March 29, 2017

How to Be an Amateur Bookstagrammer

I wrote the following article for my feature writing and reviews class, and my prof assumes we'll be trying to send our articles into magazines but, honestly, the best audience for this piece is...well, you guys. So I hope you enjoy the lessons I've learned over the last ten months on Bookstagram.

I had the perfect shot set up: the book was perfectly posed on the patio pavers with bright red sunglasses atop the green cover, and I’d placed my lemon yellow Polaroid camera next to the book. I crouched down and moved my phone around so I could capture the best angle. Just as I snapped the shot, a furry body popped into frame. My curious dog, Sunny, couldn’t resist investigating my photo props. I nudged him away and eventually got the shot I wanted, but the photo I ended up posting to my Bookstagram account featured my dog.

Authors, publishing houses, and book bloggers have all joined various social media sites in an effort to reach a broader audience, especially teenagers. To this day, book publicists testify that a recommendation from a friend is one of the top ways a book is sold, and sites like Twitter and Instagram are best for this, apart from word-of-mouth. There are Instagram subsets for everything under the sun—travel, food, pets, you name it. So why shouldn’t that include books? It’s increasingly easy for teenage readers to hop on the Bookstagram bandwagon as well. After all, Bookstagram isn’t all about the followers or taking cool pictures; it should be about sharing books in creative ways with fellow bibliophiles, and there are inexpensive and fun ways to do that, even if your day-to-day life is busy. 

First of all, you don’t need fancy equipment to be an amateur Bookstagrammer. If you want an opportunity to practice professional photography, you’ll need an actual camera, lighting equipment, and editing software. But if this is just a hobby for you, then all you need are a smartphone and plenty of books, plus simple backgrounds and props. I use random things from around my room as props—nail polish, sunglasses, other books, book swag, etc. Another amateur Bookstagrammer, Samantha from @readingwithsam, told me she likes to use fake flowers, candles, CD booklets, lights, make-up, and different stuff she already has in her room. She gets the crafty stuff from cheap craft stores, and the dollar section at Target is another good place to look. Background-wise, I use plain blankets and my desk. Other Bookstagrammers use white bedsheets, sheet music, and maps. You also don’t need to have Photoshop or any other editing software to make your pictures look good post-photoshoot. Samantha uses the filters on her iPhone—her favorite is Fade—and I will edit right in Instagram, especially if the natural lighting wasn’t great on the day I took the photo. Instagram filters are also great for setting the mood, and they’re accessible and free. 

Having few resources can make anyone think harder to create good pictures. Be inventive—print out things from the Internet, handwrite letters, use different angles, bake food based on things mentioned in the books, etc. One of my favorite shots came about one night over Christmas break when I was bored and desperate to entertain myself. I’d recently acquired face paints from my hall’s free table, although I didn’t know why I’d taken them. When I glanced at my nightstand and saw the book I was currently reading—The Secret of a Heart Note by Stacey Lee—an idea hit me. I could paint my hand and arm to mimic the floral border of the book’s cover. I used the face paint to imitate greenery, branches, and flowering vines in a variety of shades—lavender, maroon, navy, and bubblegum pink. The result wasn’t as bad as I expected, considering I’m not an artist. So think outside the box and don’t be afraid to get dirty in pursuit of the perfect picture.

If you’re a busy college student, you often have to squeeze all of your photoshoots for a week into one afternoon or evening. That way, you have pictures all ready to go on your phone to post whenever you can. So that I have all my ideas ready for these photoshoot series, I keep a running list of ideas in the notes app on my phone. I know what books I’d like to photograph soon or if I have a picture theme I want to explore. For example, this year, I’m trying to feature more diverse books, and part of the list in my phone contains diverse books I own. If I’m running low on picture ideas, I’ll turn to that list and see how it inspires me. I also have photo ideas for when I go home on breaks and have access to more of my personal library and other props, since there’s only so much a dorm room can hold. Either way, though, doing a bunch of photoshoots in one afternoon can help you in another way—it means you’ll often have similar backgrounds and set-ups for the shots, which in turn forms your individual style.

It’s good to keep to a certain style for uniformity’s sake. Of course, you can always have a few different-looking pictures, but a style makes it possible for people to know what to expect and to know if you’re an account they want to follow. Some Bookstagrammers use a lot of props; others always feature certain colors, lighting, angles, or set-ups. Early on in my time on Bookstagram, I would feature stacks of books, but I realized that was too overwhelming and I wanted to be able to focus on one or two books at a time. I also tend towards photos where the book is in the center of the shot. Take several practice pictures just to identify your style and then stay consistent. Another way to create a consistent brand is to always post around the same time of day; it’s generally accepted knowledge that the early morning and evening are the best times to post to get a lot of views so take that into consideration and then post around the same time every day so people come to expect your posts. 

When posting a picture to your Bookstagram account, it’s important to utilize hashtags in your caption to  reflect your picture’s content. I generally tag the book and author, as well as the publisher (or their young adult imprint’s social media account name), a significant prop, the color scheme, or the theme of the picture. For example, in a Valentine’s Day post showcasing P.S. I Like You by Kasie West, a YA story reminiscent of the movie You’ve Got Mail, I used the following hashtags: #psilikeyou, #kasiewest, #youvegotmail, #valentinesday, #ireadya, and #bookstagram. 

More general hashtags include #bookstagram, #youngadult, #currentlyreading, #tbrstack, and #shelfie, and I’ll include some of those every time I post, as long as it fits the photo. This will help more people find you and may even help you form friendships with other bookish people, which is how Samantha and I met. 

I was browsing the #bookstagram hashtag one day, and I found Samantha in the recent posts. Her photo drew my eye since she’d used Taylor Swift Polaroid pictures as a prop, and Taylor Swift is one of my favorite music artists. So don’t hesitate to search hashtags either and find out what other people are posting pictures of. Bookstagram should not be a bubble where you only focus on what you post. You should also use it as a tool to interact with other book-lovers. In early February, I posted a picture of my latest #quietYA recommendation—#quietYA is a movement to draw attention to the books that don’t make the bestseller lists or win awards—and someone commented, “This is going on my wishlist now! I love reading your recs.” Comments like that are why I am a book blogger and use Bookstagram; I want people to read the books I love.

The best part about Bookstagram is learning as you go. Sure, you’ll make mistakes, but don’t take them too seriously. Any hobby should be about having fun and sharing that fun with others, and Bookstagram is no exception, especially because it can be inexpensive and relatively easy as long as you have a creative mind. If you want to be a Bookstagrammer, be one, and don’t let anyone tell you you’re doing it the wrong way.

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