calling for, this isn’t always the case.


According to The Sydney Morning Herald, there is a ‘perceived and actual power of social media when it comes to issues of cultural appropriation and the cancel culture’ influencing acquisition processes. Content that is bound to be sensitive will be filtered from the printing press; marginally for better, but occasionally for worse.

This video by @itsdivya explains how publishers tend to cash in on online trends through ‘Instagrammable’ book covers. These shareable trends extend across all realms of the publishing industry – book production, design, marketing and content creation. Video: itsdivya.


Our fixation on what will sell best has always been at the forefront of publishing, but there’s a possibility that online trending patterns and algorithms exclude some material from hitting the spotlight. As Martin says, ‘We publishers make the most of trends when they appear,’ but ‘it’s critical that we stay focussed on the qualities that have kept books at the forefront of culture since Gutenberg.’


A Quick Turnaround


Online trends, buzz and fads can often add undue pressure on publishing houses to catch the latest ‘thing’ before it loses momentum. The wheels of production grind so slowly that it’s not always helpful or realistic to follow what’s popular in social media spaces.


In our interview, Martin explained, ‘We were the last people onto colouring books a few years ago and missed it by a mile.’ As a result, he believes that what is trending is often more important when considering a book’s pitch, rather than formulating the ideas for the books themselves.


A Social Media Future


The impact of social media on acquisitions and book marketing has always been contentious – as with every historical bump, independent publishers will always have to balance making thoughtful, representative and original content with online algorithms and reading fancies.


With social media, readers are given a chance to share, exult, complain and direct the flow of publishing in a direction that suits them. We are now seeing more diverse genders, races, sexualities, experiences and stories than ever. There’s a hell of a long way to go yet, but when used wisely, social media might help us get there.


Thanks a bunch for reading with me,

Maddy x


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