From a bird’s eye view, I think that TikTok is a difficult platform to digest and even harder to discuss broadly, possessing so many sides, shades and issues that are always growing and evolving. Part of that evolution is TikTok’s increasing presence in the consumer market; 25% of users report having purchased a product after seeing it on the app. This would be an enticing promise for any industry, and it certainly has the publishing industry caught in its volatile, magical web.
Made up of both aspiring and established authors, avid book reviewers and everyday readers, “BookTok” is home to all things literature on the app. When one searches “BookTok,” they are sure to see a plethora of reviews, recommendations, reactions to books and advertisements.
BookTok has a primarily female demographic, both among the users and the authors they promote. However, the platform still fails to diversify its algorithm with BIPOC and LGBTQ+ users and authors. From my own time scrolling and looking at other users’ opinions, there is noticeable frustration regarding BookTok’s white women-centric recommendations. This has lead to niche hashtags such as #BlackBookTok and #LGBTQBookTok among others — efforts to cultivate diverse content in the larger BookTok sphere.
A testament to its incredible growth in popularity, BookTok has become a new vehicle for authors to catapult their book sales. According to a New York Times article, “How TikTok became a best-seller machine,” “BookTok has helped authors sell 20 million printed books in 2021, according to BookScan. So far this year, those sales are up another 50 percent. NPD Books said that no other form of social media has ever had this kind of impact on sales.”
The most notable example of the power of BookTok’s commercial magic is the incredibly successful, award-winning author Colleen Hoover, whose work has dominated both the platform and the fiction novel industry. Hoover’s success is not solely due to TikTok, but videos of viewers analyzing, reviewing and discussing her books have certainly played a tremendous part in boosting her popularity.
BookTok is not a fringe movement, either. It has carved out its spot among some of the largest literary platforms. TikTok has collaborated with Penguin Random House on a new feature where users can place links to books within the app. Barnes & Noble has a BookTok section under its Teens and YA category, and Books-A-Million and Hudson Booksellers have tabs dedicated entirely to the hashtag.
We can see the effect of BookTok locally as well. When you first click on the Books tab on Literati’s website, some of the first titles to browse are all BookTok favorites, including Hoover’s “It Ends With Us,” “Verity,” “Ugly Love,” “Reminders of Him” and “November 9,” as well as “The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo” by Taylor Jenkins Reid and “Where The Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens — all of which are currently ranked on the New York Times Best Seller list for paperback trade fiction. Like its parent, Barnes & Noble at the University of Michigan website also has a #BookTok section.
With this impact comes a certain reliance on the platform from authors and the book industry at large, as well as a pseudo-democratization of book sales. Unfortunately, which titles rise to BookTok virality and, thus, enjoy inflated sales is largely determined by which trends or tropes they showcase. Young adult tropes such as romance reign supreme on literary and non-literary enthusiasts’ For You Pages. Enemies-to-lovers, friends-to-lovers, strangers-to-lovers, strangers-to-friends-to-enemies-to-lovers — if it ends with lovers, BookTok is here for it. Coupled with soft to spicy sexuality, the ever-popular genre offers seasoned readers an enjoyable read, and new, younger readers a first glance.
It’s possible that part of what’s making these themes currently popular is the way they interact with, or distract from, our reality. In the same way that dystopian books rose in popularity because of government distrust in a post-9/11 world, romance may be offering brief escapes from the bleakness of today’s current events. While romance has always been a best seller worldwide, the genre caught on especially during the beginnings of the pandemic. Fantasy, another popular BookTok genre, especially speaks to the desires for not just escape, but change and rebellion.
Psychology also plays a part in the romance genre’s popularity. Be it the tension and passion of enemies-to-lovers or the relatability of friends-to-lovers, romance offers a simple promise of a happy ending, which readers can cling to in comfort in times of uncertainty.
While the TikTok algorithm — the basis of the app’s success — allows the BookTok community to flourish and encourage each other to read and boost certain titles, this technology also works against users and authors trying to push titles and tropes outside of trends.
Just looking at the BookTok sections of Barnes & Noble and Literati, it quickly becomes clear that BookTok is promoting a narrow selection of genres and styles. This isn’t BookTok being broken; the algorithm is working the way it’s supposed to, but it results in an echo chamber that doesn’t leave much room for deviation from trends, for diverse authorship and content.
Authors must first appease the TikTok algorithm in order to reach viewers. For the publishing industry, this means not only encouraging authors to follow trends, but also arranging paid partnerships with popular content creators to get their clients’ work buzz. In an article by Morning Brew, “How #BookTok changed the literary market,” publicity firm head Kristin Dwyer said that she was “working with an author who’s got this really strong (outdoorsy and calm) aesthetic. So, my team and I have been researching BookTokers who might (relate to that).”
Users are already expressing frustration over attempts by publishers to capitalize on BookTok. While the app’s collaboration with Penguin Random House may help boost certain titles, it also ramps up the repetitiveness of recommended books. I’ve felt that same sense of frustration on the app, trying to find something new only to be met with the same 10 or 20 titles and genres.
Thus, the content repetition that characterizes BookTok demonstrates a greater truth about the way books are sold today: The ultimate drive of sales and marketing in the publishing industry isn’t to share well-written stories, or to reveal a narrative’s winding road from cover to cover. No, it’s the dollar sign. At its core, TikTok, like any other social media platform, is an advertising platform. So, if appealing to BookTok makes the cash cow for these publishing companies, then they’re willing to say, “So be it.”
Of course, just because many of the trending books on TikTok conform to the same trending genres doesn’t mean they’re trivial in substance. Because BookTok and the genres trending historically appeal more to women, it is easy for criticism of BookTok to have misogynistic undertones. Books written by women, for women, especially in the romance genre, are vulnerable to the labels of “frilly,” “cheesy” and “not real literature.” I’m not concerned with the quality of BookTok recommendations; I’m worried about their homogeneity.
Eventually, the tropes we see dominating BookTok will go out of style as the natural lifespan of literature unfolds, at which point I wonder: Will the ever-increasing presence of the publishing industry on TikTok allow the BookTok community to embrace the ebb and flow of trends?
As much as BookTok helps the publishing industry reach a robust quantity of young readership, the users are what make BookTok special. For readers wishing for something fresh, I think looking into the nicher sides of BookTok is a good place to start, as well as branching beyond TikTok for less-popular genres on the app, such as memoirs, sci-fi and horror. Belletrist and Time’s 100 are some of my favorite sources for recommendations.
The pop-culture and industry value of BookTok is priceless. I only hope it can evolve with new readers and authors, despite its limitations.
Statement Columnist Elizabeth Wolfe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.