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Reading is a solitary ritual: we open the cover, crack the spine and let the pages whisk our thoughts away. The most extreme reactions are a self-reflective ‘hah,’ ‘huh’ or even the occasional tear. TikTok is a communal platform: the pixels light up around 1.1 billion users’ devices, mostly Gen Z’s; it is known as an online space to recreate popular dances, lip-sync iconic film scenes, share the latest beauty trends, but it is so much more. Books and TikTok, then, you might assume to be an unlikely match, but the new BookTok trend is impossible to ignore. With over 15 billion views on #booktok, a fresh community of readers are unknowingly changing the traditions of conventional publishing.
In videos of sixty seconds or less, authors, readers and publishers alike can review, recommend and promote books. After searching #booktok, users can scroll endlessly through clips of baroque libraries, romantic bookstores, emotional book reactions and categorized recommendations. Like Bookstagram and BookTube, it’s a new social media movement which combines the aesthetics of books with the realities of reading. TikTok offers an ever-growing opportunity for promotion to a younger audience who are notoriously difficult to reach, especially outside the realms of Netflix, social media and quick consumption.
TikTok’s algorithm makes sure all videos are equal; they are shown to a randomized, small group of users and, depending on people’s reactions, they either flop or flourish. It is a democratized form of marketing because it inexpensively gives equal opportunities to people with a message. Whether the user is a bibliophile or a reluctant reader, they are just as likely to encounter a #booktok, so each video has the power to convert the buying patterns of any individual user.
With a predominantly younger audience, YA fiction is a popular genre to feature in #booktok content. In particular, users have curated lists which encourage writing that reflects more niche books, minority groups and others that are often overlooked in a bestsellers list. Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles was published in 2012 but is currently selling around nine times the number of copies than when it won the Orange Prize. It now features third on the New York Times Best Seller list for paperback fiction and its UK sales are up by 240% from the year before. Miriam Parker, a representative from Miller’s publisher Ecco, said that the company saw a spike in sales last August but couldn’t understand why. After trawling the internet, Miller, who describes herself as ‘barely functional on Twitter’, was informed by her publishers that @moongirlreads featured The Song of Achilles in a trending TikTok about ‘books that will make you sob’ which now has 6.2 million views.
Typing-in to the Community
Selene Velez, also known as @moongirlreads, was responsible for the rediscovery of The Song of Achilles and is one of many BookTokkers who receive ARCs and proof copies from publishers in the hope of sparking another chart-topper. These influencers charge within the range of a few hundred to a few thousand pounds for creating a promotional video. John Adamo, the head of marketing for Random House Children’s Books, works with around 100 BookTokkers and uses them to generate publicity that drives sales, retail attention and advertising around a book. Without TikTok, he says, ‘we wouldn’t be talking about this at all.’ It’s an unusual exchange. In an interview with the BookTokker Britt Alsemgeest, @emilymiareads said that sponsored content on TikTok is not something that she does often because the app ‘kind of knows when you’re doing an ad’ and ‘you have to make it look like it’s not a sponsored video…it’s so weird and annoying’ and tends to get less views. The algorithm nourishes a more organic and authentic mode of marketing and reinforces the idea that this is a community driven by genuine passion rather than pointless promotion.
Readers, publishers and authors have all created their own TikTok accounts to engage with the new community. Authors who choose to dip their pens into the network are presented with an opportunity to effectively direct power back into their own hands. Fiona Lucas, award-winning author of over 27 women’s fiction books, has over 22.4 thousand TikTok followers and uses the platform to promote her books, as well as tapping into the BookTok community. She has created a Facebook group for authors to get to grips with TikTok because she believes it is a forum that differentiates itself from other social media. She promotes BookTok as a place where people are their ‘fabulous, nerdy, eccentric selves.’ Publishers have recognized the power of this platform and Penguin Teen released a video with Amanda Gorman, America’s youth poet laureate, promoting her new book. After posting a publicity video, her book, The Hill We Climb, reached the biggest first week of sales attributed to any poetry book published. This is one of many instances that reinforces the engagement that BookTokkers can generate.
BookTok appears to have channeled the power back towards the author and consumer. If an author chooses to develop a BookTok platform, does this change the publishing process? With a ready-made audience of thousands, if not millions, an author will likely want to self-publish and match the fast-paced taste of their BookTok audience. Alternatively, they can cite a larger and engaged audience when approaching agencies and publishers if they choose another route. Sometimes changes come in the most unlikely of places; TikTok is not the most conventional literary platform, but the opportunities that it creates for shifting the balance in publishing should be watched with an eagle eye.