On The Shelf: Bookstagrammers On Reading As A Profession

Behind the #shelfie

Book reviews have evolved from the print media of yesteryears. Readers can now utilise social media platforms like Instagram and YouTube to give bite-sized feedback and show support for local authors and publishers. Book reviewers on bookstagram (book Instagram) offer a non-academic yet informed critique of the work from the point of view of the readers themselves. By pairing eye-catching flatlays and shelfies with honest comments, these bookstagrammers are set to take the literary and digital worlds by storm.

Meet the bookstagrammers

“It was just originally a means to destress when I was reviewing for the bar examinations,” shared Eunice about her bookstagram @nerdytalksbookblog. "I started posting photos of my latest haul, then some recommendations and book reviews, and it kind of grew from there." She currently has a following of over 35,000 and growing.

It was the same experience for Jessica of @endless_chapters. "I was getting bored studying for finals and I've been following the bookstagram community via my personal account for a while. Hence, I thought why not just create a bookstagram for fun?" She also has a blog where she posts more in-depth reviews and exclusive interviews with Malaysian authors.

In Athirah’s case, making a bookstagram was a natural progression after maintaining a blog since 2011. "I started reviewing books in 2011 on the blog and decided to be a bookstagrammer in 2016 because I saw book pictures on Instagram accidentally," she said. "I was thinking like, why don't I try to share a book review on a new platform because as I know there are not so many bookstagrammers in Malaysia?" In addition to Instagram and her blog, she also conducts talks about reading and the bookstagram community in Malaysia.

But for Olivia, the woman behind @ohomatopoeia, her bookstagram was a by-product of her work as the books and arts correspondent for The Straits Times. Since 2016, she’s been writing book reviews for the publication on a weekly basis. Instagram allows her to express another side of creativity by pairing her outfits with the book cover of what she's currently reading.

The books that started it all

There were two books that prompted Olivia’s bookstagram journey: Balli Kaur Jaswal's Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows — "It has a very beautiful purple and pink cover, and one day I happened to be wearing an outfit that mirrored those colours exactly" — and Neil Gaiman's Norse Mythology. Olivia recalled dressing up as Death, as characterised in Gaiman's graphic novel series The Sandman, and posting a photo and link to her interview with the author on her Twitter. "To my surprise, [Neil Gaiman] retweeted it and then it went a bit viral and the story got way more hits than I suspect it would have, had I just posted the link with no picture."

Others happened to start at just the right time. "If my memory serves me right it was Looking for Alaska by John Green, it was such a hit book back then," Eunice mused. Jessica also got hooked by another John Green book (now movie) The Fault In Our Stars. "Young Adult Contemporary was the genre that everyone seemed to rave about in 2015 and easily, I was addicted to it as well."

Unsurprisingly, the boom of young adult fiction helped a lot of book-related content creators to jumpstart their journey to being lucrative book reviewers. It’s not just Instagram and bookstagrammers. A subset of the digital book community, called "BookTube", utilises YouTube to deliver book reviews, interviews, and other book-inspired content to a wide audience. Similar to the bookstagram community, the local booktuber community is still in its fledgeling stages. 

In countries such as the United States and United Kingdom, such content creators can have as many as 400,000 subscribers and millions of views per month on their channel; therefore, a good avenue for promotion. Some popular BookTubers have had the opportunity to interview personalities like Michelle Obama, Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, and Stephenie Meyer. And that’s just in the past decade.

On making ends meet

However, it’s not as profitable for book reviewers on bookstagram. All of those we interviewed currently view their bookstagrams as a side hustle. Aside from Olivia, Eunice is a lawyer by day, Athirah is an executive at a training & consultancy company, and Jessica is a full-time teacher. Earning money through their platforms would have to wait until the local book industry further evolves and embraces book reviewers as part of their marketing strategy. Paid reviews are few and far between.

What they do get in exchange for their honest reviews typically include free books and merchandise, which some can view as profit. They can also get the opportunity to read an upcoming book ahead of time when publishers send advanced reader’s copies (ARC) for their perusal.

Athirah gave a brief rundown on her process. "Usually, when I buy books, I will do an unboxing, book review, share the quotes and I will tag the publishers and the authors. If I get a chance to collaborate, I will consider it as a way to keep in touch with the publishers and the authors."

"Instagram and Youtube is a highly persuasive medium to get people into reading more. It is an advertisement in itself," Eunice noted.

A legitimate hustle

But the passion that goes into reading books for bookstagram cannot be underestimated. It takes artistic vision, integrity, and dedication to grow a platform from zero to a thousand. The attention from the followers has helped our interviewees get in contact with publishers, both local and international. "Yes, most publishers look at the following count [to be included in their mailing list], but not only that, you have to have a solid and comprehensive content to back up the huge following," Eunice said.

"I think for a beginner, it is enough to have basic reading, writing and photography skills,” Athirah said. "But if you want to get more exposure from others (followers and publishers) you need to learn to upgrade those skills from time to time."

In some cases, you also have to be a fairly quick and objective reader. Olivia reads an average of three books per week, outside of her working hours, as a book reporter. "Once I drove to Chinatown at midnight to pick up the first copy of Margaret Atwood's The Testaments released in Singapore, read it and reviewed it by 7AM." Others, like Jessica, prefer to take their time and read whatever and whenever the mood hits.

Keeping the love of reading alive

So what keeps them going even after reading thousands of pages per week? 

Aside from connecting with fellow bibliophiles, book reviewers on bookstagram (and BookTube) have helped encourage people to keep or get into reading — may it be in digital or physical form. "There are many people who might otherwise not follow book news but are ardent users of Instagram, who have discovered books through #bookstagram, and who have looked up my news articles because of my posts," Olivia shared.

"I think my role is not just to guide readers towards good books but also responsible reading practices, to make them aware of the importance of supporting independent publishers and bookstores and keeping the industry sustainable," she further expounded. She makes it a priority to also feature Singaporean authors and books on her platform. 

"I think our book industry (in Malaysia) is trying their best to encourage people to start to read, sustain the good quality of books and maximise the platform to ease the readers to get good books. Every time I get a chance to deliver a talk about bookstagram, I advise others to read whatever they want to read either nonfiction or fiction, thin or thick books, any genre, and so on. Because different people have different interests," Athirah added.

For Jessica, it’s about representation. "I think readers are mostly more aware of the importance of reading and reading diversely," she enthused. She also touched on the #OwnVoices Movement, where books with underrepresented characters written by authors with the same marginalised identity are given the attention they deserve. "I'm so happy to see that many readers are reading more own voices books and start to be more critical about the books they read, choosing to read what books represent them the best."

Eunice echoes this sentiment, saying "There's a big disparity between white authors and authors of colour, not only in their book deals, but with the promotion of their books and their audience reach. That's where book bloggers come into play, to at least level out the playing field." In a bid to promote diversity, she also joins group read-alongs with fellow bookstagrammers that have a general theme. "The whole month of August we are reading books written by Filipino authors. I always try to participate in a read-along such as this to widen my reading preference and for me to read more diversely."

The future of bookstagram and reading

So while they play a big role in promoting books across a wide demographic, local book reviewers on bookstagram have a long way to go before reaching the same level of profitability as those in the United States. But that’s not to say it will never become a reality. Eunice thinks it’s possible, especially in the Philippines, where the Manila International Book Fair is almost at par with the book conventions in the US. Readers from across the country travel to Manila to get the chance to meet various authors throughout the week-long affair.

In Malaysia, there are several programs that cater to promoting book reading both to readers and non-readers alike. For example, the Ministry of Education Malaysia through the National Book Council of Malaysia (NBCM) organises the annual Kuala Lumpur International Book Fair in collaboration with six Malaysian book industry associations to promote reading across all ages. Since 2013, it has recorded more than 2 million visitors.

Meanwhile, Singapore seems to be the hotpot of literary scenes. As Olivia observed, "The literary scene in Singapore is booming, perhaps even faster than the infrastructure can keep up with." The book world, it seems, will continue to grow in the coming years. "There are more writers than there are people to edit, publish, sell and review them. It is an extremely exciting time to be covering books."

(Cover photo from: @nerdytalksbookblog)

Get to know the award-winning Singaporean author Ovidia Yu.

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