The Written Model: How Instagram is Making Books Prettier

If you peruse the #bookstagram hashtag on Instagram, you’ll be treated to over 3 million recent posts – pictures of books open on tables next to cute little lattes, drop dead gorgeous covers on display, creased spines, monthly book hauls delicately arranged alongside themed props. Books are a new class of model, constantly being photographed and posted and shared and liked.

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A #bookstagram review by foldedpagesdistillery.

It’s a marketing dream, of course, for people to pose your product beautifully and take pictures of it to share, especially if the sharer has a large following, as many Bookstagrammers do. They are constantly doing these photoshoots – some of them probably better than what a pro photographer could dream up for promo – and with a huge and engaged audience. In addition to #bookstagram there is Booktube, a community of book lovers and vloggers on Youtube who, well, talk about books and show them off. Many of the most beloved, like Sanne Vliegenthart of Books and Quills, Ariel Bissett, Jen Campbell or Jean Menzies are also on Instagram, #bookstagram-ing away. Thousands and I get a solid chunk of their book recommendations from #bookstagram, BookTube, and other social media platforms, where books are put on display.


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Sanne Vliegenthart discusses book spine design in a Books and Quills video.

Now, these folks usually have very smart and insightful things to say about what’s inside these books, and that is of course the main reason I follow them. They like reading and talking about it, and so do I. But, they also all noticeably have a thing for a well designed book. Like it or not (and I do like it, very much), social media has us judging books by their covers more frequently these days. I will be the first to admit (and proudly so) that I judge a book by its design. An unappealing cover may not make me turn away, but it definitely might prevent me from taking a second look. But I find far fewer unappealing covers around these days.

Before the Internet age, a book cover design would be seen in store, hopefully catching an eye from the shelf. That’s not to say that there weren’t beautifully designed books before iPhones, because of course there were. But now, the pressure to have a book be beautifully designed is greater than ever before. We know the book will be seen in store – but also online, on Amazon, on Goodreads, on Instagram and Twitter. Cover reveals are major social media events. Booktubers make videos about their favorite covers and design features, even as detailed as endpapers and spines. If you want your book featured, and photographed and talked about, it has to look good. Publishers know this, of course – are even taking a stab at the whole #bookstagram thing themselves in addition to traditional marketing. And this is a good thing, because it’s making book design amazing.

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I would say we’re in something of a golden age of book cover design, and things like Instagram and the “online” book experience are to thank. Reading is perhaps a more social experience now than it has ever been, with the internet to to link book lovers all around the world. And while I can talk about the book and still be happy, there’s nothing like seeing that cover. Even for an ebook, we like to see the cover when we click to the first “page.” But it’s the hard copy where the design comes alive, and the raised bar for book design in the past several years has been a key factor as to why print readers just won’t let go.

The Instagram effect – a desire for your objects to be ‘gram worthy – has spilled into other areas as well. Many of us now like to surround ourselves with cute, well-designed things. Paper, cookware, homegoods. Food presentation is all of a sudden a priority, even just for a homemade smoothie. Maybe you intend to photograph and share, maybe you don’t. But Instagram and other social media has certainly upped our attention to design detail, and amplified the power of a beautiful share-able design, in the book world and beyond.

It’s hard for those of us who love them to think of books as “products,” even though that’s what they are. But that fact – and the demand for these products to be extremely well designed these days – is what is giving us a reading experience that I don’t think has been so visually appealing for a long time. You of course don’t need a pretty cover to enjoy a book. A good story could be written on a napkin. But if you can choose, wouldn’t you rather have something striking to hold? You of course don’t need to post your recent bookstore purchase on instagram. But they’re so pretty, don’t you want to celebrate?


A book haul post from prisbookshelf.

Sure, the point of a good design is to make a book sell. But more than that, it reflects the love and creativity we all want to see in stories brought to life, and that we are as reading culture demand from those who sell them to us. Not only does this get us prettier books, but it shows everyone watching our videos and liking that Instagram post that stories to us – these published works – are enough a priority to us that we care about their presentation. That we will celebrate a good presentation by buying them to experience it in person and then share it for others to see. This is a good thing, with both a beautiful and important yield. Bookstagram away, folks.

The Rise of the Restless Girl

One of my favorite authors is Megan Abbott, whose praises I sing daily and loudly. She wrote Dare Me, a noir-ish novel set on a high school cheerleading squad. The standout line from this novel is so delicious – “There’s something dangerous about the boredom of teenage girls.”

I’m very drawn to female coming of age stories, probably because I am a female still coming of age in a lot of ways. But also because I think coming of an age as a girl is a tangly process that produces all sorts of interesting stories. It’s a time of great restlessness, and often restlessness leads to trouble. And trouble usually leads to a good story.

I’m a sucker for fiction supposedly about that restlessness, when you’re just on the brink of becoming a person and it feels like the world isn’t expanding with you. I have a whole Goodreads shelf called “aimless, dangerous girls” just because I like reading about what happens to young women who tangle with those feelings. The stories I always find most interesting aren’t necessarily when something bad happens to them, or their world pushes against them with restrictions, etc. The ones that I think work the best – and are the most true to life – are when these young women create trouble all on their own. They don’t need to the world to push against them to feel trapped and pushed back; they’ll push back just because.

“Growing up” is a specifically internal experience for women. Women spend a lot more time contemplating themselves – second guessing themselves, gauging their own reactions – was that the right thing to say? Did that sound bitchy? Even dressing yourself is a message that needs to be properly transmitted – is this too flirty? Does this look like I’m trying too hard? Along with this young women also learn to read the reactions of others with alarming sensitivity. Gestures – an arm around the waist vs. shoulder, the narrowing of a brow – and even digital communication – a like on a photo, a period at the end of a text message – are all signs we spent time decoding. Of course, boys wonder about these things, too. But I would argue it’s not with the same intensity as young ladies, whose ears have been taught to perk up for them. Perhaps this is why this time in a girl’s life is such juicy fare for writers – it’s already wrought with hidden meaning and symbolism.

As you go from girl to woman, you become much more aware of yourself. Not just in the way of figuring out who you are (but hopefully that too), but in the way that you’re constantly aware of how the world reacts to you. You sense it intuitively and adjust accordingly. It’s a language we learn subtly, over years and years of girlhood and adolescence. Most women speak this language with such great fluency they don’t even realize they’ve learned it. But there it is, in every step out of the way – every “sorry”, every hesitation to press “send”, every feeling of a lingering eye.

One of the reasons that stories about women who have been socialized to speak this language are so interesting is that they operate within it without really even trying. It’s especially elevated in stories about female friendships or relationships, adding another level on which the characters interact. The result is often distinctly subtle, cerebral stories that feel like they’re brimming with emotion and violence, even in the most mundane situations. A backyard party, a ride in a car, a summer day laying by the pool, track practice. Everything seems sharper and important, just as it did to us then. The code of young women – that hyper-awareness – is there, going unspoken but running deep. And you’ll see time and again characters using that language, flexing it, threatening with it. It’s fascinating.

Maybe this all sounds really abstract. But I remember being a teenage girl and running these calculations in my brain in nearly every interaction – with a boy, with a teacher, with other girls. And I think good writers who write stories about girls on the brink of womanhood (perhaps I’m referring here darker stories on the more mature side, rather than a light YA) understand how those calculations work and use them to create another level of the story, simmering just beneath the surface. And when that simmer rises up, the fun begins.

As I said I have a special place in my heart for characters who eventually give in – to their frustration, to their boredom. I’m thinking of books like Ugly Girls by Lindsay Hunter or Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman. There’s even Alison DiLaurentis from Pretty Little Liars. Why do I love these girls – girls who lie freely, who provoke, who seek out danger, who don’t listen, who lorde over others, who feel too much, who stay hidden, who never reveal themselves? I’m not the only one – there’s been a rush of such stories either recently or coming soon, much to my delight. The Girls by Emma Cline, How to Start a Fire by Lisa Lutz, Me and Mr. Booker by Cory Taylor, Wild Girls by Mary Stewart Atwell.

If you take a look at contemporary fiction, seem at the moment to be fascinated by these ladies on the brink of adulthood and destruction. Perhaps it’s because there’s a much-welcome call these days to see more female characters with their own motivations – starting their own fights and causing their own trouble rather than being plucked out of it by a hero. Maybe we’re even starting to be open to female characters who don’t want to be plucked out of trouble, because they’re playing a game that’s about something deep inside themselves, something more. Perhaps because many real now-grown women who are writing and reading felt all these same pressures as a teenager, but never quite broke out beneath them in the way these fictional girls do. Perhaps by reading about them now we’re reclaiming a bit of that youthful rage, going off the deep end, back to that time when everything was white-hot intense and the end of the world in our brains, now from the the safety of the other side. And there’s something all of us – not just girls – can relate to in that, or at least yearn for.

Of course, the great thing is that these restless girls with their “dangerous” boredom are only part of the breadth of what a female character can be. But the fact that they’re getting page time is exciting – whether they grow up to leave all that restlessness behind for a calm, contented life or to become Amy Dunne. Perhaps the most exciting part about reading these coming of age stories about restless girls is that, in these stories, both are still a possibility. Or is that we aren’t quite sure what outcome we’re really wishing for?