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The New Authority in Great Books to Read: Who You Follow on Instagram

By Ben Crair

Books that have been recently recommended by Reese Witherspoon, Sarah Jessica Parker, Emma Watson, Lena Dunham and Emma Roberts.
 
Mari Maeda and Yuji Oboshi
Books that have been recently recommended by Reese Witherspoon, Sarah Jessica Parker, Emma Watson, Lena Dunham and Emma Roberts.

In May, Picador Books sent a copy of an upcoming thriller, Christopher Yates’s “Grist Mill Road,” to the actress Krysten Ritter. The publicity team was thrilled when Ritter, the star of the Netflix series “Jessica Jones,” agreed to blurb the book — and even more thrilled when, unprompted, she shared a picture of it with her 655,000 followers on Instagram. “There’s a good chance her Instagram is going to help the book more than her blurb on the back cover, which will mostly be seen by people picking it up in a physical bookstore,” says James Meader, Picador’s executive director of publicity.

Increasingly, book publicists are working to get new hardcovers into celebrities’ hands — not in hopes of a film option but a simple tweet, Instagram photo or Facebook post. These little endorsements can reach a much larger audience than an interview with the author on a popular television show or a rave review in a major newspaper. “In previous times, you would have the Oprah or Daily Show bump,” says Todd Doughty, the director of publicity at Doubleday. “Now you have the Reese Witherspoon bump from Instagram.”

Witherspoon and Ritter are two of several actresses, including Sarah Jessica Parker, Emma Watson, Lena Dunham and Emma Roberts, who share photos of their favourite books with millions of followers on Instagram. While it is difficult to isolate the impact of a social-media post from the other facets of a promotional campaign, nearly all the major publishing houses see these accounts as a way to connect with audiences that would be difficult to reach through the traditional organs of book publicity. Watson’s pictures, for example, go out to 38 million Instagram followers, while an interview on NPR’s popular “Fresh Air” radio program reaches about a million listeners. “It’s absolutely something we think about,” says Miriam Parker, an associate publisher at Ecco Books. “We try to get books to people with big social-media followings and are strategic about it.”

A person need not necessarily be a celebrity to attract a publishing house’s attention. “What we really look for is people who are a little more niche, who do make sense for a particular title,” says Lydia Hirt, the marketing director at Riverhead Books and Viking Books. Instagram’s director of fashion partnerships, Eva Chen, for example, is not a household name, but she regularly recommends books to her 850,000 followers. “She’s somebody who absolutely puts books in front of a group of people who may not have normally come across them,” says Cristina Gilbert, the vice president of sales and marketing at Bloomsbury. Chen’s endorsements of young-adult fiction are an unlikely pairing with her carefully composed photographs of beauty products, handbags and designer shoes — which is exactly what makes them so valuable to book publicists, who might struggle to reach her audience through more traditional outreach. Other book publicists have received promotional boosts from the comedian Patton Oswalt on Twitter and the fashion designer Zac Posen on Instagram.

It’s important to acknowledge that book publishers have always sent advance copies of books to the rich and famous in the hope that word would spread among the elite and then trickle down to the masses. (They call the practice “bigmouth publicity.”) The difference now is that celebrities communicate directly with their fans on social media — allowing them to highlight intellectual interests that are often ignored by the traditional tabloid press. Several actresses, in fact, are not only sharing the books they love but are actually building online communities around reading. And there are five actresses on whose promotional power nearly every book publicist agrees.

Mari Maeda and Yuji OboshiClockwise from top left: “Touch” by Courtney Maum (RECOMMENDED BY EMMA ROBERTS); “Too Much and Not the Mood” by Durga Chew-Bose (LENA DUNHAM); “Dunbar” by Edward St. Aubyn (SARAH JESSICA PARKER); “Sex and Rage” by Eve Babitz (EMMA ROBERTS); “Sour Heart” by Jenny Zhang (LENA DUNHAM); “No One is Coming to Save Us” by Stephanie Powell Watts (SARAH JESSICA PARKER); “The Lying Game” by Ruth Ware (REESE WITHERSPOON); “Abandon Me” by Melissa Febos (EMMA ROBERTS); “The Complete Persepolis” by Marjane Satrapi (EMMA WATSON); “The Alice Network” by Kate Quinn (REESE WITHERSPOON).
Clockwise from top left: “Touch” by Courtney Maum (RECOMMENDED BY EMMA ROBERTS); “Too Much and Not the Mood” by Durga Chew-Bose (LENA DUNHAM); “Dunbar” by Edward St. Aubyn (SARAH JESSICA PARKER); “Sex and Rage” by Eve Babitz (EMMA ROBERTS); “Sour Heart” by Jenny Zhang (LENA DUNHAM); “No One is Coming to Save Us” by Stephanie Powell Watts (SARAH JESSICA PARKER); “The Lying Game” by Ruth Ware (REESE WITHERSPOON); “Abandon Me” by Melissa Febos (EMMA ROBERTS); “The Complete Persepolis” by Marjane Satrapi (EMMA WATSON); “The Alice Network” by Kate Quinn (REESE WITHERSPOON).

REESE WITHERSPOON

The “Legally Blonde” actress regularly shares books with her 10.4 million followers on Instagram and has started her own online book club @rwbookclub. Witherspoon is also famous for turning books she loves into film or television projects. “Reese Witherspoon is actually getting these things into production,” Meader says. “Big Little Lies” soared on bestseller lists after Witherspoon turned it into a series for HBO; and on Instagram, Witherspoon has tried to convert fans of the television series into readers, encouraging them to check out new novels, like Liane Moriarty’s “Truly Madly Guilty.”

SARAH JESSICA PARKER

The star of HBO’s “Sex and the City” and “Divorce” plugs her favourite books, such as Ariel Levy’s memoirs, “The Rules Do Not Apply,” on Instagram, where she has 3.6 million followers. Parker also runs her own publishing imprint for Hogarth and recently launched a book club in partnership with the American Library Association, selecting Stephanie Powell Watts’s “No One Is Coming to Save Us” as the inaugural book. “It’s an amazing thing for this book that was selling at a really modest rate,” Miriam Parker says. “It gave this book a whole new life and whole new audience who trust SJP as a tastemaker.”

EMMA WATSON

A self-described “book fairy,” the star of the “Harry Potter” films and “Beauty and the Beast” rarely posts a picture of herself to Instagram without a book in hand. Watson has nearly 40 million Instagram followers, and she uses her personal Instagram account to promote her online feminist book club, Our Shared Shelf. Her recent selections include Maggie Nelson’s “The Argonauts,” Maya Angelou’s “Mom & Me & Mom,” and Gloria Steinem’s “My Life on the Road.”

LENA DUNHAM

That the creator of HBO’s “Girls” is a bookworm is no surprise: She frequently writes for The New Yorker and published her first collection of essays in 2014. On Instagram, Dunham has 3.3 million followers, and she shares everything from old classics to snippets from upcoming books. Dunham also excerpts new books in her online newsletter LennyLetter and partnered last year with Random House to start her own publishing imprint.

EMMA ROBERTS

Like Watson, the actress Emma Roberts covers her Instagram account in books. She makes frequent use of the hashtag #currentlyreading and channels her 11 million followers them toward her book club Belletrist. Roberts urges her fans not only to read more but to visit her favourite bookstores also. “Happy #IndependentBookstoreDay to all the local bookstores around the world,” she recently posted. “I couldn’t live without you.”