On the importance of viewing book porn

By Kaitlyn Till

Book porn is online media that celebrates and fetishizes both the purchase and ownership of books, and the aesthetic of an arranged collection of reading material. Like the subset of twenty-first century music fans dedicated to collecting and displaying vinyl albums, book porn creators and sharers are passionate about collecting the physical artifact and promote the creation and sharing of media that celebrates the “old” technology.

Online book porn can be divided into four categories. The first is collections of images and videos of libraries, bookstores, and other book-related places—often grandiose and far beyond the means of the viewers to replicate, such as the images found at Bookshelfporn. This is the often unattainable, always inspirational imagery that a subgroup of devoted bibliophiles binges upon; these are the infinite stacks filled with so many books that the titles are unreadable for their distance and extent. These images may be of either the place as it naturally is (such as an enormous library with a traditional organizational scheme), or are staged for maximum visual appeal with less functionality in mind—such as the extent of rainbow-organized book collection images.

Rainbow library

The second type of book porn is self-produced: individuals share pictures and videos of their books and their book-inspired lifestyle through social media, online communities, and personal blogs. These are the “shelfies” of book porn. Shared media is themed by home libraries; “book hauls” (a stack of books either binge-bought or accumulated over a set period of time and presented in a weekly/monthly/yearly/etc. update); bookshelf tour videos (which go beyond a snapshot of a home library and involve the meticulous showing of the books on a person’s bookshelves which can last anywhere from five minutes to upwards of an hour); and reviews that go beyond just reviewing the content to include the attributes of the physical copy (comments on “buttery” cover textures, deckled edges, foiling, etc.) as a part of the review of the work. In these reviews the book is lacking somehow if the container that presents the content doesn’t match up to a standard of attractiveness that the book is perceived to require. “Shelfie” book porn is all about expressing the personality of the reader through their book collection and how they display it. 2490 pages of this, combined with the first type of book porn, can be found on tumblr here.

Shelfie

The third type of book porn is objects that celebrate books or feature book content, but aren’t books. A popular curator of this content is Book Riot with their Book Fetish posts. Items can include book scarves with a pattern of text from novels, book-inspired scented candles, book-inspired teas, bookends, book t-shirts, and the list goes ever onward.

The fourth category of book porn is book art which, of course, divides readers: is it sacrilege to “destroy” or repurpose a book in the name of art? The debate of whether this art discards, devalues, or confuses the content with the container rages on in a far more divisive (and oft-times vitriolic way among readers). Here, however, I will be primarily concerned with the first two types of book porn as they apply more specifically to the publishing industry in general; and will save the question of container vs. content—and whether these celebrations of the container devalue the content—for another time.

In few subsets of readers is “book porn” media produced by individuals more prevalently than by readers of Young Adult fiction. YouTube and Tumblr are populated by numerous “bookshelf tour” videos and photos that feature (mostly) teenage girls and women in their twenties showing the viewer the contents of their bookshelves heavily-laden with YA titles. The young women producing the vast majority of these videos often have further bookish themed YouTube content, reviewing and discussing YA fiction. The majority of these videos primarily feature books that fit into the YA paranormal romance trend. The placement of these same books over and over again next to each other or in variations of the same collection on the bookshelves of different content creators creates a canon wish list for the demographics interested in that type of literature—if the viewer owns a certain combination of the books featured, she may feel that she needs the others to keep up with the genre or remain in the know in the community.

On Reddit there is a subreddit where members can share their latest Book Haul; a shameless showing of what a reader has purchased, how much they’ve paid for it, and where they bought it from. These posts are more gender-balanced and have a greater balance between displaying new and used books and often celebrate finding deals on a large stack (hence the “haul”). The posts skew towards adult literary fiction, genre fiction, and popular non-fiction but emphasize diverse interests in reading rather than a passion for a single genre or keeping up to date with the newest releases. While the books shown are different, the underlying idea is the same as with YA bookshelf tours: the viewer seeks out images of book collections that fall within her interest and may be so inspired to pick up some of the titles in that haul that she doesn’t already have. Reddit also has a separate general Book Porn subreddit.

There is little place for publishers in these online communities of book fetishizing; one of the elements that all this media has in common is the serendipitous nature of what may show up in a video or photo: diversity of content is key, and the combination of books that a reader displays often yields surprises. So, while it is of importance for publishers to take note of the appreciation that many readers have for their books as artifacts, getting involved by trying to nudge that exposure further towards a publisher brand is inherently against the nature of book porn media (outside offering ARC or complimentary copies of titles to those community members who review books). Random House next to Harper Collins next to Penguin next to Simon and Schuster titles—the spontaneous nature of how we read is not dictated by publishers, nor are our bookshelves. With the exception of Penguin Classics, trade book readers don’t typically line up their books by publisher or consider the publisher at all when making a book purchase unless they are investing in another specific branded series. For this reason, the direct involvement of book publishers in book porn culture would be awkward—this media is about the relationship between the readers and the books. Publisher involvement would make for an awkward ménage a trois.

Penguin, of course, is untouchable when it comes to branding classics for the general consumer in a way that encourages book fetishism and inspires book porn—the company has long been aware that creating an attractive container will entice many readers into paying several times what they need to for a paperback of a public domain classic. Their brand history allows them to remain at the forefront of selling freely available text for a premium price. At Penguin, the same books are given a fashion makeover for different markets, which book fetishists covet.

The hip coffee shop–loitering classics reader? Try a stylish yet affordable Penguin English Library edition. Penguin even includes a full-colour fold-out booklet in these editions to tempt the book buyer with thumbnails of the matching covers of other titles in the series.

Penguin English Library

For the hardcover lover with some extra cash to spare? The elegant Penguin Clothbound Classics are available to entice the book buyer to hand over her credit card.

Penguin Clothbound Classics

The reader who arranges her bookshelves by colour and appreciates fine typography won’t want to miss the Penguin Drop Caps editions.

Penguin Drop Caps

Other Penguin “fashion lines” of classics include: black-spined Penguin Classics and Penguin Classics Deluxe Editions, including the Penguin Threads line of titles.

Penguin, of course, is also uniquely positioned to produce additional merchandise branded with original Penguin Books covers—mugs, tea-towels, buttons, and lawn chairs all featuring the famous classic design for bibliophiles to purchase.

penguin mugs classic literature

Book porn is about book lovers creating content for each other, promoting what they love, and advocating for the value of ownership of bound books. Here we see the use of technology—the very technology oft predicted to bring the death of the book—as a gateway to celebrating the old media. This, of course, is helped when the publisher gives a book an extra “special” treatment such as a matte nylon cover, often referred to by book fetishists as a “buttery” cover, or creates a series of aesthetically matching and attractive titles. Book fetishists, far from passive consumers, take note of the value that publishers, such as Penguin, put into creating a book. Not only that, book lovers, especially among the YA crowd, love series and collecting matching sets of their favourite books—usually new copies, rather than used.

These communities are, of course, only populated by a snippet of the book-buying public, but they can provide valuable clues as to what it is that inspires the purchase of a bound book and the combinations of reading material that book buyers are interested in—details that can’t necessarily be gleaned from cold sales figures and general online reading communities such as Goodreads. Here, readers aren’t entering to win books or sharing this information for some secondary reason; they’re producing this material for the sake of sharing their passion, and that’s valuable insight for anyone selling a product or looking to introduce new products into the market—and especially for publishers who hope to drive impulse brick-and-mortar bookstore sales through enticing the reader with a beautiful artifact that she can’t resist taking home right now to add to her “to be read” shelf.

 

 

Bibliography

Arons, Rachel. “Internet Book Fetishists Versus Anti-Fetishists.” The New Yorker.  Conde Nast. 8 July 2013. Web. 24 Feb. 2014.

O’Kelly, Kevin. “Why the ‘Death of the Book’ is a Dead Subject.” The Huffington Post. The Huffington Post. 4 June 2013. Web. 25 Feb. 2014.

Wang, Shan. “How Book Porn is Actually Revolutionizing the Book World.” PolicyMic. Mic Network, Inc. 17 Jan. 2014. Web. 24 Feb. 2014.

One Reply to “On the importance of viewing book porn”

  1. Hello, my name is Tori, and I am a lover of bookporn. I have always loved looking at books just as much as I have reading them, but I was unaware of the extent of my addiction until now. You’ve enlightened me.

    I’ll just start off by admitting that I had no idea there were so many categories of book porn, or that creators and shareres were so involved. Of course, I have been guilty of lusting after a beautiful home library ever since I saw “Beauty and the Beast” all those years ago, and I am now glued to the pages of the tumblr you shared (so put a tick beside the first category). As for category two, I have most definitely taken more than one shelfie and shared it on a few media sites, but it never occurred to me that people would create hour-long videos with the sole intention of sharing their personal library… that sounds wonderful. The third category is probably my favourite. I have scarves bearing the words of Conan Doyle and Frost, necklaces sporting Shakespearean insults, tote bags featuring illustrations of books, and I am pining for a sweatshirt that says “I Party with Jay Gatsby”. I am classic category three, and I don’t even mind admitting that I am one of the many whose feelings are confused by the fourth category.

    Now that we have that settled, I agree with you that diversity of content is key in book porn—it’s in their differences that we establish an organizational motif (size, colour, format)—but I am not sure that I agree with you in saying that there is little place for publishers in this world. As you say, the publisher is given little attention in book porn, so does it really matter that all of the books on their ‘shelfie’ would bear the same branding? Especially since publishers do, in fact, try to produce a range of books that are diverse. Random House would be the obvious example, but more close to home, look at the Heritage Group Distribution—they are an umbrella company that produces books for Rocky Mountain Books, TouchWood Editions, Brindle & Glass, and Greystone Books, all of which produce titles that are completely different, but that still fit the mandate of Heritage. Just think of the diversity of their warehouse. Personally, I don’t think that I would appreciate the aesthetics of a book porn library shelfie any less just because it was posted by a publisher. I think I might actually appreciate it more!

    As you’ve shown, Penguin is a fantastic example of a publisher participating in the book porn culture, but I don’t think that it’s necessary for publishers to brand books by colour or matching covers (although Penguin is absolutely brilliant for it). After all, isn’t the nature of book porn to appreciate books? And who appreciates books more than publishers? I think book porn culture is the perfect place for publishers.

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