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4 July 2024

The curse of influencer publishing

Why a new Ebury imprint by the social media entrepreneur Steven Bartlett is bad news for books.

By Sarah Manavis

The slow creep of influencer publishing – the rise of social media stars being handed fat advances and big marketing budgets for memoirs, self-help books and novels – is accelerating. Since the late 2010s, bestseller lists have been riddled with social media-famous-first personalities, from Chidera Eggerue’s What a Time to Be Alone to Florence Given’s Girlcrush to Stacey Solomon’s Tap to Tidy. Major publishers such as Penguin and Hachette now have dedicated influencer programmes, giving select TikTok book reviewers early access to proofs and working with them directly on promotion; literary agencies have been created to cater to influencer authors.

The popularity of these books, coupled with social media’s ability to make certain books fly, have led to an increasingly entangled relationship between influencers and publishers – one they both claim is good for books, bringing new audiences to reading for the first time. Last week, Ebury announced that it will be partnering with the influencer and podcaster Steven Bartlett to create a brand-new imprint, Flight Books, which Bartlett will lead. The imprint will publish books pulled from guests on Bartlett’s podcast, The Diary of a CEO, in which he interviews popular business figures and influencers – such as the hard-right guru Jordan Peterson, the Love Island finalist Molly-Mae Hague, and fellow podcaster Jay Shetty – about their lives and businesses. The imprint’s first book, to launch in October, will be from the ultra-marathon runner Russ Cook (known by his moniker the “Hardest Geezer”), which will reflect on his recent charity runs in Hardest Geezer: Becoming the First Person to Run the Entire Length of Africa. (The second has been announced too, from the Married at First Sight UK and Celebs Go Dating presenter Paul C Brunson). Ebury said it would be adopting an “AI-powered, data-first, growth-focused” strategy to enable Flight Books’s “great authors and their books to get the credit and reach they deserve”.

This news may feel inevitable, not just for books but for the creative industries in general. Influencers are beginning to eat into all manner of art forms, be it TV, film, music or fashion. Bartlett is also an obvious choice for this kind of imprint, due to his thick contact book and his aptitude for selling himself. Despite his fame and “marketing genius” status, his business background is impressively thin: his first company, Social Chain, which he claimed was worth $600m sold for only £7.7m last year; his expertise since joining Dragons’ Den in 2021 largely amounts to asking budding entrepreneurs: “Have you tried selling your product on TikTok?” Even his podcast, as the name suggests, began as a series of personal soliloquies about business, only taking off when he started interviewing other people about their experiences instead. His ability to spin this CV into reputational gold is evidence he could do the same for social media stars and their ghost-written books – something that has now become an established part of the publishing industry.

The march towards influencer ubiquity – and even Bartlett’s own rise – may be predictable. But that only obscures how alarming and significant this is for books and art. The emergence of an imprint such as Flight Books increases the already concerningly high volume of influencer books, pulling budgets away from authors with no social media platform, and institutionalising the influencer-publisher relationship, lending publishing power to someone whose sole value is their ability to go viral.

The publishing industry may always have relied on less intellectually substantial or interesting commercial novels to make money – the phenomenon of publishers buying poor-quality books they can sell with the right marketing is nothing new. But this obsession with influencer publishing will lead to even quicker, cheaper books bought up based on inconsistent social media metrics. All of this is before considering the damage that may be wrought by publishing-by-AI. It is a canary in the coal mine for the direction this industry is headed, where quality is slowly dropping down the list of reasons to put something on shelves.

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Those defending this new era of publishing have a convincing response: that publishing houses need big commercial successes in order to support smaller, more literary authors who write books with greater artistic merit but aren’t going to shift many copies, or generate lucrative film and TV rights deals. They say these influencer books help to fund more experimental and creative work. They also argue that these books are a way into reading for non-readers, a gateway work that gets them into bookshops, where they might pick up something else. Flight Books will undoubtedly be spun as an honourable means to that end.

But these arguments are hollow. It’s hard to see how disposable influencer books build loyal audiences or “create” readers – a patronising suggestion that helps publishers evade responsibility for not engaging readers in the first place. It’s difficult to imagine someone, for example, enjoying a book by the “Hardest Geezer”, then ordering the latest Sally Rooney, and later picking up something more obscure. The argument also hinges on the shaky premise that the people who appear on the podcasts you put on while out for a run or doing laundry have a devoted audience that will pay £20 to read about their life. (There are plenty of examples of influencers being given large advances, presuming their audience will buy the book in droves, only to scrape a fraction of the investment back). Such arguments rely on the false idea that this is the only way to make money in publishing now – as if commercial publishing can only be dominated by whoever is the most recent person to go viral for performing a stunt online. And as Kit Caless, co-founder of the independent London publisher Influx Press, told this magazine in 2021: “the Reaganomic idea of a trickle-down system” in influencer publishing is ultimately a “fallacy”.

There is plenty wrong with the identity of the gatekeepers in publishing – which people (and from which backgrounds) get to decide which books get commissioned or who gets the promotional push to reach the readers they deserve. This problem won’t be solved, though, by redistributing power to those influencers doing the same in their own field: elevating the trite, cheap and banal and masking self-serving aims under the banner of pseudo-expertise and altruism. Instead, it will inevitably lead to a market in which there’s no room left for good books.

[See also: Elif Shafak: A travelling tribute to James Baldwin]

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