Marketing books pivots from the Gutenberg press to ‘Booktok’
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Since the invention of the Gutenberg press in 1440s Germany, books have housed our stories, knowledge, and culture. For centuries, books and their authors were the world’s primary gatekeepers of religious and scholarly thought among European colonizers.
Printed books have survived the invention of the radio, television, video games, the internet, social media, and virtual reality. While it remains to be seen how much longer printed books will exist alongside whatever the metaverse ends up being, Lindy’s Law—the longer something has existed, the more likely it is to have a longer remaining life expectancy—suggests that books will be around for many years to come.
Book publishers have existed since the early printer-publishers of European religious texts in the fifteenth century, but the United States is where the marketing and sales of books flourished. In the nineteenth century, as literacy rates rose and cheaper production methods spread, printer-publishers produced more books. More books meant more competition for readers’ attention, which led to publishers’ specialization in finding an audience without the added expense of maintaining a printer.
Just as the expansion of the internet necessitated search engines for content discovery, the early expansion of the American book trade necessitated book publishers for the acquisition, development, and positioning of books in different genres. As the market for potential readers within a literate middle class grew, book publishers who were traditionally resistant to the free market started to apply their artistic creativity to the promotion of their books.
Keep reading to find out how an industry criticized for its elitism and snobbery got over itself to increase access to books and expand readership.
What did growth look like for the early American book trade?
The period between 1920 to 1940 is known as the Golden Age of publishing. This is when the United States developed its own thriving book industry of internationally recognized authors. But before this growth could happen, a few things had to come first to prime the market for books.
For most of the nineteenth century, the American book trade had a bad international reputation. The country was overrun with illegal reproductions of British titles for which the U.S. didn’t hold copyright. Authors like Charles Dickens and the Brontë sisters received no compensation for their works sold in the U.S.
But during that same century, the U.S. was discovering and nurturing its own set of star authors. Novelists and poets like Mark Twain, Edgar Allen Poe, and Louisa May Alcott were legitimizing American literature beyond its British roots. When American authors and their publishers began to see international success, they pressured U.S. Congress to adopt the International Copyright Act of 1891, which protected American authors’ copyright abroad and foreign authors’ copyright in the U.S.
With new copyright laws in place, American authors and publishers could see financial success both domestically and abroad. The increased potential market for books triggered the industry’s growth in the twentieth century, along with these five factors:
- Increased literacy
- Printing innovations
- Growing middle class
- Railway travel
- Newspaper and magazine growth
In 1870, 20% of all Americans over 14 didn’t know how to read, compared to 80% of African Americans. By 1920 those rates had fallen to 6% and 23%, respectively. Expanded access to public education and reading material created more potential readers, regardless of socioeconomic status.
Printing innovations decreased production costs for publishers, which allowed them to sell more books to more people.
Steam power and mechanical typesetting made printing faster and cheaper. Cloth cases replaced expensive leather cases. Paper, which was made by hand until 1800, made up more than 20% of book costs in 1740 — in 1910, that number had fallen to 7%.
Production cost reductions allowed publishers to slash prices on books, which many were happy to do because they were passionate about increasing general readership among Americans. For example, Nelson Doubleday, son of Frank Nelson Doubleday who founded the Doubleday publishing company, was described as a man who “would rather have ten million people read a book at fifty cents than one million at five dollars.”
Growing middle class
After World War I, the roaring 20s produced a growing middle class of people who had more access to disposable income. As books became cheaper, more people had more money to spend on books.
As the public education system expanded, books were seen as a way to improve oneself through knowledge—and in the 1920s, more people could afford to become self-described scholars.
The Golden Age of book publishing was preceded by the Golden Age of railway travel, which lasted from the 1880s to the 1920s, after which cars and planes ate into the passenger train industry. But until then, if you were middle class and traveling in the late nineteenth century or early twentieth century, it was most likely by train.
Trains were faster than horse and buggy, but the journeys were still long. Train stations were an ideal placement opportunity for books, particularly mass market paperbacks that were smaller and cheaper than hard-bound books.
Newspaper and magazine growth
Early journalists and book publishers saw themselves on the same team as cultural communicators. When publishers needed PR help, newspapers and magazines were happy to oblige. Media outlets treated book news as real news, and when editors left publishers to seek opportunities elsewhere, journalists reported on it.
In the spirit of collaboration, the book trade grew alongside newspapers and magazines because the people who ran media companies were passionate about the power of reading. They also knew sales would grow if the amount of readers increased. Thus was the collaborative spirit of media in its heyday — they knew they had to create the readers first, then worry about attracting the right attention to the right subject matter.
How books were positioned during the Golden Age of publishing
During the 1920s and into the Depression, books were positioned as a way to achieve the American Dream.
Similar to how YouTube learning is positioned as an alternative to formal (expensive) education, books were promoted as cheap, self-directed learning. While more people gained access to high school education during the early part of the twentieth century, post-secondary education was still seen as something for the upper class.
Middle class folks, however, could afford the cost of a book after publishers were able to slash prices because of printing innovations. To make up for their lack of political power, the middle class began to tout book ownership as a way to gain cultural clout instead. In Beauty and the Book: Fine Editions and Cultural Distinction in America, Megan Benton writes, “Books were hailed as affordable, plentiful, colorful dabs of civilization to be lavished throughout the gracious modern American home, and many heeded attentively.”
Lower classes, targeted by the first mass market paperback publishers during the Depression, were especially sold on messaging about cheap education. Haldeman Julius, one of the first of paperback publishers known for Little Blue Books, created a 60-volume high school education course and asked: “Is a High School Education Worth $2.98 to You?”
Early book advertising: Minimal and classy
Before publishers embraced the free market, the book trade was resistant to sales and marketing tactics that were picking up in other industries. Publishing was filled with people who saw themselves as the cultural elite, and flashy advertising was seen by some as lacking class.
A lot of early book advertising is known for its minimalism and simplicity. Publishers took out cheap ads in newspapers that were keen to help with promotion. As paperback publishing became more popular, publishers relied heavily on jacket copy to speak for the books rather than eye-catching headlines.
In these first ads for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) and Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926), both published by Scribner, the tone of the copy is almost paternalistic. As publisher, Scribner stands before the reader as a cultural gatekeeper, saying of Hemingway’s first novel, “The publisher advises you to be very much aware of this book from the start.”
But not all publishers shied away from aggressive marketing tactics. Simon & Schuster, founded in 1924, often spent up to ten times more than their competitors on advertising. They were also among the first publishers to use what Simon called “planned publishing” tactics, a reversal of standard acquisition practices. Instead of only accepting manuscripts from authors, Simon & Schuster generated their own ideas based on market analysis, then hired writers to execute the books.
Keeping up with cultural trends with planned publishing allowed Simon & Schuster to grow throughout the 1930s, ending the decade with the acquisition of Robert Fair de Graff’s Pocket Books, America's first paperback publisher.
In 1945, they published the first “instant book” after the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Instant books were ones that were published quickly after an event to capitalize on a cultural trend, foregoing much of the usual 18 to 24 months of a book’s normal production schedule. As it turns out, speed to market was a primary driver of growth during wartime so books could keep up with other growing media channels like newspapers and radio.
The New York Times Best Seller list
In the 1940s, Americans voraciously consumed news to keep up with the events of World War II. Similar to how we doomscrolled Twitter 24/7 during the early days of the pandemic, Americans glued their ears to the radio and their eyes to the newspapers.
At the same time, paperback publishing geared toward the middle class — now with even more disposable income due to wartime economic stimulation — was in full swing with titles meant for titillation and escape. In 1942, The New York Times saw an opportunity to establish a national version of their regional best seller list.
While the New York Times has been publishing their New York Times Book Review supplement since 1896, the New York Times Best Seller list was the first and most significant national authority to report on book sales — as in, what was popular.
As a precursor to Amazon’s digital best sellers selections, The New York Times Best Seller list was the first meaningful instance of social proof beyond the purview of publishers and critics. In the beginning, the list gathered sales numbers from select cities in the United States and published the books’ ranking by region. Eventually the paper got rid of the city lists and instead published one national list, gathering data from 22 major cities.
The exact details of how a book ends up on the best seller list is a trade secret. Some publishers and authors have even scammed the system, buying their way onto the list or creating a fake book to prove the list isn’t credible.
But the list is still significant for book marketers because it’s self-fulfilling. If you make it on to the list, more people will be more likely to buy the book because they think it’s popular among readers just like them. According to a 2004 study by economics professor Alan Sorensen, inclusion on the list boosts sales by 57% for debut authors. Overall the list increases sales by 13–14%.
The New York Times Best Seller list was a boon for new literature, which, in the 1940s and 1950s, finally began to see success that could match the classics. But the impact of the NYT list pales in comparison to another marketing lever for books: our desire to share and discuss books within our own niche communities.
Book clubs: Rooted in feminism
While the first book clubs are thought to come from the Socratic circles of 400 BCE, the first ones in the U.S. were started by women.
In the 1600s, it wasn’t the easiest thing to be a woman who loved to read. In 1634, Anne Hutchinson formed a secret women’s group to discuss weekly sermons on a ship headed to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. From then on, women’s book clubs spread throughout the United States to provide women access to ideas and intellectual discussion during a time when those things were condemned for women by mainstream society.
In 1926, advertising copywriter Harry Scherman capitalized on the book club trend. He established the Book-of-the-Month Club, which was the first subscription model for books. Rather than promoting classic literature, Scherman’s book club marketed “newness” by selecting new releases most likely to become best sellers, based on the endorsements of a panel of five respected writers and journalists.
With 40,000 members in its first days, the Book-of-the-Month Club had figured out how to sell books on a subscription basis. The success of direct mail marketing in the 1920s made the Book-of-the-Month Club particularly attractive to people who got excited about getting new stuff in the mail. With predictable revenue, the Book-of-the-Month Club was also able to keep costs reasonable and give people the illusion of control by letting them opt-out of selected books with an alternative option.
By the end of the twentieth century, more than one million people were part of the Book-of-the-Month Club, and other book clubs had begun to model their best seller-first approach to the promotion of books.
Throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, (white) women have continued to make up the majority of book club members. A 2014 survey of American women who read at least one book per month found that 56% were in book clubs. The majority of the 5 million Americans who belong to book clubs are women.
While much of these demographics can be traced back to the feminist origins of book clubs, at least some of the modern growth of book clubs can be attributed to Oprah. On September 17, 1996, Oprah made her first book club selection: The Deep End of the Ocean by Jacquelyn Mitchard.
In the years that followed, an Oprah’s Book Club selection could see more sales than if it ended up on the New York Times Best Seller list without Oprah’s endorsement. According to a Neilsen report, the non-Oprah version of Uwem Akpan’s Say You’re One of Them sold just 47,500 units, whereas the Oprah-branded trade paperback sold 405,000 units—an 853% increase in sales. During just one week in June 2012, Wild by Cheryl Strayed saw a 220% jump in sales.
Oprah discontinued her original book club in 2010 — her last selections were the Charles Dickens classics Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities — but book clubs continue to thrive in a different form on TikTok.
What’s next for young readers? BookTok and Wattpad
Contrary to the popular gripe, “Kids don’t read anymore”, many of them still do. According to a 2020 survey by Book Baby, 45% of gen Z girls and 27% of gen Z boys say they read fiction books at least a few times per month. They’re just more likely to discuss those books on BookTok than be part of a book club in their previous form.
According to Pulsar, BookTok Twitter mentions and Google search volume have been rising in bursts during the pandemic. Dubbed as “the last wholesome corner of the web” BookTok is a dynamic book culture full of reviews, dramatic readings, comedy skits, and literary criticism through a gen Z lens.
BookTok lives in three places: TikTok (obviously), Twitter, and Wattpad. On Twitter, BookTok gets wide reach among both gen Z and millennials, with almost half of participants under the age of 25 and more than 80% under the age of 34.
On a simple level, TikTok houses interpretation, Twitter houses discussion, and Wattpad houses content creation and community. If you see something on TikTok, you may be inspired to unpack it on Twitter as a hot take.
But the most significant cultural trends in books today live on Wattpad. Wattpad is where people of all ages are creating their own fanfiction and young adult fiction through community collaboration. True to gen Z’s digital content creation roots, young people are inventing new ways to engage with literature through a web2 platform that centralizes writing, reading, promotion, and community.
Literature isn’t dying—it’s just being reinvented, like it has been over and over for centuries.
Wattpad boasts 90 million users and more than one billion content uploads, 1,500 of which have been adapted by Wattpad Studios and Wattpad Books, the company’s publishing imprint. Young writers can see wild success on Wattpad, like Must Love the Playboy (14 million reads), or My Brother's Best Friend (65 million reads).
It’s a shame when elitist naysayers dismiss self-published fanfiction or young adult fiction as frivolity, for several reasons.
First, the young writers who publish on Wattpad are developing their voice with more community resources than their predecessors, which can teach them about writing for a particular audience at a faster rate.
Second, the stories of young people growing up amidst a pandemic, a climate crisis, and the worst income disparity of our time deserve to be heard—there should be more of these stories, not less.
Rather than give in to alarmist attitudes, just as critics of the mass market paperback did in the early twentieth century, we should embrace a new form of digital book publishing — community driven, rewarding of great stories, and more diverse than they’ve ever been.