Remember when everyone was predicting that print would die out? That turned out to be nothing but a scary bedtime story. The NPD Group recently reported that sales of print books rose 2% for the first half of 2018, adding on to the 1.9% growth they reported last year (which was a 10.8% surge from 2013). Meanwhile, ebook sales are slumping. They dropped 4.8% for the first six months of this year, according to the American Publishers Association, putting them well on their way to dropping the same 10% in sales they did last year. Audiobooks, however, have seen a steady incline of listeners: The Pew Research Center found that the number of 18-29-year-olds who listen to audiobooks has risen from 16% in 2016 to 23% in 2017. But listening to books is still a niche activity when compared to print. Ypulse data shows that 56% of 13-35-year-olds enjoy reading books, 38% read books in their free time for pleasure, and 23% of 13-36-year-olds spend money on books in a normal month. Just take it from one 26-year-old female: “Books inspire [an] experience that can’t be replicated by anything digital.”
But despite reading being one of Millennials’ and Gen Z’s biggest offline hobbies, traditional bookstores are struggling to find ways to market to young demos, as indie retailers and Amazon take more market share. Barnes & Noble’s woes are weighing heavily on the industry. The bookstore’s plan for bouncing back with new, revamped locations with surprisingly expensive in-store restaurants reportedly aren’t working. One chairman called the bottom lines of the experiential marketing move “awful.”
What the book industry should be doing is looking to Instagram, which has become the virtual coffee shop of young bibliophiles looking to share their passion. Bookstagrammers, influencers that post all about their love of books, are racking up millions of followers on the platform—all looking to see what to read next. Mashable reports that accounts from online up-and-comers and traditional celebrities (like Reese Witherspoon) are generating buzz about books—brands could learn from their success, and team up for #sponcon.
We spoke to James Trevino, a bookstagrammer who’s inspiring his 197K followers to read with his elaborate posts. He didn’t set out with the goal of gaining niche fame, but now he’s actively engaging with fans from around the world that talk about their passion for reading in the comments, and carefully curating which brands he chooses to share with them. We asked him all about his Instagram accounts (he also runs @MyBookFeatures with Elizabeth Sagan), when and why he teams up with brands, his opinion on how brands can improve their social media presence, and more:
Ypulse: Ypulse has found that Millennials and Gen Z are still buying physical books, despite predictions that print would die out. Do you have any ideas as to what’s driving that interest?
James Trevino: I think social media as a new way of advertising is driving it. I also find myself buying way more ebooks than physical books because they are more comfortable to read, and they’re actually cheaper. But I think the main reason sales haven’t dropped as much as was forecasted is because publishers got way better at marketing them.
YP: A lot of book brands are trying to build up their social media accounts, like Harper Collins and Barnes & Noble. Do you think that brands can build an authentic connection with their followings the way that influencers like you have?
JT: So, a lot of these brands have huge followings but the problem is the engagement. I haven’t seen a single brand, either book brand or ordinary brand, that has good engagement on Instagram. That’s why brands reach out to influencers: because influencers have a more genuine connection with the people that follow them. That’s the basis of influencer marketing. Because if brands had a strong enough connection with their target markets, they wouldn’t need influencers.
Basically the answer is no, they can’t build that much of a genuine connection because in the end, they are businesses trying to sell products. They don’t really care about the people that follow them.
YP: We’ve seen that some brands are doing a better job of it than others.
JT: Some have done a good job and have good engagement but it’s still not on par with influencers. The book and publishing industries are very slow markets to adapt to new trends and that affects the way publishers interact with social media. A lot of publishers and book brands still find the concept of paying an influencer very strange, too.
YP: Do you ever work with brands?
JT: I do lately. I have found myself working with some brands mainly because I’m not that business savvy. I’m pretty bad with contacting the brands I want to work with, so I’m thankful that they reach out to me. And when they do, it’s flattering, but a lot of the opportunities are not fitting for my page. I have this mentality, and I think a lot of people agree, that when an influencer starts working with a brand, a lot of people seem to think they’re a sellout. If it’s not something that I’m really passionate about and that I really like, then it’s not worth the effort. That’s mainly because it took me forever to build a following and the people that follow me are very dear to me, and I don’t think that it’s good to continuously throw ads at them.
YP: Are there any partnerships that you were especially excited about?
JT: Yes, actually, there’s something coming up, but I can’t talk about it. There’s also one I had with a newly founded app that’s basically Goodreads but better. What got me to collaborate with them was this particular feature that allows you to thumbs up or down a book. I know it’s not a common thing to talk badly about books, but some books require criticism and it is so useful to that have that thumbs down button. It’s called Whatbook, and it’s basically a Tinder for books. That’s how I sold it to my followers. It’s just great, and I think that’s the partnership that I was most excited about. It was so fitting for me, and I’m so happy that they reached out to me.
YP: How do your followers respond to branded posts?
JT: I actually have never gotten an angry reply to brand deals. My strong belief is that as long as the quality of the content doesn’t drop, as long as I put just as much time into creating content for campaigns as I do for my non-branded posts, I don’t see why someone wouldn’t like my account anymore.
YP: Your posts can be pretty elaborate. How much time do you devote to your social media accounts, and what does your typical day of working on your accounts look like?
JT: It takes way too much time. I used to post daily, and it was not manageable. There are some pieces that are easier to put together that take only about half an hour to an hour. But most of them require about two hours of work, not even counting the fact that some of them require editing and special effects. So, the posts take from half an hour to three hours and that doesn’t include time spent engaging on social media. Instagram is the type of community that requires constant engagement. At some point, I used to go and have about six to seven hours of social media a day, which is a full-time job without the benefits of a full-time job. It was just too much do that daily, and I had my day-to-day life to worry about so I decided to dial it back to four posts a week so that I can actually have the time to engage with everyone that engages with my posts.
YP: Are there any trends you’ve noticed when it comes to which posts generate a lot of engagement and which generate less?
JT: Fandom posts always generate more engagement. The strongest fandom on social media and especially on Instagram is Harry Potter. The Harry Potter-themed pics I post do extremely well and the same goes for Percy Jackson. In 99.9% of the cases, fandom posts do better, so that’s why fandoms are so important.
YP: What role do you think fandoms, like the Potterheads for Harry Potter, have played in the popularity of reading among young people?
JT: It’s absolutely enormous, and you can see that by the fact that a lot of people are using fandoms to drive traffic to their to their Instagram accounts. Fandoms do amazingly well [for social media engagement]. There have been a few over the last couple of years that have sparked an interest in reading in people that have never read regularly before. For instance, Harry Potter and Twilight. A lot of people talk shit on Twilight, and I’m not the biggest fan, but Twilight made a lot of people read so we should give credit where it’s due. Twilight, Divergent, and [fandom series] in general helped create a new generation of readers.
There’s this stigma that the book market has towards them though, and I think it’s partially justified because, despite the fact that the genre drove a lot of people to read, it also produced a lot of unfortunate books.
YP: Do you have any advice about how to interact with fandoms?
JT: I only post fandoms that inspire me and that I am truly a part of. I have a lot of Harry Potter– themed posts because Harry Potter made me read in the first place. I’m one of those people that started reading because of Harry Potter. I have a lot of Lord of the Rings posts because Lord of the Rings is my favorite franchise of all time. I have some Shadowhunters posts, not a lot because I’m not the biggest fan, but I actually did enjoy it. The books aren’t masterpieces, but they are a blast.
But I don’t have 50 Shades of Gray posts because people notice when you are not passionate about something and when you do it just for the sake of getting attention. I think genuine connection to a fandom can work miracles for you.
YP: Do you have any goals and aspirations as a bookstagrammer?
JT: I think getting people to read. My feed and pictures are a bit unusual for the big fan community. I think the reason why they resonate with so many people is because people that are not readers or are just casual readers tend to like them, too. I get so many DMs asking me, “I haven’t read in such a long time/I used to read as a kid/I was never into reading, but your pics made it looks so cool. What would you recommend for me to read?” I love getting those DMs. I kind of feel a tiny bit like J.K. Rowling by inspiring people to read, and the fact that I inspired people to read is just so amazing. I love it. And of course, that way I can I can bring exposure to my favorite books.
YP: Can you tell me about your other Instagram account, @MyBookFeatures?
JT: @MyBookFeatures is my favorite part of Instagram. I’ve been on Instagram for two years and there were a lot of ups and downs. Until the beginning of this year, I never took the account seriously and I took a lot of breaks, so every time I returned to Instagram, I was frustrated that my engagement dropped. That’s how the algorithm works, and with the algorithm changing again this year, it has become increasingly difficult for smaller accounts to get noticed. I think the reason my page got more popular than others is because of pure luck. I’m not saying that the work I put into it doesn’t count because it clearly does, but a lot of it was being noticed by the right page that featured my post at a certain time and by a publication that decided to write an article about me. It was a lot of luck, and I know a lot of people don’t have this type of luck.
And so @MyBookFeatures is a project I created with my good friend Elizabeth Sagan. Basically, it’s a feature account where every day we feature a bookish pick from one account that use the #mybookfeatures hashtag. It’s just so rewarding because I talk to a lot of these people on DM [Direct Message] afterwards and it’s such a small thing for me to do—it takes 10 minutes of my time to scroll through the feed and choose the pic and post it—but it’s such a big thing for the other person. I think that’s my favorite part of Instagram nowadays. I’m passing the torch to other bookstagrammers because I know how hard it was for me to grow.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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