Millennials are buying books based on celebrity and social media endorsements
Join the club.
At a time when the nation’s social and political climate is more tense than ever before, there’s one novel thing that’s managed to transcend party lines and age differences. Book clubs are seeing a rise in popularity, especially among the millennial set, thanks to celebrities and social media driving the masses to the book industry. On Instagram alone, the hashtag #bookstagram has more than 18 million posts.
According to the Pew Research Center, nearly a quarter of American adults say they haven’t read a book in whole or in part in the past year, and adults with a high school degree or less are five times as likely as college graduates to report not reading books in any format. They’re also less likely to own smartphones — which is where a substantial amount of e-book reading has taken place since 2011, and largely why millennials are some of the biggest book consumers.
So exactly who is reading books? White adults under the age of 50 with annual incomes over $75,000 seem to be the most likely to ingest the written word based on the Pew Research Center’s findings from a survey conducted in January 2018.
Oprah famously paved the way for celebrity book clubs when she launched Oprah’s Book Club in 1996. The widespread popularity of her titles over the years, including James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth and Elie Wiesel’s Night, sold millions of copies, becoming overnight bestsellers as a direct result of their inclusion in the club. Now actresses Reese Witherspoon and Emma Watson are among the latest wave of A-listers who have created their own version: The feminist book club.
Witherspoon’s curated list celebrates women’s stories like their current pick Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Jaswal, while Watson’s public club known as Our Shared Shelf conducts meetings through Goodreads to discuss poetic memoirs like Therese Marie Mailhot’s Heart Berries. On Shonda Rhimes’ site Shondaland, there’s a section devoted to recommended weekly reads with synopses written by her editorial staff detailing the plotlines of each book. Major draws to this club are the virtual events available to fans, like reading a Q&A between a Shondaland editor and Leslie Odom, Jr. about his new tome Failing Up.
But even with events and social media, bookstore sales remain lower than they have been over the past decade. According to Statista, bookstore sales in the United States reached more than $10 billion dollars last year, down from $11 billion the year before, and down from $15 billion in 2010. Author Earnings reports that during the last three quarters of 2017, ebook sales accounted for $1.3 billion and audiobook sales earned $490 million. Print sales have also moved online, with 45.5% of Bookscan’s reported $687 million sales coming from Amazon alone, according to Author Earnings.
Some millennials are part of good old fashioned book clubs. Sarah Ostwald started one six years ago with some friends from college. “We meet once a month at my apartment, where we do a potluck style meal and chat about the book. We go around the room and everyone rates the book of the month via a star system, and then we talk about characters, why we did or didn’t like the book, what we wished was different or better about the plot or writing, and then we always do final questions of the night,” says Ostwald. Her group chooses books three months out, and they select them based on what’s trending or works by authors they’ve read and loved. “A lot are just coming out, and then we see them recommended on TheSkimm or on Reese’s Instagram after we’ve read them,” says Ostwald.
Melissa Kravitz, 27, started a book club about three years ago. “I was out to dinner with a few friends and we were chatting about books we were reading, and then decided it would be fun to purposely read the same books at the same time,” says Kravitz. After tapping into their respective social networks and forming a solid group of eight to 10, the girls dubbed themselves “CGBC” which stands for “Cool Girls Book Club” — and the only rule they’ve created is that they have to read books by female authors. “We meet once a month, and everyone usually brings a snack and a bottle of wine or two — and last summer we met for an entire weekend!” says Kravitz.
Last year, actress Emma Roberts co-founded Belletrist, a book club that features a different book and independent bookstore every month, where readers can follow along online or on Instagram. In an interview with Elle, Roberts said, “Every month, we want it to be a surprise of what exactly the material is gonna be. Of course, we’ll have the book and we’ll have an interaction of sorts with the author. But sometimes, that’ll be a video, sometimes it’ll be an interview, or something completely different.”
Basically, book clubs are no longer just groups of people gathering in someone’s living room to discuss a book. The tech industry and social media have enabled clubs to become virtual, which allows for much more depth, knowledge and sharing in these circles. They’re also incredibly convenient, because someone can participate anytime, anywhere. Forbes contributor Jo Piazza reported that independent, women-owned bookstores like Books Are Magic in Brooklyn have seen steady success as a result of social media.
TheSkimm, which offers a free daily newsletter that pares down newsworthy stories into easily digestible blurbs, also publishes SkimmReads every Friday — a book recommendation feature that has driven book sales through the roof. Once mentioned in their weekly list, books have moved up an average of 3,000 spots on Amazon’s Best Sellers, according to Business Insider. Another fun incentive: The ladies behind TheSkimm suggest wines that pair well with each read.
Some sites are so influential that authors have noticed a spike in sales when their titles are mentioned as suggested reads. Stephanie Danler, author of the novel Sweetbitter, tells Moneyish, “We saw sales that we directly attributed to TheSkimm. I never ask for specific numbers, but I know that it has tangible impact — and that very few media outlets can do that.”
Actress Yara Shahidi recently tweeted a photo of herself posing with a stack of books she claims she’s currently reading. The image was liked 8.5 thousand times, retweeted 832 times and garnered a flurry of comments from followers intrigued by her selections.
— Yara shahidi (@YaraShahidi) March 26, 2018
Bookstores also see an uptick in sales as a result of celebrities touting their latest reads. Colleen Callery, marketing coordinator of the independent bookstore Books Are Magic in Brooklyn, N.Y., tells Moneyish: “Obama’s book picks have been really popular. For the last few years, he has come out with a list of books he’s loved that year. We had a shelf dedicated to books he endorsed this year, and people ate them up.”
Similarly, the shop makes note of books Oprah mentions in case people start asking about them. “We find that people usually like to hear about something from multiple sources before buying it; that could just be three different Instagram accounts,” says Callery. “And there are some books like Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng that seem to have been boosted a lot by the endorsements of celebrities — in this case Reese Witherspoon [who has announced], she’s making it into a movie.”
Donna Garban, co-owner of Little City Books in Hoboken, N.J., tells Moneyish, “It depends on the celebrity, the book and where they mention it. NPR interviews, late night interviews, Obama’s lists, Oprah’s choice and New York Times By the Book interviews all help us.”
But Callery from Books are Magic says it’s hard to draw the same sales parallel between social media buzz and actual book sales. “Instagram book influencers definitely help create buzz, but it’s hard to pin those to in-store sales. We’ve seen a lot of love from bookstagrammers visiting the store and attending events, and that seems to be the primary role they play for us,” she says.
Though bookstores have struggled to stay relevant over the last few years, Callery says Books Are Magic is thriving because they stock topical and well-written books. “We’ve found that people love recommendations, hosting great events and using our social platforms to stay connected and build a literary community. (And) it helps to have some nice Instagrammable features in the store, like the neon sign and the wall mural,” says Callery. But ultimately, their curated book lists and packed schedule of author events almost every night are what keeps people engaged and coming back.
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