Fellow bookstagrammers, the world has discovered and recognised us – but they have only scratched the surface. You might have read the Guardian article in question already; if not you can catch up here.

Quickly summarised, “Is social media influencing book cover design?” by Holly Connolly looks at the impact that the aesthetics of books have and claims that “books – and their covers – have become something of an accessory“.

The Guardian article

Now, not everything about this article is problematic or wrong. Its primary purpose was to investigate the influence of social media on book cover design, and it did a fair job at that. The voices of designers, authors, journalists and readers were considered, marketing strategies mentioned and new trends explained. It’s quite short for a question as complex as this, but at least it featured the essentials. Even the accessory-statement isn’t entirely false: Apparently, the fashion industry is using books decoratively now.

What bothers me is the implication that they have also become an accessory to us – the book buyers, the bibliophiles, the bookstagrammers, the readers. This is especially suggested through a quotation of Femke, an intelligent young bookstagrammer. Here the paragraph on her opinion:

“If I don’t like the cover, I won’t photograph it and put it on my feed,” says Femke Brull, a “bookstagramer” who runs @booksfemme. While she won’t avoid promoting a loved, if less-attractive book, she opts for a snap of the title page instead – even if it is less memorable than a beautifully covered counterpart. And she will “pay extra” for what she considers a better-looking edition.”

All of this is true, and Femke is not sorry for a word she said. Nor should she be. There is nothing wrong with putting the title page on your feed when the cover doesn’t fit into the aesthetic theme you might pursue (which not everyone does). Photography is, after all, an art. Similarly, purchasing an edition of a book that is more appealing to you than another is entirely your decision. Publishing houses sell special editions for a reason. These quotations are obviously chosen to show how readers are influenced by covers, but it also deliberately makes a point that suits the author’s narrative. It omits every other reason Femke might have had for buying this or that book. And that matters.

The Battlefield, aka the comment section

While I consider myself knowledgeable enough of the literary industry to understand the intention and bottom line of the article (covers influence sales, big surprise), the comment section is where the insufficiency of the piece becomes particularly apparent.

A writer is not responsible for the thoughts of the recipient, but they are very much in charge of the picture that is painted, and the influence that it has on the reader. Pair that with the general preference of most internet users to jump to conclusions as well as the equally common dislike for fact checking or researching (maybe they still need to be introduced to google), and you get the disaster that is the comment section for this article.

• Let’s start with the positive things again, because not all comments are hostile. In fact, the very first person explains how they were influenced in buying a book with a cover they particularly enjoyed, admired the cover artists work online after that, and then proceeded to read the novel. The next sentence however already leaves a bitter aftertaste. “I don’t intend to make a habit of this, but feel no shame on this occasion.

→ Why only on this occasion? In what scenario would this ‘habit’ be wrong? Why the guilt?

• What follows is a similar level of hypocrisy. Commenters share their experiences of being influenced by covers, be that online or in a store, and at the same time judge the habits of other readers which they don’t agree with. I particularly enjoyed a person (rightly) stating that “covers have always served to entice potential readers” but simultaneously complaining about people neatly arranging books for Instagram.

→ Creating an appealing photo is not less valuable than an artist creating an appealing book cover. But, moving on.

• The really problematic comments consist of accusations that seem to relate to the quote I mentioned above. This person at least had the decency to ask: “Do these books get read once they’ve been photographed?” And, here we hop aboard the judgement train. Another commenter replies: “About 3 percent, I would guess. Once you’ve made your “statement,” why actually read?

→ Ah, guesses and assumptions, the facts of the modern age. Where on earth is this coming from? I know not one person who has a shelf full of books, picked up three percent of them and yet bothers to post about literature on Instagram. I highly doubt this commenter has ever taken a look at an actual bookstagram post – and here we see the danger in omitting facts, which leads to wrong conclusions that serve a particular narrative far from the actual truth.

• The same person must have insight on some shadow book-community, because they reserved the right to reply to another assumption served in a rhetorical question: “How shallow is this? Has anyone ever posted anything on Instagram that wasn’t some vacuous and pointless lifestyle shit?” – “no, they haven’t” says our friend.

→ You must have seen all the Instagram posts that exist. Congratulations.

• Here’s another example of reading between the lines and concluding something entirely different than what was intended: “We’re not meant to judge metaphorical books by their covers and I really don’t think we should judge literal (or literary) books by their covers either.

→ Nobody said that. Being influenced in your buying decision is not saying “this book sucks because the cover is not pretty.” Which I have never heard or read once in my life.

• Some commentators preferred to stoop down to a level of downright abuse: “I will find the person who put a cup on a book like that and I will hurt them. This is not acceptable behaviour.” and its reply, “opening a paperback that wide is equally egregious“.

→ I can dog-ear my book, crack the spine, write in it, do with it whatever I want and it still wouldn’t be any of your business.

• This is one of my favourites: “Fucking millennials.

→ Hi. As a fellow millennial already told you: The feeling is mutual.

All this aside, there seems to be a prevailing assumption that bookstagrammers buy certain books just for their appearance without the intention of ever reading them, as well as a particular anger with people arranging their books by colour or shelving them with the spine backwards, pages facing the front. We are accused of not caring about the contents or authors. We are called shallow and are held responsible for the world being “doomed” – I guess because they think we don’t see books as a means for improving our intellect, and I have an idea where this is coming from.

The sexism towards female readers

I could write an essay on the history of the marginalisation of female readers (and writers as well, which are closely linked). In fact, I did just that with my bachelor’s thesis, but let’s concentrate on the sexism lying behind these accusations, and have a look at what was being said in response to the Guardian article.

It went from how shocking it was that “people buy books because they’re pretty” over the imaginary practice of buying books without intending to read them, with a detour to the oh-so awful rainbow-shelves, and well… have a look yourself:

See also these women-only clubs (already a very problematic concepts), which order their freaking books on shelves by their colour.

Women-only clubs: An idea applied to many different fields. Here, they exist in order to provide safe spaces and opportunities for an often persecuted and marginalised group to read, educate themselves and find enjoyment in literature. I fail to see how this is problematic, which is a word I would rather use to describe the very group that discriminated, isolated and excluded women from the literary world for hundreds of years. Dare I say who? I dare. Men.

Criticising how women engage with books: Here, it is the colour-schemed shelf that, though not influencing this writer in any way, seem to bother them very much. Ever since women began reading, discussing and writing books of their own, men have been condescending about their literary habits. It goes back to the very idea of women being worth less than men, having no abilities for rational thinking and therefore being unfit to hold positions of power. Knowledge is power, and to this day educated women are perceived as a threat.

It’s no secret that a large amount of bookstagram accounts are run by women, and it’s therefore neither surprising that the focus of this discussion lies on the aesthetics of books. Judging a book by its cover is after all not rational, and it’s no wonder we are being accused of that. I would bet on the fact that if the majority of bookstagram accounts were run by men, there would be articles applauding the intellectual exchange. Nobody would focus on whether they’d buy the books for pretty covers or not. We are far from having erased that kind of misogyny, and I won’t quietly accept it being used to unfairly diminish my community.

Defending the Bookstagram Community

The entire point of bookstagram is to connect passionate readers with each other. We share our love for literature. It empowers us. We review books, discover new titles and create valuable discussions about our reading experiences. Bookstagram is like an international digitalised book club, its members are young and old, diverse in ethnicity and gender, ranging from professionals of the literary industry to university students or excited hobby readers who are only discovering the world of books – and it’s fantastic.

But even if we did everything we were accused of, these people would still have no right to determine how we should consume books, how we treat them, arrange them, buy them or talk about them. It isn’t their place to judge. We are the customers. It is not our responsibility to do marketing for publishers. We do not have to adjust our habits to suit anyone’s idea of a literary community.

I’m disappointed in the author of the Guardian article for not giving a comprehensive view of us, deliberately selecting quotes and observations to paint a picture of a bunch of aesthetic obsessed millennials who think of books as accessories and have never actually opened one. And I resent the strangers whose only information about our community stems from a single news article and who still try to dictate how we should or shouldn’t use our books, manage our accounts and assume all we care about is that our feed looks nice.

You are the one focusing on appearance.

The author could’ve asked any of us insightful questions about what reading is like in the 21st century, how Instagram influences our reading experience, or how we see our place in the literary world. Even a sentence on the fact that there is more to bookstagramming than taking pictures of pretty covers would’ve helped. If you mention our community, at least make an effort and do us justice.

Simultaneously, the readers could’ve tried stepping over their huge egos and take one look at real bookstagram accounts for themselves, in order to get an actual picture of what the attitude towards books is really like. Maybe they would’ve realised that the world is not doomed because we arrange our books neatly, or the simple fact that you can appreciate the design of a cover and still care about the book’s content. Or they might have even discovered a community that welcomes anyone who loves literature with open arms.

Sadly, what you find is often just a case of what you look for, and if all they can see is a narrow part of such a rich group, it says more about their limitations than our community.

I know that we will continue to share our passion for literature in whatever way we see fit, and stay open-minded towards anyone who would care to join us. Simultaneously, we won’t change our habits, stand for unfounded judgement or let ourselves be silenced.

After all, that’s not something readers do.

Other Voices on the Guardian Article & Comments

The Bibliotheque: “Bookstagram, we have been unfairly attacked
Sydney and her Library: “The elaborate and the minimal: The aesthetics of book cover design

2 thoughts on “Everything that’s wrong with the Guardian-Bookstagram-Controversy”

  1. God, this was so perfect and you summed up this situation so, so well! To be honest, I didn’t even make the connection about this being almost like an attack on female readers, but you brought it to light that bookstagram accounts are largely run by women. Clearly these commenters hatred is directed at young women whom they think are so vapid we don’t even read! It certainly got my blood boiling reading the vitriol that was being spewed on that article.

    1. Thank you so much Bridget! I think the issue about female readers is, as so often, already an underlying thing we simply have accepted by now. That’s why it’s so valid to be angry, and important to voice that! Insert a high five here. We’ve got a long way to go, it seems.

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