[MUSIC - B.Ford Bounce City: Reading Rainbow]
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm Melissa Harris-Perry and you're with The Takeaway. Americans buy more than 800 million books a year. Even though the pandemic era bump in book sales has stabilized, publishing remains a multi-billion dollar industry. With all those dollars to be made, publishing houses work pretty hard to get titles into the hands of readers. Today, that means harnessing the power of social media, specifically influencers.
[MUSIC - B.Ford Bounce City: Reading Rainbow]
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Take Penguin Random House. With more than 4.5 billion in annual sales and more than 15% of the global market, Random House is a publishing juggernaut. If you head on over to their website, you'll find this invitation.
Voiceover: You'll pick a handful of titles from the monthly email that you're interested in to potentially feature on your account. You are under no obligation to post, and we'll mail them to you. It's that easy.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: It's not like influential book recommendations are a new phenomenon. Remember back in 1996 when Oprah Winfrey single-handedly transformed the book world with the launch of Oprah's Book Club?
Oprah Winfrey: What we want to do is start a book club here on the Oprah Show because I know a lot of you are in reading clubs out there and you have a book of the month and so forth, and I want to get the whole country reading again.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: The Oprah Effect didn't just sell books, it altered America's relationship with reading. Nearly 30 years later, social media book influencers may not have the single-handed power of Oprah, but this generation of reading recommenders is bringing a whole new vibe to sharing the love of reading.
Speaker 1: Okay, I finally finished reading the first book in the Sesame series, and I have also very much to say.
Speaker 2: There's a Trans Rights Readathon taking place on BookTok this week, and I wanted to show you the book that I'm going to be reading. This is Nevada by Imogen Binnie.
Speaker 3: There are some books that I will accept no criticism on. I just don't want to hear it. I don't want to hear it.
Speaker 4: I love reading novels about complicated family dynamics, especially between mothers and daughters and between sisters, so I was so, so excited to check out In the Time of Our History by Susanne Pari.
Kelsey Weekman: I'm Kelsey Weekman and I'm an internet culture reporter for BuzzFeed News.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Kelsey stopped by The Takeaway to talk about the digital world of book influencers.
Kelsey Weekman: A book influencer is someone on the internet who gives recommendations or opinions or shares other book-related content.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, when you're saying shares book-related content, I have, in my head, one vision of an author out here trying to hawk their wares. [chuckles] "I have spent the past five years of my life writing this thing. Here's my brief video, and I'm pleased by my book." Is that what we're talking about?
Kelsey Weekman: That's definitely part of it. There are a lot of authors who sell their independently-published or even just promote their books on TikTok or Instagram or YouTube or what have you, but it's even more than reviews. It's people who enjoy reading, who are getting on and talking about books, whether they enjoyed them, whether they hated them, whether they recommend them to a certain set of people. It sounds broad because it is. It really is so many different things across so many different platforms, but what unites everything is just a love of reading and of books.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, are the books typically more likely to be novels fiction, here's the latest story in the world, or does it include the non-fiction? Is it like, "Oh, I'm swooning over First Lady Obama's latest offering to the literary world?"
Kelsey Weekman: It's definitely more fiction, I would say, but there's a space for non-fiction as well. For instance, the latest celebrity memoir or a forgotten celebrity memoir or anything like that can take off, but it's largely fiction of the fantasy, romance, fantastical genre.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: When I think of book-influencing, version one is Reading Rainbow, and book influence two that I think of is quite literally Oprah's Book Club. Every author was clamoring to be on that list. Is this different?
Kelsey Weekman: It's a little bit different in that it's more democratized. There are certain books that are very popular on TikTok or BookTok, if you will, and those books get everyone talking, but it's not just coming from an Oprah. It's coming from a collection of Oprah's who are making recommendations. Since a lot of these social media platforms are algorithm-based, you get a lot of recommendations for anything, not just books but in clothes or music or things like that that are very specific to your taste and what the algorithm has gathered about you over time.
You might see more recommendations that are tailored to you or a lot more than just one post per month coming from Oprah. You'll see 10 different books that one person has read over the past month that they recommend to different audiences. It takes that celebrity book club idea and breaks it down and hands the authority to all sorts of different people from all sorts of different backgrounds, but what they have in common is that they have a reputation as someone who is good at giving recommendations or good at providing insight behind a book.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: We know that the book influencers influence people to buy the books. Do we know that they influence people to read the books? As a college professor, I can tell you, owning the book does not necessarily mean [chuckles] that the person is reading the book.
Kelsey Weekman: I'm actually sitting beside an enormous stack of books that I just haven't read that I'm going to pass along because I know I'm not going to get to them because I bought them in a moment where I was really excited, really in the mood and that mood fizzled out. I can't guarantee that people are reading all of these books, but I do know that people are making a lot of content, making a lot of videos, and doing posts about having read those books.
That's what is keeping the popularity going, is that one book will be really popular and all of these really influential people will be posting about it, but then it'll stay really popular for weeks because people are picking those books up and reading them and keeping that cycle going. A lot of the fun of buying a book that you saw on the internet is the fact that you don't have to be in a classroom or in a book club to be able to discuss it. You can just hop online and join in this conversation that's happening all around you. I think there's definitely an incentive to actually read these books. I think the fun of it, for me anyway, is having a conversation.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: All right. Stick with us. We've got more in the social media world of book influencing right after this. It's The Takeaway.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: You're with The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry and I'm still with Kelsey Weekman, internet culture reporter for BuzzFeed News. We're talking about the ways the American publishing industry is using social media influencers to boost book sales through spaces like BookTok. I told Kelsey I'm skeptical that social media with its quick burst of animation-drenched information can nurture the attention span and engagement required for reading pleasure.
Kelsey Weekman: In a way, it is a lot easier to watch a quick TikTok recap of a popular book, but it's so much more fun to take the time to read that book and then watch 50 TikToks about it. There's a little bit of something for everyone, and especially, say, you're not a big fantasy reader, but everyone is talking about this new fantasy book. You can just watch a TikTok about it and know what's going on and move past that or you can basically enter your own little independent study where you dig into it as much as you want to and you keep looking for more information as much as you want to.
I think it actually encourages people who are wired for the internet. I would describe myself as someone who is very "internet-brained", who has a really low attention span. It sells reading to you in that format, in that quick, obsessive, low attention span format so that then you are inspired to invest in something more deeply. I guess I have a more-- I just have a very optimistic approach towards this because that is what happened with me. I was a big TikTok watcher, a big YouTube video watcher, and I've turned myself into a reader just by actually following these rabbit holes that these influencers are sending me down.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: We're living in a time of certainly unprecedented in the past 100 years, restrictions of books. Legislative book bans, the attempts to remove books from syllabi. I'm wondering if the notion of banned books and the politics of banning books is also connected with book influencers. Do they ever suggest reading the thing that your local elected representative says you should not read?
Kelsey Wakeman: Absolutely. That is actually how I've been introduced to a lot of banned books. People will often make videos with recommendations of books that have been banned. They'll go deeper on why you should read one particular book that's been banned. They even do what's called readathons, which are an older concept. There was just recently one where a whole network of book influencers decided they were going to read books about trans characters for a couple of days. Because of that, people became aware of a lot of books that are being banned or at least discussed politically a lot right now.
It is influencing people to, one, check these out or to find out more about them so that they can know they're missing out on, or what people are trying-- the content of the things that some people want to ban. It's just a really great way to get educated on not only more text and more literature, but on what we as a society are trying to figure out is okay or not. It's really fascinating to me. I think that book influencers have a major opportunity to talk more about this. Every year there's a week or so where people celebrate banned books, but I've noticed, especially over the past few years, posts like that really transcend just a week. It is something that is in regular conversation for a lot of influencers.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Kelsey Wakeman is an internet culture reporter for BuzzFeed. Kelsey, thank you so much for book-talking with us here.
Kelsey Wakeman: Thank you so much for having me.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: We're not turning the page on our book conversations just yet because book influencers are just one example of the many ways social media has transformed the ways we read.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Even as internet trends come and go, one thing hasn't really changed, we still love our local libraries and so do you.
Renee Button: My name's Renee Button and I'm in Hillsboro, Oregon. My library has a library of things where you can check out things like ice cream makers, musical instruments, Lego games, canning equipment. It is also community driven and collaborative and inclusive.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Far from dooming public libraries to irrelevance, the internet gave them new avenues to engage communities and democratize access to information like offering free Wi-Fi and access to computers, online music libraries, subscriptions to research databases, archives, and more.
Kristen: Hi, there. My name is Kristen from Westminster, Colorado, and I absolutely love my local library. The people there are so kind and so friendly and so welcoming of absolutely everybody. I love how easy it is. I love that the app makes it easy for me to put things on hold. I love just wandering the stacks and browsing the selections that the staff have pulled out. I love that the library gives me access to learn absolutely anything I want to learn from cooking, to gardening, to craft.
Marilyn Gross: My name is Marilyn Gross and I'm from Downingtown, Pennsylvania. My local Chester County Library is a lifeline for me. Information, education, updates on state, local, national, and international news, entertainment, civic involvement, a source of senior independence for me, and of course, technical support. I could not live without it.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Another way that libraries have adapted is by loaning out digital eBooks and audiobooks, but a recent federal ruling has put this practice under threat. In 2020, several book publishing companies sued the Internet Archive, that's a nonprofit digital archive. They were sued over their sharing of digitized books. Publishers argued that this violated copyright law. The presiding judge ruled in favor of the publishers, but he also wrote that even the digital lending that libraries do violates copyright law. Here's Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle speaking at an online press conference in March.
Brewster Kahle: Digital learners need access to a library of books, a library at least as deep as the libraries we older people had the privilege to grow up with.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: If this ruling is allowed to stand, libraries may be forced to purchase expensive e-book licenses from publishers, which they have to renew every few years. That's something many libraries just can't afford. We're going to be watching how this story unfolds, but in the meantime, let's keep sharing the love for our local libraries.
Beth Reynolds: Hi, my name is Beth Reynolds, and I'm calling from St. Petersburg, Florida. I love librarians. I can access a lot of information that hasn't been digitized yet. I've always said that you should always be friends with a research librarian. The depth of their knowledge is so incredible, and they just know where to find things.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: While plenty of you mentioned the books and programs you love, many of you also told us about the people in your libraries, the librarians.
Peggy Carey: I'm Peggy Carey from Montrose, Colorado. What I mostly love about our library is the staff is so kind and helpful to people who struggle with almost anything. I've seen them help with tax forms, with using the library computers, the printers, the copy machine, and they do it all just happily and kindly.
Beth: Hi, my name is Beth [unintelligible 00:16:22]. I'm calling from Silver Spring, Maryland. I love my local library. I get a lot of personal attention when I ask for book suggestions and ideas about what to read, what to research on that I may need for my work. I really don't want to just go digital on everything. I really appreciate the people who work there. I feel like it's family and I always feel welcome.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Thanks to everyone who called in to share the library love. Now, more and more librarians have been sharing that love right back on TikTok. We're talking with a couple of them next. It's The Takeaway.
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