I don’t think there’s anyone out there today willing to deny that TikTok and other social media sites have a massive impact on our world. From starting questionable online trends to making bold political statements, we have seen the effects of our digital lives bleed into our real ones in numerous and varied ways. The enormous effect of BookTok and other book-focused social media communities on the publishing industry and reading trends is just one of the many examples we have seen crop up in our daily lives, but it’s one that deserves more attention and holds particular importance to me as a book lover.
How many of us have walked into our favorite bookstore in the past two years, only to realize that a new “BookTok” table has quietly made its way to the front of the store? This alone should be enough to indicate that the app has made a splash in the publishing industry. By warranting a specific section for readers to gravitate toward when looking for their next read, even booksellers are acknowledging that, yes, they know what we’re really there for, and it isn’t Dickens or Tolstoy. When we look at the grand impact this community has had on the publishing world in the past two years, a few new BookTok shelves in bookstores isn’t surprising.
While several book-focused social media communities — such as Bookstagram and BookTube — existed long before BookTok (or TikTok, for that matter), the community born during quarantine grabbed our attention in a way other book communities never did. At a time when many were returning to childhood hobbies for familiarity and comfort, it’s no surprise that reading found its way back into many people’s lives; it’s even less of a surprise that this newly rediscovered childhood passion made its way onto TikTok, the world’s latest obsession. With the BookTok hashtag now amassing over 92 billion views, it’s only slightly more shocking to learn that it’s almost single-handedly responsible for putting Kylo Ren fanfiction on the New York Times best sellers list for 37 weeks, reviving a five-year-old self-published alien erotica series to become an Amazon bestseller and winning an author not just a six-figure book deal, but also a movie deal. (Let’s not even talk about the “Kissing the Coronavirus” series going viral). Clearly, the community’s influence is considerable.
Perhaps more significant is the impact BookTok has had on readers’ individual relationships with reading — particularly that of young girls and women, who make up the majority of BookTok users. If we look at what stories are most popular on BookTok, the list is dominated by books traditionally viewed as (and criticized for being) “girly” – YA fantasy, romance and anything else featuring a young female protagonist. These are also the stories that girls have traditionally been made fun of for enjoying (see: “Twilight”), and that many of us have felt ashamed to read or admit to reading before BookTok made them cool.
I have my own experiences with this. I remember carrying books from genres considered less “literary” (many of which are now quintessential BookTok reads) around my high school with their covers hidden against my chest, praying nobody would ask me what I was reading or what it was about. It was hard to reconcile the parts of myself that enjoyed reading these books, which were often seen as meritless or even cringey, and the part of myself that wanted to be seen as smart, intellectual and sage — something I thought could only be achieved by reading the “right” kind of books. There was so much shame surrounding reading for me, even though I knew deep down that the books I enjoyed were far from the only books I could understand and that liking books with characters I could actually relate to — as opposed to characters in many of the books widely considered “literary” and “intelligent” — didn’t mean I wasn’t smart or even that my books weren’t literary in their own right. Yet, before the rise of BookTok, that shame was still present in my life, as I’m sure it was for many others.
That said, I think the real power of BookTok, and communities like it, lies in its ability to give power and agency back to writers and readers. Instead of only discovering books published and promoted by publishing giants, readers are able to use these social media spaces to find books from a variety of backgrounds. It can’t be denied how much of a marketing powerhouse BookTok has become. One of the most powerful aspects of BookTok is that it gives authors, especially those with less of a pre-established audience, the chance to reach millions of potential readers for free. This is a level of exposure previously limited to those who could afford the extensive marketing and promotion necessary to make a book go viral, which often meant that traditionally published novels (and the novels that publishing houses wanted to see pushed) were the most popular books on the market.
Traditional publication marketing often limited the kinds of stories that were popular, minimizing marginalized voices. BookTok allows readers to discover not just self-published novels and other books that typically receive less mainstream attention, but books by and about underrepresented groups, which increases visibility for these stories and encourages the traditional publishing industry to change. While it’s important to acknowledge that TikTok’s algorithm is far from equitable and that it still may influence the book recommendations and accounts that are promoted on BookTok, it’s impossible to deny that this community has proven there is a huge market for diverse stories.
BookTok gives readers like me the space to own their interests and break away from the shame that has for so long surrounded them. By allowing us to finally enjoy reading, without shame or fear of judgment for what we like to read, BookTok creates a community for readers to rally behind, forcing publishers to listen to what readers actually want from them — whether that be more stories with diverse representation or enemies-to-lovers STEM books. Because there’s no such thing as the “right” kind of book, just the right book for you.
Daily Arts Writer Camille Nagy can be reached at email@example.com.