If you see someone walking down the sidewalk in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, wearing, say, well-worn Doc Martens and a canary yellow bucket hat emblazoned with the title of Sally Rooney’s new novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You, what do you think of them? Maybe you will not think anything because you don’t know what “Beautiful World, Where Are You” means. Or perhaps you will imagine that they are well-read, part of the literati, or simply hyper-trendy. When you see this person, you might admire them, even if you think the merchandise is embarrassing, because you will know they have been identified by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux—Sally Rooney’s U.S. publisher—as the kind of person who would be a good litfluencer; the kind of person that would provoke others to question how they got such items. As John Berger once aptly described publicity, “the happiness of being envied is glamour.” The influencer knows they are sparkling, too.
The Beautiful World, Where Are You campaign—which includes hats, pencils, tote bags, coffee carts, and $67 candle-making workshops—is the latest demonstration of how books are becoming full-blown brands, and by extension, a way for people to shore up their own. For those close to the publishing and media worlds, the Sally Rooney moment has felt like the peak of book-as-brand. (An irony, as others have noted, since Rooney is both a self-proclaimed marxist and writer of an autofictional character who hates media attention.) But if you received surprise shipments of Beautiful World merchandise and posted a picture of it, you have implicated yourself as an advertising device by generating aspiration in others. We are in the “era of status merch,” as GQ described it. Which raises the question: How does status merch work, beyond creating demand through scarcity? And why did publishers decide slapping a book’s cover design onto vehicles and clothing items was the right way to advertise forthcoming books?
Books are becoming full-blown brands, and by extension, a way for people to shore up their own.
As the The New York Times recently reported, the litfluencer could be someone explicitly famous, like Lena Dunham. But often, one of the main ways publishers create hype through merchandise is by providing the swag to personalities inside social media communities like “Bookstagram” and “BookTok,” where influencers are popular specifically for their literary advertising prowess.
Beautiful World, Where Are You is not the first mainstream novel to expand into product and make use of influencer marketing, despite the din of online chatter that suggests otherwise. Leah Williams, a bookseller in New Jersey who has been working in bookstores on and off since 2015, says she’s received merchandise for book launches since the beginning of her career. “Especially tote bags.” But the strength of that merchandise as an advertising tool has only grown with the maturation of social media litfluencers. Jessica Goodman, author of the new young adult tale, They’ll Never Catch Us, recently worked with her publisher, Penguin Random House, to create a few pairs of custom Nike sneakers to disseminate to celebrities, Bookstagrammers, and BookTokers. The sneakers were an easy extension of the book, Goodman told me, due to their resemblance to the pink and gold running shoe that graces the cover of her new novel.
Merchandise enables people to create engaging content in a way a book cover can’t on its own. “When the folks who received the shoes would post unboxing videos (they came in custom boxes, too), or share photos of the shoes,” Goodman said, “I believe it helped spread the word about the book.” It’s the same technique that fashion, health food, and exercise brands use to sell their products. They acquire ambassadors, give them free goods, and encourage them to discuss the product on social media—which not only allows the influencer to reap the benefits of the items, but also gives them the opportunity to secure themselves as reliable advertising professionals.
When it comes to targeting the right kind of influencers in the world of literature, the process is not unlike how publishers choose a book cover design: by turning to their file cabinet for something similar. Brianna Robinson, a publicist at Wunderkind PR, an agency that handles marketing and public relations for publishing houses, told me about her research, which typically involves finding influencers who focus on particular genres. “Say we’re working on a big thriller,” she proposed. “We’ll look at a thriller that is as close to that as possible that recently came out. Who are the people on TikTok? Who are the people on Instagram talking about that type [of book] across the board? Like bloggers, reviewers, and YouTubers.” Sometimes, her team will simply go down the list of the top book influencers, as reported by publications like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, but Robinson says she has the most success when she creates a curated list. Authors get invested in this process too, she says, and sometimes send the agency the names of influencers who should receive advance copies and merchandise.
Influencer marketing has become so indispensable to mainstream book publishers that some litfluencers are no longer willing to be paid solely in status. Many of them are what Robinson referred to seamlessly as “pay to play”: influencers who require direct payment in exchange for a social media post. “It’s honestly very frustrating for us,” Robinson explained. “It really hurts the smaller authors, debut authors, even diverse authors.” But she understands that big publishers have set a precedent for some creators who have made real businesses out of their influence—which has become strong enough that some Barnes & Noble stores even have tables dedicated to “the hottest books on BookTok,” Robinson says.
i know this is gen x of me but i think book merch is embarrassing
— Emily Gould (@EmilyGould) August 24, 2021
Some books are so anticipated that a publisher can put forth a large sum of money for their publicity. While good merchandise doesn’t necessarily correlate to the quality of the literature, Robinson thinks it’s probably a strong indication of a high-budget book. Celebrity authors, controversial topics, and/or returning authors are all popular reasons why a publisher might put forward a lot of money for one of these campaigns. It’s unclear how directly merchandise impacts sales—except for in particular cases like Goodman’s, where her publisher used merchandise as a direct incentive: her publisher sent hair ties to shoppers who showed their book receipts—the social amplification a post receives is its own form of currency.
Merchandise has always held sway for people like Robinson, who have worked in book blogging in addition to publicity. But platforms like TikTok have definitely raised the stakes. “I think [merchandise] has become more necessary now, where you need something else to remind you about the book…especially because Instagram is way more popular now than Twitter and Facebook,” she explained. “Where [before] you could have just posted, ‘I’m reading Sally Rooney’s new book,’ now you have to show the celebrity holding the new book and the bucket hat.”
Perhaps the latest trend of posting pictures on Twitter to accompany a line of text is a result of this collective expectation for all things visual. For media personalities, Twitter might be the nucleus, but even people who put a high value on the written word want to see what others have. Personal brands go beyond what you say; they are a result of the collective image you put out into the world via the multiple platforms readily at your disposal. It’s easy to dismiss the absurdity of an author’s book becoming a monetized piece of merch, but the truth is that the strategy is effective. As Robinson pointed out toward the end of our phone call, “It’s not just about the book anymore. It’s about the experience.”