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Why is Influencer Publishing so Popular?

Explore the rise of influencer publishing, where social media personalities transition to authors, reshaping book promotion and author branding strategies.
on May 14, 2024
Why is Influencer Publishing so Popular? | Frontlist

Take a look at why social media personalities are switching to book publishing, which guarantees blockbusters and buzz. What it implies for authors without a strong web presence.

Penguin India, the subcontinent's largest publisher of English-language books, hosted a celebration in Mumbai last month. All accounts point to a spectacular event, with a five-star hotel as the venue, stars and famous faces in the crowd, and enough food, beverages, and discussion to satisfy even the most discerning visitors. "We had Durjoy Datta dancing, Ankur Warikoo doing some creative stunts with the attendees, and tote bags, books, and other merchandise as party favours," explains Pallavi Narayan, head of communications and brand partnerships at Penguin Random House India.

The evening's other headliners included actor and novelist Neena Gupta, radio DJ Stutee Ghosh, and sexual health educator Tanaya Narendra aka Dr. Cuterus. The event was dubbed Penguin Palooza and was intended to commemorate the "book influencer" — someone who has carved out a niche for themselves online by writing book reviews, conducting author interviews, and creating other literary material. Their followers could be as little as 5,000, compared to the millions that a fashion or food influencer attracts. Over the last few years, Indian publishers have taken a lead from their Western counterparts, increasingly relying on social media influencers to generate hype about new publications. However, we are already seeing influencers attempting out the position of author themselves, and often creating bestsellers. 

According to entrepreneur Ankur Warikoo, known for his YouTube videos on personal finance — his most successful video (4.4 million views) is on "how to pay a 25-year loan in just 10 years" — when he first planned to write a book, "I was writing for an audience that doesn't read or has never read."

Masoom Minawala, a style blogger and fashion entrepreneur, released her debut book, She'll Never Make It (Juggernaut Books), last month. Minawala has 1.3 million followers on Instagram. On April 14, she shared the first post about her book on Instagram, with a blurred cover and an emotional remark about her "biggest project". 

The next day, she revealed the book's cover and announced its release. The same day, the book debuted at number one on Amazon in the overall books category, with over 800 orders placed in a single day.

Malini Agarwal aka Miss Malini, an entertainment content developer, launched her second book, Under the Influence (HarperCollins India), in March with a star-studded reception in Mumbai. Agarwal was an early influencer. "I was always this face on the scene of Bollywood that used to document it as a creator before the word 'influencer' was coined," she recalls.

Since the publication of her book, Agarwal has gone on a pan-India book tour, which includes both free and ticketed events such as a show, workshop, or guided conversation. While paid events are "a regular format abroad," the concept is taking on in India as well, particularly among celebrity influencer authors, according to Shabnam Srivastava, general manager-marketing at HarperCollins India. "Because their book launches have an added dimension in terms of the extra activities, they become almost a cultural event, which necessitates a pre-registration or ticketed entry."

In Agarwal's instance, her ticketed book launch offered the opportunity to collaborate with her — the golden ticket sought by aspiring creators and influencers looking to grow their own following.

Addressing Non-Readers

Minawala and Agarwal, like other influencer-authors before them, have created novels that are extensions of their online identities. Warikoo's works approach the concepts of self-improvement and money management in various ways. "In Minawala's case, it is her own story, probably the first time that a story like this has been told with absolutely brutal honesty," says Parth Mehrotra, editor-in-chief of Juggernaut magazine.

Agarwal shares her success story as a way to connect with and motivate aspiring content makers. In reality, most of these social media superstars' books fall under the self-help genre. 

For example, Warikoo, who has over 10 million followers on YouTube, LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, is the bestselling author of Do Epic Shit (2021) and Get Epic Shit Done (2022). He acknowledges that he was "not writing for the quintessential reader." I was writing for an audience that has a goldfish's attention span and prefers to read vertically rather than horizontally."

As a result, he claims, some people approach him to certify that his is the "first book they have ever completed". Warikoo's most recent book, Make Epic Money, was released in January and has sold more than 100,000 copies in just 40 days.

Today, the concept of a "influencer" is intriguing, and it includes both those who started their careers online by engaging audiences with amusing material and those who are topic experts with full-time jobs outside of social media. The latter would include doctors like Siddhant Bhargava and historians like Manu Pillai. Both groups of people are now writing books. When writing her second book, Agarwal adds, "I considered who the book is for and what relevance it will have." Who will pick up this book?"

"People who like me and want to learn more about me, which may be a small number, as well as those who want to be creators themselves, which is 46 million or more, right? I have to ask myself, 'Is what I'm saying relevant to them in any way?'"

But what drives influencers to become professional authors? "A book lasts longer and is more permanent. It won't disappear from your feed. People still believe that books provide legitimate knowledge," says Poulomi Chatterjee, publisher of HarperCollins India. "Books make you seem educated. Anyone who has written a book may confidently claim to be in the league of authors," says Agarwal, adding that it is difficult to have a book published by a traditional publisher.

Profit and Loss

Traditionally, India has held a conservative view of books, readers, and what book promotions entail. It's not commonplace for both readers and publishers to hear the phrases "commercial" and "literary" books used to describe not only sales statistics, but also content and, in some cases, quality. "People never equated social media creators or someone on the Internet as worthy of being able to write a book, because the belief always was that social media creators were a little frivolous," Agarwal explains. Resh Susan, who has been running her blog and Instagram page titled 'The Book Satchel' since 2015 and has a following of 54,000 on Instagram, says: "Some authors and readers believe that book content creators are not serious readers. Reviews should be long articles, not just captions."

But, like any good conversation, this one has evolved to respond not only to external forces such as trends and tastes, but also to internal assessments and inquiries. With this shift, publishers have discovered a whole new pool to fish in, turning to the Internet and social media to learn what readers, particularly younger groups, want to read about. Who better knows young people than influencers who have made it their mission to win the attention of millions of them? "I believe the sweet spot is having something intriguing, engaging, and thought-provoking to say, but saying it in the simplest way possible, so that you are democratizing your ideas rather than gatekeeping them. That is what works on social media," explains Leeza Mangaldas, a sexuality educator who published The Sex Book (HarperCollins India) in 2022. Mangaldas' primary question is, "How do you compete with a smartphone?"

Of course, publishing is a mixed bag full of successes and failures. "If you go behind the hood, a lot of social media influencer books' second and third titles haven't performed as well as their first. This will suggest that you are essentially hiring a short-form storyteller. 

"When it comes to books, it works in some cases but not in others," explains Anish Chandy, literary agent and founder of Labyrinth Literary Agency. While sales of an influencer's book may be higher than usual, this does not guarantee a profit for the publisher. "Whether publishers are turning a profit on these books, that is going to be a function of what the publisher is paying to acquire the book, and eventually how much the book sells." However, Chandy notes that regardless of profit or loss, "the publisher's biggest headache" - having the book noticed by an audience — is taken care of. And "the publishers are willing to pay a premium" for it. The fact that social media stars have a loyal following surely contributes to the book's popularity. "The main benefit that a Minawala or Warikoo has is that they do not rely on traditional media for publicity. They have direct lines of communication. This is their power. Mehrotra of Juggernaut claims that their power is in the millions. Penguin Random House India and HarperCollins India, the country's two largest English-language publishers, publish 300 and 250 new titles, respectively, each year. According to Chandy, with over 10,000 registered publishers and a vast self-publishing machinery, estimating the number of English-language books released in India today is practically impossible. 

To stand out in this market, the ability to communicate directly with millions of potential readers is invaluable, not just for authors but also for publishers.

Publishers are increasingly adapting to new ways of delivering stories. When it comes to influencer books, they must not only think outside the box, but also consider classic tales and format. "We sometimes use the format they've been utilizing on their social media pages and other places. In the example of sexuality educator Leeza Mangaldas, we chose a Q&A structure for her 2022 book, The Sex Book, which replicated the format she utilizes in her online content," adds Chatterjee from HarperCollins India.

The impact influencers have had on the economy, brands, and people's minds is undeniable. "When there's no denying that someone has made a mark, then everything opens up for them," Agarwal says, adding that it's not surprise that publishing doors have opened for them as well.

While Chandy believes that social media is more significant in certain genres and categories, such as self-help, than in literary fiction, one thing is certain. "The day of the author just writing a book and sending it out to the publisher, and having no presence or putting in no effort to market or publicise the book is over."

A view from the opposite side

T.C.A. Raghavan, an author and former diplomat whose fourth book, Circles of Freedom (Juggernaut Books), was recently published, believes that the growth of social media for book promotion has made a difference since "conventional ways of obtaining books are under stress. There are far fewer booksellers than there were previously. Newspapers are similarly limited in their ability to cover new books and provide reviews. So social media obviously has an impact. If you're not on it and your publisher isn't good at it, it's a disadvantage." Raghavan adds that traditional avenues continue to account for around 70% of his book promotions. That is not to imply he does not wish to use social media.

"I believe everyone wants to have younger readers. Regardless matter the platform, when you get an opportunity, you take advantage of it."

He believes that the larger terrain may not have changed as much as it appears. "My gut instinct is that social media raises awareness about the book and the author, and more people learn about your book's release more soon than they would have in the past. But not everything converts into sales," he insists, adding, "I'd like to believe that books are commodities that sell slowly. In the end, if you aggregate sales over time, everything balances out, including the big instant impact of social media. I'd like to believe that it depends on the quality of the book, not the author's profile, whether offline or on social media."

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