Shelf of books in a living room


Are millennials’ #shelfies saving the book industry?

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Book covers have become prettier and more Insta-friendly. That’s no bad thing, says Caroline O’Donoghue

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By Caroline O'Donoghue on

A few years ago, when Kindles briefly replaced iPads as the Christmas gift du jour, there was a lot of worry in the publishing industry. Hell, there was worry coming from people who weren’t even in the publishing industry, but desperately longed to be, and felt as though Kindles were adding an extra barrier to entry. Who the hell would buy a hardback book for £18.99 when they could download a PDF for half the price? Or, worse, who would buy a book at all, if they could illegally pirate a copy? Pinky, the penguin in Bojack Horseman who runs Penguin Books, immediately comes to mind. (When Bojack asks, “How’s the book biz?”, Pinky will usually respond with “WHO KNOWS?!” or “When’s the last time you saw a book?”)

Yesterday, Kindle turned 10 and it’s interesting that the object that was supposed to singlehandedly redefine (or, if you listened to some people, snuff out entirely) the book industry is becoming a rarer and rarer sight. I hardly see them on the train any more and, if I’m likely to see them anywhere, it’s tangled in my friend’s bedsheets. “Oh, that,” she’ll say, faintly embarrassed. “I mostly just use it to read trashy romances and porn.” Kindles are simply an additional reading tool and the fuss we all made over them is, frankly, a little embarrassing. Did microwaves replace ovens? Did zips eradicate buttons?

Meanwhile, physical books on Instagram are booming. #Bookstagram has had over 15 million posts – almost double what #avocado has and, given that avocados are apparently destabilising the economy with their popularity, books must not be doing so badly either. In fact, according to The Times, book sales are expected to rise by six per cent this year. Millennials are apparently driving the surge in sales, 83 per cent of whom have bought an item of “physical media” in the past year. Millennials are also driving the vinyl boom, the sales of which increased 56 per cent last year.

Having the perfectly curated Instagram “shelfie” (literally, a picture of your shelf) is, according to today’s Times, the much-lusted-after cultural cachet that millennials are purchasing books for. I can see where they’re coming from – after all, The Pool is as prone to bouts of shelfie fever as the next gal. 

I have personally come to accept that I will read and finish about a third of the books I actually buy – the rest I will have bought because they are beautiful

But I can’t help but think that “shelfies are the reason millennials are buying books”, as a theory, is a bit of an over-complicated one. The simple fact of it is that people like nice things. They have always liked nice things; they will always like nice things. No amount of early-noughties “all you need is an iPod and a Rampant Rabbit” minimalism will change that. As long as books can be broadly described as a “nice thing”, people will continue to buy (and hopefully read) them. In some cases, the books will simply sit on shelves or on Instagram posts, their spines uncracked – this is no great sin, either. I have personally come to accept that I will read and finish about a third of the books I actually buy – the rest I will have bought because they are beautiful. Or, because I wanted to read exactly one poem in the volume. Or, because I was caught in the rain and it had been a terrible day and buying a copy of Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour for £10.99 was the exact thing I needed to reminded me who I am, even if I’ve never read it and to this day have no idea what Molly Keane’s writing is actually like.

“Publishers are thinking so much more carefully about how to make books into beautiful objects that people want to own as well as things to read,” says Jennifer Cownie, a part-time book stylist (and also, full disclosure, a close friend). “I would say that the invention of the Kindle was, surprisingly, probably the best thing that could have happened for book design – publishers had to make it worthwhile for people to spend more on real paper books – and they did and it’s worked.”

Cownie reads an enormous amount, but her blog is as much about celebrating the physicality of books as it is about what is inside of them. She collects wallpaper, gift wrap and patterns to bring out the aesthetic of the book – something that hasn’t gone unnoticed by the industry. She’s periodically asked to “style” books for major publishers, as well as invited to preview covers before they come out. “Publishers are increasingly aware of the cottage industry springing up around pretty books. I don’t really have any shame about that – books are cultural artefacts and the way they’re designed actually becomes part of what the book is.”

As for me, this is all about to get a bit personal. In the next couple of weeks, I’m going to be shown the cover for my debut novel, Promising Young Women, which will be on the shelves next year. My cover designer is incredibly talented, but I can’t help feel a huge sense of anxiety whenever I see book covers doing the rounds on Instagram, knowing that the “prettiness” of my book will hugely affect how people think about it. No one wants to be a Kindle guilty pleasure – I want a cut of some of that #shelfie action.


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