The Makings Of A Literary It Girl


The Makings Of A Literary It Girl

How the It Girls of literature are redefining the book launch.

Originally Published: 

In the last few years, the traditional literary world has gotten a lot more fun. Parties aren’t just thrown at bookstores that close at 9 p.m. but at punk bars and hotel ballrooms. They have custom merchandise, relevant DJs, and Botox. They’re photographed like celebrity parties. Publications like Forever Magazine, The Drift, and Copy are publishing newer writers and hosting events that feel accessible to people outside of the MFA circuit. It’s a change led by a new class of literary It Girls: savvy writers who are redefining what it means to market a book — and in doing so, tackling the challenges of self-presentation that every artist faces.

And it’s not just parties: Writers like Claudia Dey, author of Daughter, and Rachel Rabbit White, author of Porn Carnival, are marrying the worlds of their books with custom perfumes from cult-favorite perfumers Courtney Rafuse and Marissa Zappas, respectively. Madeline Cash made custom merchandise for her addictive-as-a-candy-flavored-vape short story collection Earth Angel. So did Nada Alic, who also created a series of “book trailers,” short films to drum up interest in her sharp, salve-for-the-spirit short story collection Bad Thoughts.

This energy is concentrated in the heart of savvy writers who not only aren’t afraid to DIY, but for whom it matches their personalities to create genuinely interesting, creative work to promote their books — the same is true of high-profile writers. Ottessa Moshfegh tapped the fashion world, hosting the launch of her novel Lapvona at Proenza Schouler, for whom she wrote a series of diary entries, and walking in Maryam Nassir Zadeh’s Fall 2022 runway show. Michelle Zauner already had a following as a musician for her band Japanese Breakfast that helped market Crying in H Mart, which is being adapted into a film. Ziwe recently hosted a book release party at The Standard, East Village, which included an impromptu photo shoot with her and Emrata.

Literary It Girls may have the standard markers of what we think of when we think of an It Girl: they’re beautiful, stylish, and social, with a certain je ne sais quoi. But what really makes them influential is the creative ways they stage and elevate their work — both on the page and in persona.

Sometimes, this translates to books sold: Happy Hour is the bestselling book on Verso’s list, and Daughter was an instant bestseller in Canada. But few writers these days are expecting to get rich off book sales: This new wave of DIY marketing efforts ensures the books generate community and notoriety, both of which can bolster a career in an unpredictable industry.

Part of what makes someone magnetic is, of course, that we don’t know everything. These literary It Girls toe the line of marketing persona and of keeping things sacred so they can create in the first place.

“It's almost like being a Lit It Girl is like the formula that you devise for perfume,” Dey tells NYLON. “The elements are: devotion to the object, luck, timing, what is shown, what is performed, what is held, and what remains mysterious.”

The Exaltation Of The Book Party

Photo: Matt Weinberger

Last November, Allie Rowbottom threw a book party for the release of her edgy, whip-smart novel Aesthetica, about a woman who undergoes an experimental procedure to undo years of plastic surgery she got in pursuit of becoming an Instagram influencer. Held at the Georgia Room and photographed by famed nightlife photographer the Cobrasnake, the party was hosted by Forever Magazine, which also threw parties for Bad Thoughts and Earth Angel, all organized by Forever co-editor and events director Anika Jade Levy. It included pay-by-donation Botox and a video appearance by Caroline Calloway. Last week, almost a year later, Rowbottom pulled off another Aesthetica party, this time for the release of the novel’s paperback edition, which included a reading by the actress Tommy Dorfman. These parties weren’t thrown by the publisher: Rowbottom hired her own PR and threw them herself. She knew she wanted there to be a performance aspect to the marketing because of its subject matter.

“I knew I wanted to make this book a performance in its marketing and also a confusing performance in some ways. You can read the book and be like, oh, this is anti-plastic surgery and Instagram, or you can read it and be like, it's more complicated than that. I wanted the parties and some of the marketing around the book to perform that nuance, but also perform the inadvertent sexiness of some of the content. I think it was really successful in that regard,” she says. “Make it fun and get people hyped about the book in tried-and-true ways, because then they're going to be curious about what's inside.”

Photos: Matt Weinberger
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For Rowbottom’s first book Jell-O Girls, she took a more traditional approach to marketing — which usually involves bookstore events and often doesn’t even include a book tour. But it didn’t feel true to who she was, nor did she feel like it was particularly effective.

“It didn't feel very true to who I am, and it didn't really yield the enthusiasm for the book that I wanted or the readership: the cool, young, enthusiastic readers who I felt would be a good fit for my work,” she says.

Delia Cai, a Vanity Fair writer whose sly and insightful novel Central Places was released in January, took cues from Rowbottom when it came to her book release party, which she threw at Jadis in the Lower East Side.

“I think [Allie Rowbottom] might've been the one who told me you should celebrate your debut novel in the same way you might celebrate a wedding or something,” Cai says. “I was like, OK, that's a lot. But I did really like the idea of publishing a book as a personal milestone.”

Cai ordered L.L. Bean totes with custom embroidery for the party, along with 400 miniature versions of her book she bought from an artist on Etsy for party favors. She also bought her first designer dress, from Sandy Liang.

Photo: Matt Weinberger

“I think every author ends up finding out that you really kind of have to make it as big or as exciting as you want it to be, just because I think the idea that they're going to get the big Zadie Smith-style giant auditorium event and a big party — that's so rare,” she says. “I think it's way more fun to use the book as an excuse to gather your community and celebrate something you've done. Kind of like a birthday.”

Young Women Who Buy Books

Going to literary events over the last decade, Marlowe Granados, author of Happy Hour, the glamorous small press runaway hit novel about two best friends who gallivant in New York City for a summer, didn’t always feel like she fit in, particularly at readings that she felt were “so stuffy.”

“It was always a little bit intimidating in a way, because it didn't really mesh well with my own ideas and aesthetics and how I present myself. I think there was this disconnect for me and I felt a little bit like an outlier,” Granados says. “I think things have definitely changed since my book came out in the last couple of years. There’s less of that tension between being able to be taken seriously, while also not really walking back on a lot of your presentation — just being true to how you are as a person and then having that actually be respected in a literary world. I think it requires some skillful navigation.”

The release of Happy Hour included a profile in New York Magazine where she and the writer drink French 75s at Bemelmans, and Granados has worn Versace in The New York Times. After the release of her novel, she gave advice to several of the authors in this piece about the rollouts of their books. In many ways, she was at the forefront of thinking about creative marketing: While promoting Happy Hour in Canada in 2020, for example, Granados wanted to send the book to not only book influencers, but also lifestyle influences. She knew the audience for her book wasn’t just “book people,” but would have varied interests.

“I had my own style and humor in the way that I wanted to present the book and frame it,” Granados says. “I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that I just don't trust publishers with their own take.”

One of the difficult things about getting Happy Hour published was that she kept hearing from publishers that they didn’t know how to market the book.

“I think the publishing industry wasn't really thinking about those young women who buy books. They think about critics and Twitter,” she says. “Really what happens is that if you have a demographic that is made up of young women, so much of that is also them talking to their friends and lending their books to each other, and that kind of relatability.”

Granados says it’s only been in the last couple of years that she feels like the literary world is starting to take the work of young women more seriously.

“Even 10 years ago, if you think about it, especially in New York, it was still super male-centric in terms of the people we took seriously and what they thought. And it was like the girls were just hangers-on.”

But that’s changing. The girls aren’t just hangers-on. In fact, they’re kind of carrying everything. (Enough to inspire an inflammatory Sunday Times editorial asking where all the young, male novelists have gone.)

“I think it's easy to get discouraged in publishing, but as the current paradigm crumbles, it presents an opportunity to do whatever you want,” says Alic. “There are no rules, no one knows anything, so it's important to get creative, try new things, and not take yourself too seriously.”

“Nobody Cares About Your Work The Way You Do”

Writers agree there’s a growing imperative to be the face of your own work, which goes hand in hand with increasing pressures to self-market. Part of this is due to the constraints of the publishing industry. Even authors who publish with so-called “Big 5 publishers” aren’t offered many resources — which are often typically reserved for their extremely high-profile authors. Authors often have to do their own PR or plan and fund their own book tours (something smaller presses like Rose Books, helmed by fellow literary It Girl Chelsea Hodson, are trying to change).

Authors who reached major success through more traditional marks like winning big prizes or having bestsellers — authors like, say, Emma Cline or Sally Rooney — don’t have the same burden to self-market.

“Nobody cares about your work the way you do,” Rowbottom says. “We don't have the option to be offline. That's how I see it. I sort of embrace it and also I think it's a particular personality type. Not everybody's into being on Instagram or being the face of a party or socializing in that way, but for me, it's actually a part of who I am, so it works really well.”

Rowbottom also points out that this isn’t new. Persona and self-marketing has always been an imperative for writers, she says, referencing Gertrude Stein’s Paris literary salons in the early 20th century. It just looks different now.

“Books are these abstract objects,” says Cai. “You actually have to read it. People understand personalities and personas so much automatically ... I think literary It Girls are very good at cultivating themselves as these characters that can then be a vehicle for promoting their book or for promoting and understanding that the persona is kind of part of the work, too.”

“You’re Staging The Book Artfully”

Merchandise is one way of steering the reader into the world of the novel — bringing the abstract into something tangible.

For the release of her gorgeous and unflinching bestselling novel Daughter about a fraught father-daughter relationship, Dey commissioned a perfume from Courtney Rafuse, whose company Universal Flowering has a cult-like devoted following. Dey wore the juicy, woody fragrance Fig Leaf from Universal Flowering while writing much of the book, which aided in her creative process. Rafuse ended up creating Mona, named after the book’s protagonist, a fragrance with characteristics that include “lustrous shadows, asphalt steam, blood red (radiating), and crossing over.”

“I came up in the theater,” says Dey. “I think the ephemera or the ephemeral experience on offer with a launch, it's like, you're staging the book artfully, provocatively, suggestively, voluptuously steering the reader into the world of the novel.”

Alic designed a line of merch for Bad Thoughts, referring in her Instagram post to her “Sally Rooney bucket hat moment,” recalling the off-kilter bucket hat merch Rooney’s publisher created for the release of Beautiful World, Where Are You. The merch supplemented another creative marketing rollout: a series of artful short films to act as trailers for the book, which were written by Alic and all shot on film by her filmmaker friends Brandon Tauszik, Kenny Laubbacher, and Matty Barnes. She hosted a release party for the film at NeueHouse in downtown LA, which 300 people attended.

“I didn't belong to any literary institutions or community when I wrote the book, so I approached every aspect of it with a very DIY, experimental attitude; especially when it came to promoting it,” Alic says. “I was also surrounded by different kinds of artists in LA, mostly musicians and visual artists, so I was constantly exposed to people who were building and sustaining their art careers without a map or money. It's not like I had this grand vision, I was basically just looking for any excuse to collaborate with friends.”

Courtesy of Madeline Cash
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Cash, a co-founder of Forever Magazine, commissioned a line of merchandise from Drink More Water for the release of her short story collection Earth Angel, which included knee-high socks and polos emblazoned with lines from the books. Cash created hype by staging a photo shoot at a dim sum restaurant in Chinatown, shot by photographer Stolenbesos, who often works on the downtown fashion circuit. The clothes were not only sold at her book party, but in stores across the city. At her book party, which was held at The Flower Shop and so packed that people were spilling out into the streets, she also had custom Earth Angel matchbooks.

“Writers have to advocate for themselves like never before. You can't be the hermetic enigmatic Salinger Pynchon type anymore. You have to sell yourself. I taught at Sarah Lawrence recently and the kids were like, ‘How do you become a writer?’ and I was like, ‘Have generational wealth,’” says Cash. “If you don't have rich parents, being a writer is one part talent and two parts networking. Being a writer in 2023 is also being an agent and editor and PR girl.”

“This Is Who I’ve Always Been”

The narrow Venn diagram sliver where the illusive It Girl label lies is when an author’s personality can aid in self-presentation in a natural way.

“I have a big personality, and I've always been social. I've always gone out and I've always had opinions,” says Granados. “I guess, for me, it's less of a persona and more an amalgamation of the years that I've spent in the world.”

But that side isn’t always what Granados shows on social media. Many of the authors I spoke with said they were working to put less of their lives on Instagram, which is increasingly feeling like a professionalized platform.

“The way that I present myself in that space is very deliberate,” Dey says of social media. “All of that is scripted, all of that is curated, and it preserves my privacy and my separate intimate life. One requires the other, and so I think of it as creative. Again, it's like how I came up through the theater: You stage the novel.”

And maybe this is the It factor: the mystery that’s not shown — the tension between what you have to keep internal, what you know is sacred, the pieces of themselves that writers save for the work.

“The book is an extension of your life, but I think the performance of the book's life preserves the privacy of your own life, truly,” says Dey. “One does require the other. My soul would go into my novels, but not how I would present my novels. That demands a completely different thing.”

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