The Talented Ms. Calloway




CAROLINE CALLOWAY’S CAREER so far has been indicative of many publishing trends. With help from her parents, she paid to develop her craft as a writer, studying at NYU and then art history at Cambridge. She started building her online presence by purchasing an initial bank of Instagram followers. From there she earned a large audience (some 684,000 followers at present), using the platform as an outlet for a significant quantity of self-published writing in the form of relatively lengthy, witty, discursive photo captions. With her followers in place, she was then able to secure an agent and a book deal with Flatiron Books, receiving a reputed $375,000 advance for a memoir. After failing to deliver the manuscript, she is now self-publishing the book under the title Scammer; the release date keeps getting pushed back. In addition to Instagram, she is on Twitter and Patreon, where she has offered her “closest friends,” at $100 per month subscription, a private conversation; and until just a few days ago she was producing literary-themed erotica for subscribers on OnlyFans, a self-described adult entertainment site. She sold her content as “softcore cosplay of hardcore literary heroines,” and added: “you’re cultured as fuck if you subscribe.” Some might call this an “aesthetic of bookishness.”

During her creative writing training at NYU, where she worked with David Lipsky, she met another talented young writer, Natalie Beach. In 2019, Beach chronicled their difficult friendship in an exposé that reveals how susceptible she was to Calloway exploiting her. As Calloway was breaking into Instagram, the friends traveled together in Sicily, where they took glamorous travel shots — mostly of Calloway — and worked together to write the captions and stitch together the overall narrative that made up the account Calloway named #Adventuregrams. Beach reports to have enjoyed the idea that she was participating in making an important cultural artifact, feeling close to beauty and greatness that she could not hope to touch on her own. She writes of those initial Instagram posts, “I began to believe that what we were making mattered to my career (for the first time I was being paid to write) and to our readers around the world. It was 2013, and the internet felt like the future of writing, at least for girls.” She continues:

I believed Caroline and I were busting open the form of nonfiction. Instagram is memoir in real time. It’s memoir without the act of remembering. It’s collapsing the distance between writer and reader and critic, which is why it’s true feminist storytelling, I’d argue to Caroline, trying to convince her that a white girl learning to believe in herself could be the height of radicalism (convenient, as I too was a white girl learning to believe in herself).

When their time in Europe was over, Beach used this experience in her effort to secure work: “I placed #Adventuregrams at the top of my résumé, describing myself as an editor, or if the listing called for it, the personal assistant to Ms. Calloway.” Meanwhile Calloway enrolled at Cambridge and moved to England, where she continued to grow her fan base, now branding herself as the beautiful young American abroad. The friendship strained when Calloway tried to underpay Beach to manage her apartment as an Airbnb rental. After failing to secure anything meaningfully better, Beach agreed to work with Calloway again, this time as an editor for her book manuscript, expecting 35 percent of any profits. She ended up being more of a ghostwriter. “The Caroline character we created together was a fantastic YA protagonist,” Beach reports: “she loved and was loved, looked good crying, stomped around an idealized New York in her ‘I-deserve-to-be-here boots.’” When Calloway’s agent praised the proposal, for a memoir “of a life that wasn’t mine, adapted from Instagram captions,” Beach could not help but feel proud.

For a time, then, “Caroline Calloway” was not a solo act but rather a co-production, as Beach was a key writer of Calloway’s content. That Calloway did not properly credit her work is worth noting. Obscuring the help provided by others, or subtly indicating, as a sign of status, that you are able to get others to work for you for free, is part of the social media influencer toolkit: make it look effortless, like an expression of your inner life, something you do not as a paying job or as a boss, but simply because of who you are. We can understand Calloway’s work as akin in this respect to other kinds of creative self-enterprise increasingly common in literary circles and the creative industries more broadly.

Calloway in fact sits at an important crossroads: between the self-branding social media influencer economy and an evolving book publishing world. Calloway told Beach that “she took a series of meetings with literary professionals who informed her that no one would buy a memoir from a girl with no claim to fame and no fan base.” She was probably right: it increases your chances of getting a book contract if you are already famous on the internet. [1] We know that the mainstream industry would rather not take risks on books that won’t sell. If they are going to offer advances to secure potentially hot titles, why wouldn’t they want to acquire books that come with a pre-made audience?

Long before COVID-19 hit, bookstore sales of literature have been trending downward; big chains have been closing branches. Advances have been shrinking. It has become harder to make a living as a writer. Marketing resources are dedicated to a dwindling crop of stars. Narratives about publishing’s yesteryear tend to be a bit pastoral, but there are truths to be gleaned from this lore. It was once more possible that an author could get published on the strength of their work — perhaps the editor even came upon it in the slush pile, and recognized a raw talent and so undertook to cultivate and mold that talent through substantive editing, followed by a marketing push trying to appeal to the right readers. No doubt on occasion this kind of gamble is still possible. But the best way to arrive at an editor’s door is with an army of social media followers already in place, or even better with a following and a viral story that will be spun out into the manuscript. A prospective publisher will want you to produce a book consistent with your brand, and they will want you to use the social media following that you already have in order to maximize the work’s sales. Taylor Swift put it as well as anybody: these days artists get record deals because they have fans, not the other way around.

And that is if you even end up securing work with a traditional publisher. If you are self-publishing your book, this adds another level of uncertainty that you need to mitigate through creative self-branding. Self-publishing is hardly a means of going around gatekeepers. Consider Amazon’s self-publishing platform, KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing), which claims to be holding 80 percent of the ebook market at present. They market their platform as something writers are lucky now to be able to choose. They say that like many other professionals, writers have experienced a welcome increase in “career flexibility” given the growth of “remote writing jobs.” KDP is, in this light, a good service to help these new professionals meet their goals. You simply prepare your book according to the formatting guidelines, and then upload the file. Readers can download your book to their digital device or opt for print-on-demand. You get 70 percent of the sale.

Self-publishing is one of the book industry’s gig economies, as individuals seeking to earn must increasingly be “exposed more directly to external markets” rather than working with traditional firms. [2] There is no value added from an official editor, only behind-the-scenes help from whoever you hire temporarily or convince to work for you for free. There is no advance, and no marketing budget except what you can front yourself. This is not an easy way to make money. Many more authors earn a pittance doing this work than make a livable wage. To up your chances at success, if you have the money or social power you can get a ghostwriter or a freelance editor to work with you behind the scenes, as well as an expert in market share optimization. You need the resources to do this; many people are excluded from even trying. Calloway has been fortunate in this respect. Still, having come to book publishing with a marketable brand, she has to do the daily work of maintaining it. Even if her book is never published, that failure is content for her social media platforms, where one primary source of her self-branding activity is the idea that she’s an inveterate con artist who is just fooling around. Her book is called Scammer for a reason.

Despite a complex history, the publishing industry has consistently profited by underpaying women. Back when the “gentleman’s industry” was almost entirely male, women — often wives and daughters — worked behind the scenes in uncompensated capacities. When women started entering the field in the early 20th century, they were mostly “behind the scenes as clerks, stenographers, and secretaries, as assistants to editors, or as assistants and managers in what were considered women’s specialties — children’s books, publicity, and advertising-promotion.” [3] The publishing workforce has since that time been mostly women, because women are paid less than men, because they would more readily take jobs that might not last, and because promotion was unusual and there was not high to climb. By 1981, while women had made “important inroads […] principally in editorial positions and subsidiary rights,” it remained the case that “the executive ranks in college, trade, and mass-market paperback publishing remain off limits to all but a minority of women.” [4] This remains true today, broadly speaking. Women are dominant in the jobs at the lower strata, men at the higher. Women are dominant in freelance work, men in permanent positions. Women authors, for their part, tend to earn less than men. [5] They are concentrated in genres that routinely report among the highest profits — mass-market romance — precisely because they are the most stigmatized and least well compensated, whether by advances or royalties. One recent study finds that books by women authors “command nearly half (45%) the price of male authors.” [6] The rise of self-publishing has not done much to unsettle this — on the contrary. Self-publishing leads to an increase in the supply of books. In the absence of any change in market demand, writers’ earnings can be expected to decrease even further. In this light, becoming an influencer on social media, carefully cultivating your creative self-branding enterprise, is one of the available ways of working against these odds, while also upping the chances that you might get a mainstream publishing house to back you.

Are we still surprised that creative self-enterprise is something people turn to increasingly in a time of unstable, casualized, contract-based work? A 2019 survey reports that there are now 57 million freelance workers in the United States — 35 percent of the workforce; and millennials make up an increasing portion of this number. COVID-19 has only intensified these trends. As Brooke Erin Duffy and Emily Hund write, the creative industries in particular “overwhelmingly rely on freelance and project-based labor” and appeal to people based on the “ostensible rewards of the career […] including the prestige, autonomy, and ‘coolness’ of the job,” the glamour and status if you make it. [7]

We are familiar with the way that flexible work has been imagined as ideal because of the freedom and creativity it allows. Much has also been written about what this idealization masks — for example the strain self-enterprising freelancing puts on creative workers, who must cover the costs of necessary equipment such as desks and laptops, as well as in many cases training, health care, retirement savings, and so on. There are also some high barriers to entry in these industries. Often people have to work as interns before securing paid work, so having a wealthy support network helps; it helps if you live in a big city, especially London or New York; it helps if you went to name-brand Ivy League universities; it helps if you are conventionally attractive; it helps if you are white, able-bodied, single, and footloose, and so on. Those lacking any of these assets experience even more deeply the strain that comes with trying to find a way in. Duffy and Hund note that creative workers are “encouraged to invest time, energy, and capital in an imagined future” — a future when the activity will pay off, when one’s effort will be rewarded. It makes sense then that as part of the aspiration for success, or this investment in the future, people develop self-branding strategies that usually appear in the form of “attention-seeking and status-enhancing behaviors.” [8] Caroline Calloway engages in the construction of her social media personality in hopes of future returns on her investment.

Worth noting here are some of the more particular conventions linking Calloway to fashion and beauty bloggers whose enterprise is, in part, a certain femininity. Like most fashion bloggers, clothing choices and appearance are key to her performance of self; and she presents her content as the result of “predestined passionate work” undertaken because it manifests her inner being. Calloway notoriously ran a much-mocked “Creativity Workshop” out of a former apartment — a tutorial to, in Beach’s words, “architect a life that feels really full and genuine and rich and beautiful.” Participants paid $165 US, but Calloway never presented it as a money-making venture. Instead, she consistently downplays her status as an entrepreneur, even as she has multiplied ways in which she might be paid for her work (for instance, she is now selling paintings for between $65 and $1,000 a pop). She participates in what Duffy and Hund call “the post-feminist ideal of individual success obtained through inner self-discovery” [9] — in other words, that making money could be just a bonus added to one’s natural expression of self.

Fashion and beauty blogs often feature travel photos of beautiful people in gorgeous settings, against stunning backdrops. The same is true of Calloway’s initial Instagram push, which charted her travels around Europe. Here is Beach’s account:

When we left our room in the morning, she packed several outfits so she could pose for days’ worth of photos in one afternoon. I meanwhile was deputized as the photographer, instructed to find her best angles and keep my shadow out of the frame. When Caroline was satisfied we got the shot, we’d hurry back to the hotel to connect to the Wi-Fi, brainstorming the caption together. After she posted the photo, she would hold her phone in her palm and watch as the comments rolled in, responding to each one.

Beach points out how much work this all took; how the holiday was really an occasion for Calloway’s building of her brand; how what appeared to be candid shots online were in fact calculated images selected from many attempts; and then how after the photos were shared the further work of cultivating connections with her followers — reading and responding to their comments — took a great deal of time. This work is key, as it allowed Calloway to speak from the heart of the product, as it were, as all good authors are supposed to, to make it possible for the reader to feel a connection with them, via a cultivated, consistent, and distinctive “voice” and aesthetic effect. [10]

Again, unlike Beach, Calloway usually does not mention the tedious work involved in this production of self, including work like Beach’s own, of unpaid assistance. When she occasionally does allow glimpses behind the scenes, it is when her sharing adds to the authenticity of her self-presentation. She can acknowledge exhaustion, depression, and drug dependency, fit within a broader narrative of struggle and overcoming, of fitful survival. Her more confessional content almost never has anything to do with struggling to produce her social media profile. Instead it is about family and personal relationships, which again further links her to fashion bloggers — whose claims to authenticity of expression are often based on a “gendered ‘confessional culture’ that compels the private lives of young women into the public sphere.” [11] In more recent posts, Calloway has admitted being addicted to Adderall, and has taken to chronicling difficult life events, from abusive relationships to bad breakups. These events include her father’s death as well as, most recently, her mother’s cancer treatment. Where these events prevent her from posting new content, she apologizes to her followers for letting them down, and claims to miss interacting with them. Again, we see that her social media performance is imagined as a natural expression of an inner drive that is her true self — to establish relationships and connections. Yet we cannot ignore how the pressures arising from this form of enterprising self-branding can compel constant confession. For Calloway’s kind of “technologically mediated worker” — to use Rosalind Gill’s phrase — whose income is dependent on the size of her social media following, one “must constantly perform the labor of the self.” Her work and life necessarily blur into another other, or “her entire existence is built upon work.” [12] Calloway is openly passionate about her work and wants to perform her “labor of love,” but is she not also materially compelled to share during hard times, as the risk of losing followers if she goes silent for too long?

In this way, Calloway’s case evinces that prevalent tendency to make the unwatched life insignificant, as meaning and purpose themselves appears to arise from exposure — “sharing.” This situation does not arise in a vacuum. Instead Calloway offers instruction in the possibilities for the “monetisation of just being,” as people are “locked into a mode of constant promotion” in conditions in which other opportunities are simply hard to perceive or pursue. [13] Beach reflects that “internet writing was only a means to an end, a way to launch a book that would be as real as we believed our friendship to be,” but she also sees Calloway’s online persona as an addictive performance, dubbing it “the story she can’t stop telling.” It’s psychological and material, the uncertainty manifesting as verbiage — the necessary compulsiveness of “hope labor,” perhaps, as you try to ensure your investment in the moment will reap rewards if you just keep going.

Calloway’s performance of self is no doubt a particular one. Particular in that she seems to have come from a family of means, is white and able-bodied, conventionally pretty, with degrees from elite schools; particular in her deference for literary culture and other signs of cultural distinction; particular in that she has become open about mental anguish and personal struggles. However, it also reflects general conditions, in which people feel increasingly compelled to do the work of enterprising self-creation, self-branding, and performance via social media. In conditions of spreading un- and underemployment and the general collapse of any faith that stable waged work will be available or good: “[W]e must post, participate, blog, twitter,” Alison Hearn and Stephanie Schoenhoff write, because this will “demonstrate our special value and influence, which might act as a hedge against our insecurity.” [14] Our unfolding present, with its interlinked economic, sociocultural, and technological transformations, constantly cultivates, fosters, and promises to reward Calloway’s style of self-presentation and content management — repetitive and anxious because it can’t not be. In other words, self-branding of this kind is less tragic narcissism and more a manifestation of uncertain labor markets — an “apposite navigational strategy […] a way to retain and assert personal agency and control within a general context of uncertainty and flux.” [15]

It is telling that Theresa M. Senft coined the term “micro-celebrity” when researching camgirls in the late 1990s and early 2000s — people whose work lives bear some comparison to Calloway’s. Recently other sex workers, less well off than Calloway, have objected to the way that OnlyFans is being invaded by celebrities starting accounts, cutting into their audience share and profits. Senft argued that online tools allowed camgirls to seek attention and pursue recognition through careful management of their audiences via social media. Camgirls could generate their following with few start-up resources, and without having to obey the “dictates of legacy media (the big-name bastions of television, print, and radio).” [16] In terms that anticipate Amazon’s marketing of its self-publishing platform — it’s just a great opportunity! — Senft treated it as a boon, largely, that the creative process is highly individualized, without input from a marketing team or oversight from a boss. A person can be relatively ordinary — no original association with anyone already powerful is required, if one can manage to command visibility and attention. [17] But the case of the contest over OnlyFans suggests the extent to which, in current conditions, a person with existing celebrity has a serious advantage in a competitive field, where insecurity is the common state, and the cost of managing risk through creative self-branding is borne almost exclusively by individual competitors. Calloway has recently said as much. She started her OnlyFans work so that she could pay off her debt to Flatiron Books. “Now that my own financial situation is less dire than it once was,” she writes, “I think the argument celebs leave OnlyFans for the sex workers who ‘need the money more’ is more valid.” Her account has been deactivated.

It bears repeating: If there are unique pressures placed on women to perform a certain kind of salable femininity as a hedge against uncertainty, Calloway has an advantage here — most particularly, perhaps, a background of wealth to fall back on regardless of whether she manages to earn money as a published writer. But again, in this respect her situation is not that unusual: publishing industry workers, including firms’ employees and their favored authors, have tended to be white, relatively wealthy, trained at “good” schools, and even able to work for a time with little or no compensation. Calloway is competing with others like her, but also with people like Natalie Beach, who in a more immediate way need their hustle to pay off. We see in her case a set of conditions that are likely to intensify as the publishing industry continues to struggle: toward convergence with social media culture, the self-branding industry, gig work in the form of self-publishing, with a growing army of hungry creatives vying for attention. They are serving a new kind of consumer, too — a topic for another piece — who is drawn less to physical paperbound books and more to free content with options added, like that $100 personal phone call, and to the kinds of subscription-based services that reduce the risk of disappointment if you don’t get what you paid for.

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Note: Research for this piece was supported by Dessa Bayrock and Ross Chiasson, and by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

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Sarah Brouillette is professor of English at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.

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Featured image: “Calloway Polaroid (cropped, retouched)” by Yiggie8 is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

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[1] A random sampling of headlines: “What’s an Influencer Worth to Books?”; “Follow the Influencers: Social Media Stars 2016”; “Headline Home acquires parenting book from influencer Clemmie Telford”; “HC wins Younger’s take on ‘crazy’ influencer culture”; “Mrs Hinch signs with MJ after 11-way auction for Instagram star’s cleaning tips

[2] Dana B. Weinberg and Adam Kapelner, “Comparing gender discrimination and inequality in indie and traditional publishing,” PLOS ONE (9 April 2018): https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0195298

[3] Lewis A. Coser, Charles Kadushin, & Walter W. Powell, Books: the culture and commerce of publishing (New York, Basic Books, 1982): 149.

[4] Ibid., 159.

[5] The overall wage gap for writers is hard to track. Narrow the Gap claims that women in arts, entertainment, sports, and media earn 87 cents to the man’s dollar, and that this has widened one percent since 2011: https://narrowthegap.co/gap/writers-and-authors

[6] Weinberg and Kepelner, “Comparing Gender Discrimination.”

[7] Brooke Erin Duffy and Emily Hund, “‘Having it All’ on Social Media: Entrepreneurial Femininity and Self-Branding Among Fashion Bloggers,” Social Media and Society (July-December 2015): 3.

[8] Ibid., 2.

[9] Duffy and Hund, “‘Having it All’,” 4.

[10] On authors’ varying means of branding themselves and connecting with readers, see Simone Murray, The Digital Literary Sphere (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 2018), 22–52.

[11] Duffy and Hund, “‘Having it All’,” 7.

[12] Rosalind Gill, “Life is a pitch: Managing the self in new media work,” in Managing media work, ed. Mark Deuze (London: SAGE, 2010), 249–262.

[13] Susie Khamis, Lawrence Ang, and Raymond Welling, “Self-branding, ‘micro-celebrity’ and the rise of Social Media Influencers,” Celebrity Studies 8.2 (2017): 201.

[14] Alison Hearn and Stephanie Schoenhoff, “From Celebrity to Influencer: Tracing the Diffusion of Celebrity Value across the Data Stream,” in A Companion to Celebrity, eds. David P. Marshall and Sean Redmond (John Wiley & Sons, 2015), ebook.

[15] Khamis, Ang, and Welling, “Self-branding,” 200.

[16] Theresa M. Senft, Camgirls: Celebrity and Community in the Age of Social Networks (Net York: Peter Lang, 2008), 198.

[17] Ibid.

 

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