A 2018 weekend. Ignoring assignments, I lay curled under a blanket while scrolling through Instagram, liking a bunch of dog videos, friends’ posts and random TikTok videos.
Then, I spotted something interesting. I found a picture of a book that had been on my to-be-read list for a while, nestled amidst a pile of vibrant books with a frothy cappuccino beside it. The user was someone called Sumaiyya, with the handle @sumaiyya.books.
I read the caption – it was a detailed, beautifully-written review of the book and a sneak-peak into her current read.
That’s where it all started for me. The post was a key that led to my opening the door to the wonderful and vast online community known as Bookstagram.
Discovering hidden gems
#Bookstagram is a niche corner of Instagram where bibliophiles come together to discuss the books they are reading and their love for books. This is done through a series of eye-catching posts and captions. Bookstagram introduced me to a wide range of genres, encouraging me to read out of my comfort zone.
And I’m not the only one.
Kajree Gautom (@paperbacksandpen) from Assam has been bookstagramming for four years. For her, Bookstagram changed her reading preferences and habits. “I’ve started annotating books. A shocker, considering I was one of those readers who wouldn’t even leave a pencil mark on pages,” said Gautom.
She never read thrillers four years ago, but the genre is now among her favourites. “I’ve also started reading more diverse books and became more conscious of what I’m reading.”
View this post on Instagram
Bookstagram has helped bibliophiles discover more genres and hidden gems, many of which are forced to fly under the radar due to the domination of much-hyped books in the market.
Saimon – whose Instagram handle is @zanyanomaly – describes himself as “a chaotic connoisseur of books about soft queer kids and pretentious friend groups in elite universities, who can usually be found raving about his latest obsession on his Instagram stories”. The Chennai-based bibliophile started his Bookstagram account in 2016 when he was in his first year of college.
“I didn’t really know what Bookstagram was. I just happened to post pictures of the books I was reading at the time,” he said.
It helped him expand his reading behaviour – he mostly read Agatha Christie and a few popular YA novels before starting his account. “And then, as time passed, it also helped me refine my taste to what kind of subgenres I like more than others,” added Saimon.
View this post on Instagram
Traditional vs online: A pointless debate
Book blogging has been around for a while on the internet. But Bookstagram, with its hashtags and aesthetic posts, doesn’t just encourage a love of reading; the platform also gives bookstagrammers a voice. The danger, of course, is a lowering of boundaries and barriers.
Saimon is dismissive of this debate. “The internet is a beautiful thing that gives platforms to all of us to talk about the things we love,” he said, adding that traditional reviewers were going to have to get used to this trend.
Dr Ashwin Rajeev (@brownboywithabook) from Kerala added that when internet users spend an average of two hours and 22 minutes per day on social media apps, then it’s only logical to build your audience there. “Social media is permeating every aspect of our lives – advertising, marketplace, and also how we consume media. And naturally, bloggers adapt to this changing ecosystem. And since most of the business has migrated to Instagram, bloggers need to find clever ways to thrive,” he said.
View this post on Instagram
Unfortunately, however, though Bookstagram is changing the way authors and publishing houses reach out to audiences by tying up with bookstagrammers, many reviewers on Instagram are not taken seriously.
“I don’t understand why some people think bookstagrammers are mediocre reviewers and that we only read fickle books, not serious ones,” said Gautom. In her opinion, really good bookstagrammers have done a lot to change the publishing and reviewing game. “I think they should be treated with as much importance and acknowledge as any traditional reviewer,” she said.
Making money as a bookstagrammer is no breezy task either. “Publishers often give books in exchange for reviews. Authors are often reluctant to pay. If by some magic they do and we rate their books a little less than five stars, they throw a fit. As if paying means you have to give a good review,” said Kajree.
This problem partially stems from how bookstagramming is seen by many as a personal pleasure project and as something frivolous. Yet, this view overlooks that many bookstagrammers carefully read the books to critique and review them.
They then plan the layouts so that they create an aesthetic post and promote the book through different other platforms such as Goodreads and Amazon. But sadly, bookstagrammers have to do all this for free – all in exchange for a book. “I think it’s high time people realise that bookstagrammers are real bloggers and content creators, and give them the same credits that is given to other forms of blogging,” added Gautom.
Meanwhile, on the other hand, some bookstagrammers are not interested in getting paid. “I’m not opposed to the idea of monetising blogs/Bookstagram. However, I do not think it’s a viable option yet,” said Rajeev. He added that his intention behind his Bookstagram account was never about monetising his page. The biggest perk, he said, are getting review copies from the publisher.
Given its appeal and wide reach, the community is slowly being favoured by authors and publishers. Through Bookstagram, “even a layman with zero resources can market to their target audience,” said Rohit Dawesar, the author of The Stupid Somebody and NO MATTER WHAT… I will always love you.
Despite this, however, authors are reluctant to pay for reviews. According to Dawesar, many bookstagrammes tend to give good reviews when they get paid. “I don’t follow such practice as it may hamper credibility in the eyes of genuine readers,” he added.
Dr Aditya Nighhot, another author, however, did not mind paying for his Bookstagram reviews. The medium helped him connect to real book lovers as he started his writing career. During the initial days, with very few followers, he struggled to generate sales till he gave review copies to some bookstagrammers to increase engagement.
Bookstagram does support other bibliophiles and encourage them to read and express more. But it also has its downsides.
Saimon recalls the earlier days of Bookstagram with nostalgia. “It was truly glorious earlier,” he said. It was simply about posting pretty pictures of books back then; there was no pressure for likes and numbers, no toxic drama, no engagement groups and excessive follow trains. “It is too weird and saturated now,” he said
Rajeev’s grouse with the medium is this: publicists and authors are now trying to mine the space for free advertising. “It is not a bad thing if such content comes with a ‘sponsored’ header,” he said. However, that doesn’t always happen. Instead, one ends up with what he refers to as “advert book posts”, achieved through mass posting, book tours and Instagram story covers.
This, in turn, may colour the authenticity of reviews, Ashwin said. “Though I’m positive that the reviews I read from the bookstagrammers I follow are authentic, there were instances where authors have asked bloggers to put up only positive reviews,” he said. “Some may do it, but I’m not in favour of it,”
As a bibliophile who has been bookstagramming for three years, I too have noticed changes in the community. I agree with Saimon when he says that the old Bookstagram was a better place. But along the way, I have gotten to meet some beautiful souls while discovering more and more books.
So, I’m not complaining just yet.
R. Kamala Menon is a bibliophile, coffee addict and a student pursuing PG Diploma in Journalism at Asian College of Journalism, Chennai.