The Business of Bookstagram

Search for books on Instagram, and your screen will be flooded with pictures of books in various settings, from sitting next to hot cups of coffee, to being surrounded by objects that represent the contents of said book. Often referred to as bookstagram, the bibliophile’s side of Instagram is filled with aesthetic pictures of books and hashtags like #bookstagram and #shelfie, and is used by many a book blogger and average bibliophile to show off their favorite books and current reads. The custom has become so popular that publishing professionals have taken note and use their own Instagrams to show off pictures of their books. But are publishers’ Instagram accounts as artistic and effective as those of bookstagrammers, or are they doing something different?

Two big publishers, HarperCollins and PenguinTeen, both have Instagrams featuring pictures of books they have published. And yet, this is the only similar thing about them. A quick glance through HarperCollin’s account (@harpercollinsus) and it’s evident that they do not have an overarching aesthetic. The colors are all over the place, and posts range from books to authors to drawings. However, the individual bookstagram posts do well to represent the colors of the books’ covers, such as in a post celebrating Beverly Cleary’s 102nd birthday. The spines on her books are striped in a rainbow of colors and have been stacked upon one another, and stand out against a pale yellow and white striped background. PenguinTeen (@penguinteen), on the other hand, has a love of bright colors evident in all of their posts, and the vast majority of them feature books and little else. Their book posts range from simplistic books by themselves to elaborately arranged books and objects. One particularly effective post for Undead Girl Gang features the book wrapped in a jean jacket and surrounded by pins, which mimics the cover image. Interestingly, HarperCollins hardly ever uses hashtags to promote their posts, and when they do, never use #bookstagram or #shelfie. PeguinTeen, on the other hand, frequently uses both of these hashtags and many others, resulting in more interactions with their posts.

While I was searching through other publishers on Instagram, I also came across literary agent Carly Watters (@carlywatters) and her #bookstagram posts. Her posts have a clear aesthetic of soft greys, blues, and light browns. Her book posts feature books in various settings; held up against a textured backdrop, nestled on a bed or armchair, next to many, many cups of coffee, and more. Each bookstagram is appropriately tagged as such along with various other book-related hashtags. In an interview with Huffington Post, Watters said that she used her bookstagram as a way to connect with potential clients and promote current ones, and to announce exciting book deals. What a clever way to make use of Instagram for a literary agent!

So it’s not just bibliophiles who are making the most of the bookstagram side of Instagram. Publishers and other publishing professions have seen the potential of a great book pictures and are now using them to promote their own brands. It would also appear that the power of hashtags has a great effect on the visibility of said posts, and publishing professionals would do well to make the most of #bookstagram.

Social Media Book Giveaways & You: Why Giveaway Culture Matters

Online book giveaways are becoming pretty standard in the publishing industry’s marketing toolbox—so much so that readers have come to expect them. Giveaways familiarize readers with book covers and copy, increase the number of reviews they receive, generate pre-publication social media presence, and build loyalty around both the author and the publisher.

Certain publishers, of course, have the distinct advantage of resources that allow them to go all-out for their giveaways. (Penguin, I’m looking at you. Penguin Random House recently held giveaways for 25 bestsellers of 2016, a 50-book library in the genre of the reader’s choice, and a collection of 75 Little Golden Books. They don’t do these things halfway.)

Regardless of the size of the company, publishers’ social media accounts are constantly promoting their most recent giveaways. Giveaway posts on social media can also serve as a reminder to readers that they’re an actual business. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that the publisher you follow on Instagram actually sells books and doesn’t just take pretty pictures. I mean, when I take pictures of books with a latte and post it on Instagram, it looks pretty much the same as the social media content of even the biggest publishers. Jumping in once in awhile to say that readers can enter win a free book also works as a reminder to buy books.

Publishers use a variety of methods to market their giveaways. They may offer book-themed goodies like a tote bag, or a book for both you and a friend you tag in comment to spread the word, or an entry if you follow them, or an entry if you share a post, or an entry if you join a mailing list, or all of the above. The same basic principle always holds true; giveaways are driven by numbers. How many people can you get onto your mailing lists or to follow you on social media for each book you give away? Small publishers are generally unable to hold these massive book giveaways to generate readership, social media buzz, and mailing lists. And from this strictly-numbers view, it seems as though there is no value for small publishers here at all—it’s just too costly for such little influence.

But I’d argue that there is a value to participating in book giveaway culture that doesn’t initially come from generating numbers: showing a willingness to engage and give and create a tangible connection with readers, an excitement that only getting a book gift in the mail can offer. Perhaps a smaller publisher’s goal is not lengthy additions to their email list, dozens of reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, or their cover shared far and wide across social media platforms, but simply strengthening the relationship between a publishing house and its readers.

Small publishers don’t need to give away fifty free copies of their books (as in a current giveaway of All the Light We Cannot See from Scribner). Book giveaway culture allows for offering just a single prize from a small publisher to have an effect. While mailing lists and Goodreads reviews won’t skyrocket as a result, giving just one book away creates the same possibility for that tangible connection with a publisher, the same pre-publication hype, and the same magic of getting a fresh new book in the mail.

Manager Monday: Book Designer’s Shelfie, Cover Design Edition (Design)

Great ideas come from great inspiration, and finding good source material is an essential part to the design process. As we at Ooligan gear up to develop a cover for yet another great title, there is no better time to stop and take a look at some great reference books. Below you’ll find a list of some of my favorite go-tos for not just fresh ways of looking at things, but also a glimpse into the history and process of what I feel is the best part of working at Ooligan.


By Its Cover: Modern American Book Cover Design by Ned Drew and Paul Sternberger (Princeton Architectural Press)

This book is an excellent place to start. Designing book covers, above all else, boils down to what you can do in a single frame (or wrap-around) with image and text; looking at old book covers for such usage is a solid reminder of what works well. By Its Cover walks you through the highlights of the last one hundred years of the evolution of American book design: from its early modernist roots, through the height of Pushpin Studios, and beyond.


Classic Book Jackets: The Design Legacy of George Salter by Milton Glaser and Thomas Hansen (Princeton Architectural Press)

It’s easy to dismiss George Salter covers as dated, but if you take a moment to look at his use of space, experimentations in texture and typography, and boldness for creating something new, it becomes clear why he is considered a true American design pioneer. Salter’s designs are rich in tactility and human experience and feel truly connected to the written word, approaching that feeling absolutely relevant to our current return to all things handmade.


Penguin by Design: A Cover Story 1935–2005 by Phil Baines (Penguin)

There is nothing more reassuring than a book about cover design with an amazing cover design. The cultural impact of Penguin is undisputed, but perhaps a bit ubiquitous; this book forces you to stop and take a look at all those innovations you have taken for granted for all these years. And the trip is glorious.


Born Modern: The Life and Design of Alvin Lustig by Steven Heller and Elaine Lustig Cohen (Chronicle Books)

Looking at the work of Alvin Lustig will inspire you to be better at whatever it is that you do. In his brief but illustrious career, he was responsible for some of the most radical innovations in book design, seamlessly incorporating modernist ideals into a new, emerging American design language. Lustig’s work is confident, powerful, and timeless, and the breadth and influence of his body of work is without parallel.


Cover by Peter Mendelsund (powerHouse Books)

Along with Chip Kidd, Peter Mendelson is one of the most dominant forces in current book cover design in America. This book opens windows into his process, allowing us to see how he translates source text into the striking and evocative imagery that has infiltrated our literary psyche.

And then there were five

The Penguin/Random House Merger – 6 Months Later

Most headlines about the recent Penguin Random House merger have been positive. Some, however, like the aforementioned “And Then There Were Five,” have a slightly morbid ring to them. This particular headline describes the number of “big” book publishers left after the merger occurred. There are always questions about whether a merger like this is caused by financial necessity and questions about the ongoing viability of the company once it is merged. Six months have passed since the merger between these two companies, and things are looking bright so far. Here, I’ll look at a few aspects of the ongoing changes of the new Penguin Random House.

Penguin and Random House didn’t just come together in the United States; they also merged in Canada, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, India, China, South Africa, Spain, Mexico, Argentina, Colombia, Uruguay, and Chile. Penguin Random House continues to merge sections of the company and buy out portions that were previously owned by other publishers. In November, Random House Mondadori was renamed Penguin Random House Grupo Editorial. The new name represents its position and identity as the Spanish-language publishing company of the newly formed Penguin Random House. In India, Penguin Random House has now taken 100 percent ownership of Penguin India over the 55 percent they owned previously. In December, Penguin Random House announced its purchase of Times Media Group’s majority stake in South Africa-based Random House Struik. In the UK, Penguin and Random House publishers have decided to merge their children’s divisions into one entity.

In terms of e-books, Penguin Random House comes out as number two in the ranking in 2013, although if one adds up their numbers from the first half of the year (before the merger), they come out far ahead of the number one company. Here’s a look at the rankings:

Rank Publisher Appearances
1 Hachette 258
2 Penguin Random House 230
3 Random House 146
4 Penguin 102
5 Self-published 99
6 HarperCollins 91
7 Simon & Schuster 72
8 Macmillan 68
9 Amazon 46
10 Scholastic 27

Since the merger, Penguin Random House has been expanding their presence online in various ways—and not just by being one of the top e-book sellers. Firstly, the company is taking part in a business competition that challenges small companies to analyze how their digital content is consumed. The contest invites entrants to find creative solutions for digital strategies across three themes: retail, events, and analytics. Another way Penguin Random House is becoming more visible online is by partnering with Pinterest to help readers connect with books digitally. Through the partnership, Random House is adding a Pinterest API to its website and will feature the social network’s current popular pins related to books on the front page of The idea is to help site visitors discover new books and to increase the number of readers pinning books.

What does Penguin Random House have to say about the weeks since the merger? In a January 19 interview with the Economic Times magazine, John Makinson answered questions about how the company is doing since the merger. According to Makinson, the months since the merger have been “fairly quiet. We were very deliberate in the way we brought these companies together. We wanted to ensure it was not disruptive to authors, agents, and booksellers.” In response to whether this merger was a question of survival he said, “No, not at all. Penguin and Random House were the biggest and most profitable publishers in the world…The pace of change in our industry is very rapid and we need to think of the impact of companies like Google, Apple, and Amazon and how they disintermediate publishers.”

So there you have it, from the chairman himself, as well as from various other sources. Penguin Random House is thriving in the months since the merger. They are taking global control of all aspects of their business, their presence online is expanding, and they are at the top of the e-book charts. It will be interesting to see if this success affects the other four “big” publishing companies. Will we see other “big” mergers happening in the future?

Writing Excuses: notes on a podcast

Despite the fact that I’ve improved my tendency to procrastinate over the years, those tendencies can still lurk in the background and rear their ugly head. I recently discovered a Hugo Award-winning podcast relating to procrastination and writing. The podcast is titled, “Writing Excuses” (an instant attention grabber for me). It turns out that a group of four well-known writers (Brandon Sanderson, “Mistborn,” Mary Robinette Kowal, “Shades of Milk and Honest,” Howard Taylor, “Schlock Mercenary,” and Dan Wells, “I Am Not a Serial Killer,”) get together once a week to record their experiences in the publishing world. They also often respond to commonly asked questions from listeners. They begin each episode with the cheeky tagline, “15 minutes long, because you’re in a hurry, and we’re not that smart.” For a busy bee like myself, this is a definite bonus; not all podcasts need to be an hour long, thank you.
The last episode of “Writing Excuses” featured a guest appearance by Bill Schafer. He is the co-publisher of Subterranean Press, a Michigan-based small press. They publish around 55 horror, fantasy, and science-fiction books a year; both original trade paperback, and limited edition reprints of well-known authors. Subterranean Press has capitalized on a small niche of readers who want high quality books. They publish many different projects in a year, but keep the print run size small to minimize their costs.

Subterranean Press Grab-Bag

“The deal is we try to strike a balance because we can’t survive 40, 50, 60% returns on a regular basis…So we keep a very careful eye on print runs. I’d rather slightly underprint a book. Especially now that a lot of titles have further life as e-books.”

Bill spoke about creative approaches to the publishing industry and how his small press has actually benefited from some of the changes taking place. In his opinion, small presses are more agile and able to offer authors more creative ideas to get their work noticed. They are also able to satisfy fans more so than the larger houses can. Larger publishers are not able to adjust their business practices quickly enough to accommodate the digital age. Bill said, “One way Subterranean tries to make the physical book a more attractive purchase is to include ‘bonus’ features that wouldn’t be available in the digital form, or highlight that the book is sewn, not glued.” This reminded me of Penguin and both their Couture and Clothbound Classics. They also seek to make the physical book a more unique, and therefore, a more worthwhile purchase. I know it worked on me.

Something else I enjoyed from his interview was his commentary on the ethics of bookselling. Bill asked, “If you have access to a backlist of books by an author who already has an established fanbase, is it ok to jack the price up and sell them for more?” Collectors are willing to pay higher prices to get signed copies of their favorite authors, and eBay sellers take advantage of this by buying low from the press and selling high to consumers (sometimes in the $500 range). Bill Schafer provides one answer to this issue; he sells the higher demand books from his stock at an elevated price based on the current market price of the book, but then donates the money to charity. The consumer still pays a higher price than the book was originally marketed at, but the proceeds aren’t for the benefit of the press: a happy medium or too conscientious?

Next week’s episode takes questions from aspiring writers who have enrolled in an “Out of Excuses” writing retreat. For anyone interested in how small presses work (especially if you have any fanboy or girl knowledge of the science fiction, fantasy, or horror genres) this is a great insider look at that world, and for those who are generally interested in a writer’s perspective on the publishing world, these guys are definitely worth a listen.

Ooligan Press at the PNBA Tradeshow

This Monday Ooligan Press was lucky enough to snag a table at the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association (PNBA) Fall Tradeshow. And while the tradeshow closely followed Wordstock, the two events were entirely different. For one thing, the conference was only open to book industry professionals. For another, the goal was to promote books, not sell them. Publishers, distribution services, and writers’ groups all had tables handing out leaflets, collateral, and advance review copies of their newest publications. As I walked around looking at the booths, the first thing I learned was that although the organization is called the Pacific Northwest Book Association, the publishers present spanned the entire country. Ooligan’s table was directly in front of Random House, for example, and mere feet away from Penguin’s. It was exciting to see Ooligan Press’s representatives talking to booksellers alongside the heaviest hitters in the publishing game.
The Ooligan Table at PNBA 2013
For our part, we used the opportunity to tell the bookselling public about Ruth Tenzer Feldman’s The Ninth Day, our newest title. This soon-to-be-released companion novel to the OBA-winning Blue Thread (2012) was front and center on our table, and the first thing we told visitors about.  We received a fair amount of interest, and gave away a few copies to reviewers, booksellers, and librarians in the know. It didn’t hurt, of course, that Ruth would be signing books at the tradeshow the next day.
Not just publishers had tables. Ooligan’s table was next to Seattle7Writers, an organization of Pacific Northwest authors supporting each other and the written word. In between pitches to booksellers, our close proximity allowed us to discuss ways we can support each other. For example, they were happy to hear and spread the word about our call for submissions for our anthology More than Marriage. It’s these sorts of connections that help bolster Ooligan Press’s reach in the publishing world.
Along with making connections with other publishing professionals, the PNBA trade show was also a great place to eavesdrop. As I surveyed the different booths and books, I overheard one publisher tell another, “This year, it’s all about cookbooks.” Judging from the amount of glossy pictures of fennel salads adorning the shelves, I couldn’t help but agree. However, the trade show wasn’t just about cookbooks—it was also about chocolate. Just about all of the booths had at least one bowl of sweets peppering their table, a great tactic to lure in potential business. I asked Ingram Publisher Services’s representative, Gary Lothian, about the approach, and he assured me it was par for the course. “Yeah, it’s all about chocolate in the publishing world,” he told me. “Chocolate and caffeine.” That was all the affirmation I needed to know I was in the right business.

The Battle for a Digital Pricing Model that Works Part 3: The Dark Side of the Force & A New Hope

By Rebekah Hunt
The book industry has been slower to evolve than other industries. The big retail chains, who had undercut the already wobbly industry’s prices on paperback books back in the 1980s, are now seeing the same thing done to them by the burgeoning digital market and Advancements in e-reader technology such as the Kindle and the iPad make the transmission of print media in digital form far more practical and attractive than ever, but the industry has yet to develop a good standard for continuing to profit from the sales of these new kinds of media, as evidenced by the suit filed by the Department of Justice regarding ebook pricing.
Of course, where there is instability, there is vulnerability. One of the primary dangers presented by the lack of a good pricing model for ebooks is piracy. Despite the January 2010 unveiling of the ominous findings from research group Attributor, which showed between 1.5 and 3 million daily Google searches for pirated ebooks; the threat of ebook piracy may be more of a moon than a Death Star.
According to (see previous blog), “…there are a large number of consumers who are unwilling to pay the current price for ebooks, and they are willing to pirate those books rather than do without. Consumers who feel their needs are met are much more willing to part with their hard earned money than those who are frustrated with companies who simply no longer seem to ‘get’ them and their lifestyle.”
However, they go on to say, “What [publishers] do not realize is that piracy is only a problem when industry does not provide consumption models wanted by particular classes of consumers… The decision to allow her Harry Potter series to be distributed in electronic format is expected to net JK Rowling over 100 million in revenue and has probably cost her triple that amount due to her previous reticence toward ebook distribution.”
Rowling’s resistance to making her golden goose available in ebook format is the stuff of industry legend, demonstrating the entrenched backwardness and misunderstanding of the market that is a major impediment to the progress of book publishing. However, as stated, even Rowling was forced to capitulate to the demands of the market.
A New Hope: The Market Evolves
“The publishing industry… is where the music industry was seven years ago,” says. They advise that publishers adopt a similar strategy to the music industry and “…ignore piracy of ebooks on non-commercial sites and focus on producing content and connecting with their readers. If digital distributors were to start looking at digital piracy as a business deduction similar to advertising and charity donations and [focus] more on delivering content consumption models that encourage everyone to participate, they would discover a method to survive the massive disruption to their industry that technology has created.”
They encourage the publishing industry to look at the success of Netflix and Napster when developing new models for future business practices. “Such a move early in the fledgling ebook economic model,” they say, “would turn massive numbers of potential pirates into happy consumers paying monthly subscriptions who in turn become a new revenue stream to authors and distributors.”
For book publishers, ebooks integrated with other media are the way the market is going, and pricing models must evolve to meet the need. International publishing conglomerate, the Penguin Group, is extending their reach far into the electronic market. A recent article from reports that Penguin expects their ebooks to grow from 4 percent to 10 percent of their sales next year, and they will also introduce a series of interactive ebooks for the Apple iPad.
Penguin CEO, John Makinson attributes this to the compatibility of the iPad with the company’s business model. The features of the iPad that are attracting publishers such as Penguin, fit the market trend toward integrating multimedia experiences with books in order to get consumers interested in books again. Makinson states that it is Penguin’s intention to take full advantage of the iPad’s capabilities, saying, “…we’ll be creating a lot of our digital content as applications, to sell on app stores in HTML, rather than as ebooks.” Makinson admits uncertainty concerning the success of these new strategies, however, reflecting the apprehension apparent throughout the publishing industry that the market is still in a precarious position.
Stay tuned for next week’s blog, the Return of the Jedi (an ebook pricing strategy that works)!
Image by Maximilian Schönherr. Used with permission under  the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.