Rooneyworld

After a lengthy buildup, Sally Rooney's third novel, Beautiful World, Where Are Youwas released this past week. The accompanying PR blitz, where celebrities and literary twitter commentators alike received a gift box containing Rooney-themed merch provided the build-up to what appears to be a blockbuster debut among the Millennial set. Rooney's characters and work are easy to celebrate –– her characters are flawed, but endearing enough to keep you rooting for them; they ruminate to themselves and amongst one another as intellectuals, but on topics that fit the current discourse and are easy to follow in Rooney's clear-cut prose. In other words, they're Normal People –– although as Rooney's work is largely set in her homeland of suburban Ireland, normal is often synonymous with white. More on that in the afterward.

In the literary & bookstagram world, being gifted an ARC [Advanced Reading Copy, also known as a galley] is a status symbol, especially for a hot release. The distribution usually consists of getting a book mailed in a plastic bag, or, for lower-budget releases, gaining access to a digital copy. This practice is important for pre-release buzz, but more crucially, for soliciting book reviews in major publications, review-specific sites, and online communities like bookstagram or booktok, which are crucial purchase decision-points for us non-influencers.

However, this dynamic changes when the hype is no longer about the product, but the microcosm surrounding the drop. It's somewhat analogous to album drops –– the hype around Drake's Certified Lover Boy wasn't a result of a circulation of audio tracks, but the cultural impact, both manufactured and organic, around the drop. Consider basketball star Kawhi Leonard's Way 2 Sexy music video cameo in a Backstreet Boys-esque scene. Even sans music (the reason the cameo exists in the first place), the moment is optimized for gifs, and 'gifed' it has been. Someone who comes across the silent gif, a moment completely removed from its reason for existence, could realize that it's objectively funny and stream the song. 

 The Beautiful World, Where Are You launch is the first event the Millennial literary world has had, and it gives us a whiff of the "drop" PR technique that may be the future of publishing. Luckily recipients received a box of BWWAY & Rooney-branded merch, although some were luckier than others –– it seems as though the iconique "Sally Rooney bucket hat" was only included in boxes sent to influencers of a certain status. But even for those deemed not deserving of a semi-ironic hat, they still enjoyed the ARC (which, in typical 2021 fashion, was listed on Depop for as much as $200), a tote (Folio's is better IMO), and some other minor trinkets. 

Does the media & merch fanfare surrounding BWWAY indicate the rise (or perhaps the revival) of the author as a brand? At the very least, the PR tactics that have become synonymous with fashion & beauty brand drops seem to be leaking their way into the literary world.

Sally Rooney Beautiful World, Where Are You Box

The fashion & beauty industry has possibly hit peak PR package status. In the bygone era where magazines dictated trends, the editors were sole arbiters of product popularity. A relatively small cohort, brands targeted these gatekeepers with vigor but went mostly under the radar –– the opinions of the box were filtered through the medium of a text-based review. This changes on video-based platforms –– even before trying the product, an influencer will post the box upon receipt, providing a de-facto stamp of the moment they gush about the over-the-top accoutrement that adds as padding for the product actually being advertised. It's ubiquitous on Tiktok or IG stories today, but the phenomenon has roots in beauty guru unboxings of yore.

My first whiff of overconsumption in social media PR were foundation & concealer launches in the mid-to-late-2010s, when Youtube beauty gurus were the it girls. Brands launching a new skin-related makeup product would send each recipient the full suite of shades, presumably so the guru could swatch each shade. While there are logistical benefits in sending the entire line (you can't send someone the wrong shade if you just send all of the shades!), this meant that, unless the recipient was a pro MUA, drawers of makeup products went unused, a problem that only got worse as viewers began to shift their watching habits to prefer the "girl next door" doing makeup in her bedroom.

In the 2020s, we're hitting peak PR package. The rise of the micro-influencer (typically someone with up to 100k followers on a platform, but often as low as 1k) means that the volume of PR associated with a given launch has increased –– just about every girl with 5k on Insta that posts fit pics has gotten a Parade PR package. But what's most effective is the PR package as the status symbol –– we associate PR products with celebrities visiting gifting suites at award shows or a mega-influencer getting sent a lifetime supply for mentioning a brand on their platform (see Charli D'Amelio x Dunkin). It's exciting when we can join that club. 

 

@dunkin

It's officially a year since we made it official. Happy anniversary @charlidamelio 💕 ##thecharli ##charlidunkinremix ##thecharlidrink

♬ original sound - Dunkin'

 

 

 These launch practices seem to work, and they're trickling into other industries. While the Rooney launch can look tame by comparison (see Cardi B x Reebok), the early success of Rooneyworld may lay the foundation for future book releases, especially among titles that publishers are hoping catch on with a more "chronically-online" audience.

Sally Rooney is part of the new generation of celebrity authors, where authorship gives rise to celebrity rather than authorship owing itself to a previously-determined celebrity status (see Kendall & Kylie's 2014 ghostwritten dystopian YA novel or one of the many celebrity memoirs). This is nothing new, of course –– every generation has the household-name author, and not all fall victim to the trope of only gaining recognition post-mortem (see Kafka). What's interesting (to me, at least) is the author as a celebrity alongside the publicity tactics that are commonplace in the fashion & beauty space –– we're seeing a book gain cultural relevance faster, earlier, and often because of the paid media blitz rather than a resonance with the prose.

In the era of micro-celebrities, might we see more publishing houses pushing forward the author as a brand, with a launch-month frenzy you might see with a Glossier drop? Will the next Ottessa Moshfegh release be enclosed in a larger-than-life faux pill bottle, sent the Tiktok nihilists and niche literary meme pages on Instagram?  It seems inevitable, if rather bleak. Although Beautiful World, Where Are You is quite good, it (perhaps more importantly) appears to mark a turning point in literary promotional tactics. If nothing else, the resulting discourse will keep things spicy.

As a disclaimer: Guilty as charged! Folio sends out PR packages! It's nothing if not effective. If it's any consolation, we don't send unsolicited packages to someone's doorstep –– alongside our recyclable & relatively minimal packaging, all recipients have opted-in & we match each person individually to a small set of books. Pot, the kettle is calling. 

Also: in the wake of Sally Rooney's popularity, a conversation has started around whiteness & the advantages Rooney receives as a white author that many authors of color with equal talent aren't afforded. While I don't join that convo in this piece, you can read this article here or just search "sally rooney discourse" on twitter. If I can add some piece of support for Rooney, it's that it's perfectly okay for authors to write about what they know. Any greater condemnation of the ubiquitousness of novels surrounding mildly left-leaning white characters mulling about and facing the rather minor-league problems of their existence ought not to be directed at the individual author (Rooney, in this case, but there are plenty of others) but the system that awards these writers privileges above & beyond those of PoC writers.

I'm doing the best I can to build an inclusive online bookstore. If there's anything I can do better, you can always reach me at clare(at)foliobookshop.com

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