When I’m not studying for classes or helping out at Ooligan, I’m working at a large, independent bookstore. We carry most things; from bestsellers to classics, there’s usually something to entertain every customer. But certain titles dominate the shelves. Their covers and titles become synonymous with their social context—positive or negative.
Even before it hits the shelves, a book often carries a social significance. Readers know if they’ll want to read this book or not. When Hillary Rodham Clinton’s book, What Happened came out, I watched customers’ immediate reactions to the display near the entrance of the store. Some nodded in approval or gravitated directly to the book. Other customers grimaced and looked away as they walked past. According to an article in “Market Watch,” such a divisive book received polar reviews overnight, many of which seemed based on the brand of the author rather than the content of the book.
There are two main ways we catch readers’ attention and sell books: helping readers to personally connect with the content (using excerpts in marketing, writing shelf talkers, and making in-person recommendations) and using the book as a symbol to engage in a large discussion. Readers use the books they buy to make a stand and a statement. The books bought by a reader or acquired by a publishing house show interests and opinions. By associating with the brand or concept of a book, readers tell their communities how they identify or believe.
These kinds of books that dominate our conversations and bookstores also often come with a pressure to pick a side or jump on a trend. When cashiering, I like to connect with my customers about the books they buy, giving them recommendations based on their purchases or pointing out a book I have particularly enjoyed. While working a cashiering shift one day, I commented on a customer’s purchase of Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, a book that has held a spot on bestseller lists for years. The customer looked ashamed and replied that they had been meaning to read the book for years, and were only now getting to it. The full force of the book’s popularity and social context can both pull in readers and distance them.
As publishers, we can focus a marketing campaign on a specific issue or topic related to the book. Marketing is where we begin the dialogue of books with social context. Does the book talk about mental health or feature a character struggling with mental illness, or does it bring up issues with immigration? Use social media to begin connecting with audiences concerned about the topic when related cultural events come up. While a book connected with a divisive issue can distance some readers, it can also make others more decidedly excited or interested in purchasing the book. When deciding the center of a book’s marketing campaign, we have to play the balance of making a statement and connecting to readers.