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Bookstagram and me

Bookstagram, in case you didn't know, is the bookish corner of the photo and video sharing social media platform Instagram. I joined it over four years ago, and you can find me here.

As I often get asked similar questions about my bookstagramming, I thought I would do a Q+A with an imaginary interviewer. Hope you find it useful!

How did you get started on bookstagram?

I got into it in a roundabout way. I installed Instagram on my phone solely because my teenage daughters wanted me to like their pictures. Which I did. And then, after a while I looked around to see who else was on (Instagram helpfully gives you suggestions of people you might know). A good friend of mine, Baba @tundextra had an account which to my surprise was all about the books he read. And I could see that people went onto his posts to chat about books. How very wonderful, I thought. The seed was planted.

I subsequently set up a little account, and kept it on private, taking practice pics of the books I was reading and uploading them. I thought I would record holidays as well, so I called it Places_and_Books. My first picture, in September 2016 was of The Bell Jar on holiday at Lac d'Annecy in France. I think I uploaded another five pictures (with no captions or hashtags) before I held my breath, and clicked "make public". How excited I was to get three likes!

Still I had no picture or name on my account, nothing to identify me - and I had told no one that I was running the account. And thus I continued for quite a while, slowly growing and learning about Instagram, before eventually putting my first name on after nearly a year, and my picture on about two years later.

What is the best way to grow your bookstagram account?

I do sometimes get asked about how to go about growing your account and to be honest, there are no shortcuts that I know of. These are my top tips, though to be fair others will probably have better ones:

  • Take the best quality pictures you can. It is a visual medium after all. Take your own pics in your own style, don't feel you have to copy anyone else's picture.

  • Find your style. Let your personality shine through. It has to be honest. People want to get to know YOU.

  • Post regularly, but be careful not to spam. Some people will get fed up if you are dominating their feed. Once a day works for me, and for most people.

  • Engage, engage, engage. Follow others, comment on their posts, DM them if you want. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson "the only way to have a friend is to be one".

  • Use hashtags wisely, but not repetitively or excessively, to direct people to your account. These are the key words or metatags that will enable people to search out your content. So if you are posting about a George Orwell novel hashtag #georgeorwell - have a look at how others use hashtags and you'll get the idea.

  • And ultimately, don't worry about numbers. Really. Just enjoy yourself. Enjoy posting, expressing whatever you want to express, and making friends in a worldwide bookish community. It's about quality not quantity.

How much time do you spend on bookstagram?

As far as I know there is no right way to bookstagram (yes, it's a verb now). Nothing I say here is a rule or a way I think others should act - it's just my own, current approach.

I spend on average about two hours a day on bookstagram, and that doesn’t include taking the pictures. I often do a photo shoot of pictures, getting a load of books together, and whatever props feel appropriate (teacups, reading glasses, fairy lights, pine cones, leaves, pens, etc). That way I have a little stock of pictures and I don't spend hours every day taking them. Bookstagramming is a hobby, not a job.

I post daily, usually between 7.15 and 7.30pm, BST, and sometimes twice a day at weekends. I often find I have too much to say!

How do you think up your captions?

I honestly don't know. They sort of just come to me. If I have an idea I make a note of it, otherwise I just riff off the picture I'm using, what I'm reading, what thoughts those books have inspired, questions that occur to me, anecdotes that are worth sharing, etc, etc.

For additional inspiration I keep an eye on daily and monthly hashtags, like the Victorian literature themed #Victober Amy @pigeonpostbooks' #tribandtuesday and Adam @teawithalmondmilk's #vintagewednesdays. Then there are also #seabirdsaturday #throwbackthursday #shelfiesunday #dumauriermonday #woolfwednesday #stacksaturday and countless other prompts. I have also started doing a 25 question literary quiz in my post every Sunday evening. It's a bit of fun, with no prizes.

I know Instagram is a visual medium, but for me the picture is just a hook and it's all about the words. I use the caption as a mini-blog, and usually ask a question or two within it. Often I add the opening question. It's the thing that prompts people to comment. I love the interaction. In real life I have some friends I talk to about what they are reading, but in amongst other things. I don’t have booknerds that I can talk to solely and endlessly about authors, books, recommendations, reviews and bookshops so it is wonderful to have so many on here, and from all over the world. It actually feels like some kind of miracle. Bookstagram is the most friendly, supportive and considerate corner of social media, bar none. I never imagined there could be something like this when I was younger, or even twenty years ago.

Do you respond to comments?

I try to respond to every comment on my posts. Sometimes comments can slip by me, especially if the post is a few days old, as a result of the way Instagram notifications work. It doesn't mean I don't value the comment, I just missed it.

If I don't think I will have time to respond to comments because I am too busy with other things then I don't ask a question in my caption, I lead with a quote.

Do you take your own pictures?

Yes, all my pictures are my own. I’ve never reposted another’s pic on my feed. It's fine if you want to do this, but always give credit by tagging the originator and mentioning them in your caption. But be aware, you won't really carve your own niche with other people's pictures.

I do sometimes use an app to improve the picture, if the daylight is not good enough, or to crop or rotate the picture. I don't use a standard filter or have a theme as many do. This is mostly because I am too whimsical and indisciplined.

Do you post stories or use reels?

I tried reels about a dozen times, but whether it was the quality of my camera or something else I don't know, but the reels were never smooth and compared to my still pictures they were deeply unpopular, so I stopped doing them.

I put about 5-10 stories up per day. These are whatever takes my fancy, from pics of the dogs, to what I am reading, to reposting other people’s brilliant pics or raising awareness of excellent accounts. I love stories because they are a place to be relaxed and informal.

How do you decide who to follow?

I love to follow other's accounts, but I don’t follow more people than I can keep up with reasonably, which for me is a limit of about 1000 accounts. I pretty much only follow 100% bookish accounts. I'd love to follow everyone but I then wouldn't be able to read, like and comment on their posts, which kind of defeats the object.

I try to like everything on my feed, read as many captions as possible and comment where I can. This can be a bit sporadic due to work and other life pressures! If you specifically want to me to see something, please do tag me, or even DM me to let me know. I read and respond to all DMs.

How has your bookstagram experience changed as your account has got bigger?

In so many ways! Here are some:

1. I get, on average, one review request from an unpublished or new author every day. This is kinda heartbreaking, as I would love to read them all, but I just don’t have the time. The overwhelming majority I have to say no to. Even the few that In doing this, I am aware I might be missing the chance to discover the next big author - I think particularly of how many overlooked John Kennedy Toole's masterpiece A Confederacy of Dunces, in his lifetime - but I have so much I want to read, I have to make hard choices.

2. I do the odd paid book promotion, which are always marked as such. I do these through an intermediary platform which matches Instagrammers with appropriate brands. In my case that is publishers and bookfairs, though I have worked with a building and hardware chain when I was doing a DIY project building bookshelves in my shed. These promotions give me book buying pocket money and enable me to do giveaways, thereby sharing the love. In my reviews, I’m as honest as possible, but if you are not sure whether to read a book I am talking about, DM me and ask for more information. I make sure not to do too many promotions, as I'm not doing this to make money, I'm doing it to share my love of books and reading.

3. I do a book giveaway every month or two. These are always international, as this is a worldwide community. Winners are always randomly selected and have come from all over the world, from Pakistan to Tunisia, Bulgaria to Canada, Argentina to Indonesia, Poland to Ghana. Unfortunately, there is a trend of malicious accounts being set up in parallel with the giveaways, and trying to scam people, so I may have to stop doing them. I don’t have any accounts that use very similar user names to mine and I will never ask you to click on a link. Please be careful, there are all sorts of idiots out there. Never give your bank details to anyone and be careful of clicking unknown links.

Do you get odd requests?

Yes, all the time! I get about one request a week asking how much I charge for shoutouts. Really!? I wouldn’t ever take payment for a shoutout. Every single mention on my account or stories is an account or a pic I really love. I like to be spontaneous and genuine. People spot it if you are fake, and it’s not me.

Neither do I do follow trains. Partly this is because I don’t understand them, but also I only really want followers who want to follow me. No judgement on others that do this though, so don’t take offence when I don’t join a follow train.

Do you have other Instagram accounts?

Yes, I have one for my dog Lola, a private one for family and friends which is mostly nature pics, and also Bookstagram Gold a bookstagram feature account I started with three brilliant bookstagrammer friends. This one is solely for reposting other bookstagrammers' pictures that we love and letting a wider audience know about them. There are some amazing pictures out there.

How many books do you own?

I don't think of myself as owning books, more looking after them for a little while before passing them on to someone else. I have around 2,400 books (I'm 52 - this represents nearly 40 years of reading) and try to limit my buying. I also sell my duplicate vintage books – I am always discovering them – through my Etsy account, and donate all the others to my local #littlefreelibrary

How is your blog linked to your bookstagram account?

I've been blogging since I was 50, when a very generous friend bought me the domain for my special birthday. Blogging enables me to expand on some of my posts, practice my writing skills, and ponder bigger issues like What is a Classic? and How to read your way out of a reading slump. It's also a good place for my lists, like 100 books I think you should read and my most recent blog about Autobiographies I'd Recommend. I also use it to wrap up each reading year and award a Book of the Year award from the books I have read.

So, that's me and my approach. Pretty straight forward. No clever tricks. Bookstagram is an amazing blessing for the bookish, furnishing a worldwide network of bibliophile friends, book chat and recommendations in a sea of positivity. Enjoy!

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