Circuit breaker anniversary: Building book buzz online

Jemimah Wei parlays some of her fame into sharing her favourite reads with her 69,700 followers. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
Jemimah Wei is best known for her lifestyle content on Instagram. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

SINGAPORE - On Instagram, they pose with books or bedeck them with props that make the covers pop. On YouTube, they wax lyrical about wordcraft. On TikTok, they bawl their eyes out over twist endings.

Meet the Bookstagrammers, BookTubers and, most recently, the BookTokers - a new generation of social media-savvy bibliophiles who harness these platforms to push a love of reading.

Singaporean writer and events host Jemimah Wei, for example, is best known for her lifestyle content on Instagram as @jemmawei, but she parlays some of that fame into sharing her favourite reads with her 69,700 followers.

"Instagram is how people get recommendations," says the 28-year-old. "Once you get that hook and people pick up the book, the book does the rest of the work."

Though Bookstagrammers and BookTubers predate the Covid-19 pandemic, they have provided ways for readers to rally online during lockdown and, in a year of cancelled book launches and literary festivals, spread the word about books they love.

Last May, during the circuit breaker, Singapore Bookstagrammers such as Ms Elfarina Roszaini, 29, joined forces to sell hundreds of books in virtual fund-raiser #waresbookfair.

In a week, they raised some $12,000 for Wares Mutual Aid, a ground-up initiative in which people chip in to help individuals in need in the community. About a third of the 61 people involved were Bookstagrammers.

"We couldn't offer services, but we wanted to help," says Ms Elfarina, or @pagesofelly on Instagram. She works in the education industry and has been a Bookstagrammer since 2017.

"Now, we're thinking it could be a yearly thing where Bookstagrammers come together to sell books for a good cause," she adds.

Others, such as sisters Grace and Sarah Phua - @curiousbookreviewer and @bookandbriefcase respectively - post pithy reviews accompanied by aesthetic photos of the books in question.

Accountant Sarah Phua, 32, recalls making a trip to retailer Ikea just to get the perfect backdrop for her shots. "The greatest joy is when people pick up a book I've recommended, read it and drop me a note to say they've liked it and learnt something from it," she says. "That's the best reward."

Bookstagrammers remain predominant here. The relatively small BookTube community includes the likes of freelance make-up artist Jezlyn Anne Legaspi, 22, who started her channel @fancyasreads in 2015.

With the pandemic year, however, came the rise of #booktok, a TikTok trend where users create short clips of book recommendations - often just a few seconds long - with titles such as A Book For Every Type Of Love and Books That Had Me Sobbing At 3am.

The hashtag now has more than 6.4 billion views globally, driven largely by Generation Z.

It has yet to catch on here, but TikTok user and content operations manager Doreen Tan, 30, expects it to, with the "marked shift in the way we consume new media, especially how we read, as a result of the pandemic".

Sisters Grace and Sarah Phua post pithy reviews accompanied by aesthetic photos. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

The New York Times (NYT) reported last month that the eruption of #booktok content is pushing books published years ago back onto bestsellers lists.

It cited the example of Madeline Miller's 2011 novel The Song Of Achilles, which retells the Trojan War as a romance between Greek warriors Achilles and Patroclus.

On TikTok, #songofachilles has 23.6 million views and features numerous clips of users in tears upon finishing the tragic book.

NYT reported that according to NPD BookScan, which tracks print copies of books sold at most United States retailers, The Song Of Achilles is selling about 10,000 copies a week, roughly nine times as much as when it won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2012.

In Singapore, it made The Sunday Times' bestseller list for fiction six weeks running from Feb 21. It did not chart when it was published.

Mr Kenny Chan, former director of store and merchandising for Books Kinokuniya, says: "The title went from selling 10-plus copies to 70-plus weekly."

At 68, Mr Chan is on the older end of the Bookstagrammer spectrum, but he is an avid Instagram user and recently got into #booktok. He feels the pandemic has intensified a demand for reading.

The industry has begun paying more attention to the pull social media has on readership.

Bookstagrammer Elfarina Roszaini. PHOTO: COURTESY OF ELFARINA ROSZAINI

Local distributors such as Pansing and Times, publishers like Ethos Books and even the Singapore Writers Festival have started working with Bookstagrammers, sending them review copies or inviting them to literary events.

Ethos works with between 30 and 40 Bookstagrammers - including Ms Elfarina and the Phua sisters - whose posts generate buzz about new releases and get literary discussions going online.

Publisher Ng Kah Gay, 41, says Ethos has seen a "positive impact on sales from these efforts", though he adds it is hard to estimate how much. "The opinion of a committed reader is very valuable in generating confidence and excitement for new books."

Marketing professional Joshua Poh, 29, or @letmereadthis, one of the few male Bookstagrammers here, prefers books from the region.

"I try to focus on South-east Asian literature because I noticed that a lot of the books I was reading were by Western authors," he says. "I think if you look at the SingLit scene now, it's gotten a lot bigger."

Though the Singapore #booktok scene is nascent, some who carved out their niche on Instagram or YouTube have an eye on it.

Ms Legaspi, for instance, has redirected her efforts to building up a TikTok account. It is focused on beauty and skincare, but she says she might give #booktok a go.

"It seems like within the past year, TikTok has helped a lot of industries. I think having this hashtag is not only helpful for authors and publishers, but also for readers," she adds. "Reading is about how we interpret words. And everyone does that differently."

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