November 27, 2022

Save the Net Books

Blogazine on Books, Arts, and Music

Is BookTok a reinvention of book media or just a iteration?

6 min read

I think we can all agree: social media can be toxic. Doesn’t anyone long for the pre-Trump Twitter days, when it felt like you could really connect with like-minded people about common interests or common grievances and not be attacked by hidden avatars accusing you of being “woke”? Likewise, Instagram’s toxicity was evident pretty much from the start, and I won’t even attempt to discuss Facebook’s triumphant rise and fall. In fact, at first social media hypnotized us all with promises of a useful new tool with differing moral standards on how to use it properly. And in my opinion there is no current social media app more toxic than TikTok.

Teens are quick to blame anyone who claims TikTok is toxic for not understanding it, but as someone who grew up at a time when there was still a hiatus from being constantly online with smart devices in your pocket, I get it only too well. I understand its marketing potential and how quickly it can go from a funny video to “does this really have to be something that needs to be documented on film?” But even putting my personal feelings about the app aside, it’s impossible to deny one of its more endearing qualities: its newfound ability to sell physical books, courtesy of a certain corner known as #BookTok.

With Instagram also trying to harness the promotional and marketing potential of fast-moving video content, chances are you’ve seen a version of BookTok leak down to your other social media feeds. The idea is very simple: book recommendations, often without a premise, recommended at breakneck speed in a video of 30 seconds to a minute. For those who are not strangers to reading and who are already exchanging reading recommendations on the Internet, these videos may not seem like much. But for the occasional bookworm who isn’t sure which friend to ask about the perfect book for her, BookTok seems like the perfect place to browse before you buy.

“The vibrant literary subculture of TikTok emerged at the onset of the pandemic, when more young people were confined to their bedrooms with few options for entertainment other than reading,” observed Publishers Weekly’s Sophia Stewart. “BookTok influencers are predominantly teenagers and young women enthusiastic about sharing their book-related opinions, rankings and recommendations. When a book catches on with users (a common hashtag on BookTok videos is #TikTokMadeMeReadIt), the results in the real world can be impressive.” But BookTok soon evolved from a niche corner of social media where readers shared common favorites could unite into a legitimate driver of profits in the publishing industry.

What began as a platform for free advertising for mostly young adult titles has grown into one of the biggest driving forces in adult fiction publishing. According to The New York Times, BookTok helped sell more than 20 million physical books in 2021 alone. “BookTok is not dominated by the usual rulers in the book world like authors and publishers, but by regular readers, many of them young, who share recommendations and videos of themselves talking, sometimes crying, about the books they love or screaming or throwing copy across the room,” wrote Elizabeth Harris. “The most popular videos generally don’t provide information about the book’s author, writing style, or even the plot like a traditional review does. Instead, readers speak openly about the emotional journey that a book will provide.” And that’s the catch and the big appeal of BookTok: Instead of a black-and-white review with a rating at the end, these videos tell viewers what kind of emotional rollercoaster ride they will experience if they decide to take it in their hands. that seems to sell more books than sharing too many of your thoughts.

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In addition to prioritizing a book’s emotional content above everything else, BookTok’s appeal extends to the tendency of social media users to be drawn to content that shows someone promoting a product, in this case a book where they probably have no real financial interest or investment. A break from the typical feed littered with celebrities and influencers bumping paid promotions, if you will. Liz Perl, chief marketing officer at Atria Books, emphasizes this distinction, arguing that publishers should be mindful of this creation of more “organic content” on social media, as bookworms in particular have evidently responded.

Aside from the emotions you can expect and that return to more serious social media posts, what makes a book go viral on BookTok? It remains difficult to locate. But book corners on social media existed long before the rise of TikTok, notably Bookstagram and BookTube. And many of the titles that have seen renewed interest and sales since then, including but not limited to Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars, Taylor Jenkins Reid’s The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles and Adam Silvera’s They Both Die at the End had already had an earlier moment in the sun of popularity on Bookstagram at the time of its release. (My friends and I were already raving about We Were Liars when it came out in 2014. History repeats itself.)

However, according to Shannon DeVito, director of category management at Barnes & Nobles, BookTube and Bookstagram differ from BookTok in that neither platform has changed as much as the latter. Where she describes a book’s popularity on YouTube or Instagram as more of a “flash in the pan”, books on BookTok have staying power. “Our booksellers are able to shop deeper, and I like to think smart because the top titles and recommendations hold high volume for weeks and months,” she said.

While there may be newer titles that are seeing sales skyrocket thanks to being on TikTok, the many older books that are popular again on BookTok seem to be mostly younger users discovering novels that were already popular for their own reasons. Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library, for example, was already garnering acclaim from critics and Goodreads users alike before exploding on BookTok in the last two years. Similarly, Evelyn Hugo and Where the Crawdads Sing enjoyed massive popularity when they were first released in 2017 and 2018 respectively, but when BookTok reigned supreme thanks to quarantined teenagers during the pandemic, both titles stayed on the bestseller lists.

At this stage, the process of predicting what kind of book will become popular on BookTok seems pretty straightforward: pretty much the same contemporary books that will appear on the year-end leaderboards of any number of major releases. At first glance, BookTok is littered with reading suggestions that don’t really deviate from the norms for those who write about books or recommend them for a living (*raises hand*), but rather for casual readers looking for a quick and easy one Possibility to choose their next reading that is guaranteed to be good, it’s a gold mine. But the idea of ​​a short video or roll recommending books guaranteed to delight everyone is ridiculous. Since the phenomenon is still relatively new, its popularity and seemingly real ability to impact sales should allow for a more diverse pattern of reading recommendations in the years to come.

Ultimately, people scrolling TikTok to decide which book to grab next are really just looking for one that makes them feel. Life is difficult enough as it is, and some people just don’t have the time to scour print media the way they scroll through their social media at the end of a long day. That’s the only way to justify Colleen Hoover, author of BookTok favorites like It Ends With Us, having four of the top 10 best-selling books in the United States alone in 2022. Hoover’s books clearly give readers, especially those on TikTok, a sense of all the feelings they want to share with one another. And where Instagram used to only allow pretty pictures of books to buy, BookTok holds the key to the digitally interactive future of publishing.

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