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22 September 2021

Inside the rise of influencer publishing

Many bestsellers of the last few years originated outside “traditional” publishing houses. But are influencers good for books?

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

“We live in a world where everyone is a brand,” said Laura McNeill, a literary agent at Gleam Titles, which was set up by Abigail Bergstrom in 2016 as the literary arm of the influencer management and marketing company Gleam. Many of the UK’s biggest selling books of the last few years, from feminist illustrator Florence Given’s Women Don’t Owe You Pretty to Instagram cleaning phenomenon Mrs Hinch’s Hinch Yourself Happy, have been developed at the agency, and then sold for huge sums to traditional publishing houses. 

Celebrity autobiographies and commercial non-fiction have existed for a long time. Gleam Titles’ modus operandi is more specific: it has a focus on “writers who are using social media and the online space to share their content in a creative and effective way”. The term “author”, for the clients with which McNeill and her colleagues work, may be just one part of a multi-hyphen career that also includes “Instagrammer”, “podcaster” or “business founder”. These authors – whose books will become part of their brands – therefore require a different kind of management to traditional literary writers. “I do think the move to having talent agencies with in-house literary departments comes from these sorts of talents being a bit more demanding,” McNeill said. “I don’t want to come across as if those clients are difficult. But they are different.” 

The biggest draw for publishers bidding for books by influencers is that they have committed audiences ready and waiting. Gleam understands the importance of these figures: on its website, it lists authors’ Instagram and Twitter followings beneath their biographies. When publisher Fenella Bates acquired the rights for Hinch Yourself Happy in December 2018, she noted Sophie Hinchcliffe’s impressively quick rise on Instagram, having grown her following from 1,000 to 1.4 million in just six months. Upon publication in April 2019, the book sold 160,302 copies in three days, becoming the second fastest-selling non-fiction title in the UK (after the “slimming” recipe book Pinch of Nom).

Anyone who has harnessed such an audience to sell products, promote a campaign, or otherwise cultivate a successful personal brand is an exceptionally desirable candidate to a publisher that wants to sell books. What’s more, the mechanics of social media means the size of these audiences is easily measurable, making the authors “cast-iron propositions” for publishers, said Caroline Sanderson, the associate editor of the trade magazine the Bookseller, who has noticed a huge increase in the number of books written by social media stars over the last couple of years. 

A spokesperson for Octopus Books, which published Florence Given’s Women Don’t Owe You Pretty in June 2020, suggested that a book deal can raise an influencer’s profile too. When the book was acquired, Given had approximately 100,000 followers on Instagram. “Her book was acquired because she was an exceptional writer, not because she was an influencer,” they said. “By the time it was announced, she had 150,000 followers and when the book was published her audience had jumped to circa 350,000 followers. As the book and its message grew, so did her audience.” Women Don’t Owe You Pretty has spent 26 weeks in the Sunday Times bestseller charts according to data from Nielsen BookScan, and, as of August 2021, has sold over 200,000 copies.

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Such authors also bring skills that a traditional novelist, for example, would not be expected to have. “These people are incredibly good at marketing themselves”, McNeill said, “which puts a lot of the work from the marketing and publicity departments of publishing houses onto the clients themselves.” In her previous role as an agent at Peters Fraser and Dunlop, a literary and talent agency that was established in 1924, McNeill sold books by Chidera Eggerue, also known as “the Slumflower”, and by “Chicken Connoisseur” Elijah Quashie, best known for his Youtube show The Pengest Munch. During the process, McNeill realised she was working with a new type of author: Eggerue and Quashie “wanted to talk about the branding and the image and the 360-element of it a lot more than any other writers I’d worked with before,” she said. 

Some may feel inherently suspicious of the authenticity of anyone who makes a career out of social media, a pursuit often deemed trivial or shallow. Such suspicions – which often appears as disdain, or even ridicule – are prevalent in the publishing industry regarding books written by influencers, McNeill said. She told me she has observed a “snobbishness” about the books she works on, “from industry insiders way more than from the public”. One criticism often levelled against influencer authors is that they use ghostwriters. “There’s a misconception that none of these people write their own books, but plenty of them do,” McNeill said. “They’re creative talents and perfectly capable, but they might just need a bit more hand-holding and editing.”

When Quadrille published What a Time To Be Alone: The Slumflower’s Guide To Why You’re Already Enough in July 2018, it sold 1,961 copies in its first week, according to Nielsen BookScan. That should have placed it fourth on the Sunday Times general hardbacks bestseller list the following week, but “they just picked it out”, McNeill claimed, and put it in the “manuals” list instead, because its subtitle used the word “guide”. To her, this demostrates the industry’s unwillingness to understand the nature of the book, and to accept its significant audience.

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The continued popularity of books such as Sally Rooney’s Normal People and Charlie Mackesey’s The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and the Horse, as well as hugely successful titles published in the last 18 months, such as Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, have been credited with buoying the publishing industry during the pandemic. It makes sense that best-selling titles of any genre are helpful for the industry as a whole, as they get people excited about reading and into bookshops. But Kit Caless, co-founder of the independent London publisher Influx Press, called “the Reaganomic idea of a trickle-down system” a “fallacy”. The suggestion that a highly commercial book, such as Stacey Solomon’s Tap to Tidy, which spent ten weeks in the Sunday Times bestseller list, could be a “gateway drug” into reading is “patronising” and “tokenistic”, he said. “If they’re having to use Stacey Solomon as a Trojan horse to get people to read, I think that’s a failure on behalf of publishers to engage those readers in the first place.”

For the Bookseller’s Caroline Sanderson, it’s exciting that books still hold value among people who have found their success in the digital age. “I always think it’s amazing when people have built a platform on Twitter or Instagram, or increasingly TikTok, and the thing that they most want to do is a book, that it’s still the ultimate medium,” she said. She thinks the trend signifies “a real vote of confidence in what books are and what they can do and who they can reach”.

Sanderson said she has heard instances of people who, excited to read a book after seeing it advertised on social media, have asked “Where can I buy that?”, because they’ve never considered purchasing a book before. “It shows that there are people out there who don’t buy books but might. For me, that’s a holy grail. If they buy one book, they might buy another.” Though, she accepts, because the commercial non-fiction market is composed of a lot of “non-traditional” book-buyers, the likelihood is that they will buy online, often via Amazon. “The extent to which they benefit our highstreet bookshops is a concern.”

McNeill said that what she finds most exciting about the authors she works with – who are increasingly professionals who use social media to share their expertise, such as the astrophysicist Becky Smethurst, known on YouTube as “Dr Becky” – is that she’s breaking new ground, working with writers who wouldn’t necessarily have been given a chance to write a book for a mainstream publisher before. “I do think there is not enough risk-taking in publishing,” she said.

Caless agrees that mainstream publishing is too cautious, but considers Gleam part of that mainstream. Publishing a book by someone who already has a sizeable social media following is inherently risk-free, he said. While smaller publishers like Influx might “have an innate desire to take risks,” he said, “most publishers will publish books because they think they’ll make money; not because they think they’re good or healthy for culture.” 

McNeill believes her books do both. “I’m excited by people who are able to communicate their expertise to a wider audience,” she said of Dr Becky, whose second book, an accessible exploration of black holes, will be published by Macmillan in 2022. And, time and time again, such an attitude has also proved to be immensely profitable. “These books had to fight for their place in the market. But now no one’s able to close their eyes to the phenomenon of how well these people are able to sell and communicate to their audiences.”