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How ‘writing a book’ became the ultimate influencer status symbol

A publishing industry insider weighs in on the influencer-to-author pipeline

In 2002, Jennifer Lopez released her own fragrance, Glow. The success of Glow inspired countless other celebrities to launch their own fragrance line over the course of the 2000s and 2010s, and it’s unsurprising that celebrities were keen to take on such a lucrative opportunity: The Daily Mail reported in 2012 that J-Lo was making £570 an hour from her perfumes alone. Staggering profit margins aside, releasing a perfume is a status symbol. It’s a sign you’ve made it, in the way having an ice dispenser on your fridge might be to a non-celebrity.

But for many modern influencers, it’s not a fragrance line, but a book deal that signifies the pinnacle of achievement. There’s an appetite for influencer books, too, and they often dominate bestseller charts. When Zoella Sugg released Girl Online in 2014, the book broke the record for highest first-week sales for a debut author since records began. Grace Beverley's first book, Working Hard, Hardly Working, topped the Sunday Times Bestseller list. Florence Given recently announced that she was working on her second book, following the successful release of Women Don’t Owe You Pretty in 2020.

Granted, all three are evidently talented and creative women – so the idea that they would be interested in writing books is hardly beyond belief. But Sugg is a lifestyle YouTuber; Beverley is the founder of activewear brand TALA; Given is an illustrator. They’re not writers. There’s an inescapable sense that for influencers, ‘writing a book’ (or using a ghostwriter to do so) is increasingly seen as a means of cultivating a particular brand image and making bank, rather than a means of making a meaningful contribution to the cultural conversation. Writing for gal-dem, Moya Lothian-McLean charted the “obvious career trajectory” of a ‘feminist’ influencer: “First comes the low-level buzz, the appearances on magazine lists that feature the word “empowering” or “badass” in the title. Next up are the panel appearances. Then the podcast. Finally, a lucrative book deal – six figures or so – that will open them up to the rest of the world.”

Unsurprisingly, mega influencer Molly-Mae Hague has now wriggled out the other end of the influencer-to-author pipeline. Earlier this month she announced that she was releasing an autobiography entitled Becoming Molly-Mae, gushing “it’s something I’ve always, always wanted to do, it’s always been a massive dream of mine” on her Instagram story. I wondered: is it writing she's dreamed of, or merely adding ‘writer’ to her multi-hyphenate job title?

Erika Koljonen is an editorial assistant at Hodder and Stoughton. As someone who works in the publishing industry, she explains that publishers “definitely” take into account an influencer’s engagement rates when looking at potential acquisitions. “Even if you have a massive follower count, that doesn't necessarily mean you’ll get a book deal if you’ve not got the engagement to match it,” she says. “So, as Molly-Mae obviously has massive engagement, it wasn’t that big of a surprise to see her get a book deal because she would have been on the acquisition biddings for multiple publishers.”

“There have been so many people whose proposals we might have received or we might have thought of approaching, but if their engagement rates aren’t high enough then it usually ends up being a no on the book, just because publishers don’t see enough of a market for it,” she continues. “These books wouldn’t be getting published unless there was a market for them.”

“As long as publishers think these books have an audience and they’ll sell, there will be influencer books” – Erika Koljonen

After all, fans are often happy to snap up anything endorsed by their favourite influencer, regardless of the quality of the product itself. I’ve fallen into this trap myself: back in early 2020 I rushed to preorder Women Don’t Owe You Pretty, but when I actually sat down to read it in the summer I felt scammed. It didn’t deliver the “empowering kick up the arse” it promised, regurgitated ideas from older feminists without moving the conversation forwards, and was largely comprised of illustrations. In fairness, the illustrations were very good: Given’s art is how she established her platform, after all. So why, then, was she encouraged to pivot to writing, when she’s an illustrator at heart? I eventually realised that I was expecting too much from the book – Waterstones describes it as an “entry point into progressive feminist discussion” – and I wasn’t necessarily the target audience. But by then it was too late. I’d already handed over my money to Given’s publisher, Octopus. It didn’t matter whether I hated the book or not – they made money either way.

However: that’s just my opinion! Many people enjoy influencer books. Speaking to the New York Times, Ashley Hamilton, comedian and host of the Celebrity Memoir Book Club, made the point that memoirs allow celebrities the chance to share “their side of the story” in the face of sensationalist, misogynistic tabloid culture. Plus, Koljonen argues that “one point of doing all these influencer books is trying to reach readers that aren’t in traditional book-buying audiences.” To quote the old internet adage, maybe I should let people enjoy things.

But I still can’t help but wonder about all the young, aspiring writers who have also “always” wanted to write a book. It’s undeniable that Hague and the majority of influencers would not have their platforms if they weren’t white, able-bodied, thin or financially stable in the first place, as well as conventionally attractive. (Of course, Hague would suggest that budding authors simply use their 24 hours better, no matter what external forces are preventing them from fulfilling their potential.)

One thing is certain: influencer books are a real money-spinner for the publishing industry. “At the end of the day, publishing is a business,” Koljonen surmises. “As long as publishers think these books have an audience and they’ll sell, there will be influencer books.”