Throughout the past decade, most social media platforms have changed the way readers find and discuss books with like-minded people. While every social platform interacts with audiences differently, the book community on TikTok has seen a recent uptick in popularity. How does this newfound attention affect book publishers, authors and online book lovers?
Social Media’s Influence on Book Sales
Social media platforms that rely on more visual components, such as Instagram and YouTube, have been particularly appealing to people who wish to watch book-related content but may not be an avid reader already. YouTube content about books, colloquially known as “BookTube,” often includes users uploading videos of their latest book review or lists of books they recommend, and the video format lends to the relaxing nature of simply talking about books in such a general way. Similarly, Instagram content related to books, known by the community as “Bookstagram,” usually comes in the form of photos uploaded by users showcasing their bookshelves or a stack of books they’ve recently enjoyed. Short and simple visuals can allow target audiences to quickly scroll through their social feed, briefly absorbing the trendiest books. In this way, social media users who post about particular books by name or by way of showing their cover can also serve as free advertisements for the books, whether intentional or not.
“Figuring out what sells books is not an exact science,” wrote Jo Piazza, a journalist for Forbes, in her 2017 article about the impact of Bookstagram. “It’s a mixture of press, marketing, word of mouth and fairy dust from what I can tell from the vantage point of an author.” In the article, Piazza explains that distributing books to influencers on Bookstagram and other forms of social media can be even more important than distribution to some bookstores, since there is the potential for a book’s virality among some of the more popular content creators.
Evidently, social media has promoted books for a long time. However, the book community on TikTok is catapulting book sales unlike ever before.
The Rise of TikTok
On TikTok, content creators make a variety of short videos in genres such as dance, comedy and education, all of which usually have a duration of between 15 seconds and one minute. Since its release in 2016, the app has become an incredibly popular social platform, especially among teens. Following the deactivation of Vine, a similarly beloved app where users could upload short videos, TikTok was in a good position to succeed, and it has climbed in popularity with every year since. As of 2020, TikTok was named the third fastest-growing brand of the year.
TikTok is about much more than funny videos though. Over the years, smaller online communities have shifted to using TikTok as a major form of sharing their niche content. The app hosts a wide variety of creative accounts, such as young entrepreneurs, artists sharing their progress and even readers who enjoy promoting their favorite books. This community of book lovers is referred to as “BookTok,” and it is taking the world of books by storm.
TikTok’s Influence in the Online Book Community
For many TikTok users, the welcoming and fun environment of BookTok was a major incentive to join the community. “I created my book account because I was longing to find a connection with people about something I am super passionate about,” said Luz, a 20-year-old BookTok creator. Additionally, BookTok has also served as a platform for users to advocate for progress in the literary world, as many creators make posts that celebrate the inclusion of minority characters. “I like to think that people follow me due to our shared goal of diversifying books,” said Faye, a 16-year-old who frequently creates LGBTQ+ content. BookTok has quickly become a go-to for book lovers and anyone looking for a recommendation, though the community’s spike in attention took the publishing world by surprise.
Recently, The New York Times published an article highlighting the increasing popularity of the app’s literary community. The BookTok phenomenon started to gain attention from the media after “We Were Liars,” a 2014 book by E. Lockhart, suddenly jumped onto The New York Times’ Bestseller List for the first time in years, shocking the author and booksellers across the United States. “I had no idea what the hell was happening,” Lockhart said of the news.
A wide variety of books are highlighted in BookTok videos, and admiration for such videos has prompted major shifts in bookselling operations. “These creators are unafraid to be open and emotional about the books that make them cry and sob or scream, and it becomes this very emotional 45-second video that people immediately connect with,” said Shannon DeVito, who is the director of books at Barnes & Noble. “We haven’t seen these types of crazy sales — I mean tens of thousands of copies a month — with other social media formats.”
The Question of Compensation
While any display of appreciation for books can be seen as a call to read, some people are getting paid to do so.
People who run BookTok accounts have said that, due to the recent interest in the community on TikTok, publishers have been sending several accounts free books, sometimes even paying them to create videos with books before their release. According to Selene Velez, a young creator on BookTok, the fees can range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars per post.
Random House Children’s Books has also stated that it currently works with around 100 TikTok users. “Once [a book] takes off on TikTok, the machine of publishing can start to get behind it,” said John Adamo, who serves as the head of marketing for the publishing division. “Big retailers can discount it, a publisher might start running ads, and if a book becomes a bestseller, that also leads to more sales. But without TikTok, we wouldn’t be talking about this at all.”
Though this new marketing strategy can be lucrative for authors and publishers, this sudden attention on TikTok users casts a shadow over the previous work of creators on other social platforms. While creators on BookTok are receiving thousands of dollars per post, creators in the book community on other platforms have never gotten such recognition, despite the fact that a large amount of effort can be required to make a post on every platform. Many creators on other platforms, such as YouTube or WordPress, can regularly apply a dozen hours of effort on one post, and they will still not get the same level of compensation, if at all.
“Ever since the explosion of TikTok, there’s something that is difficult for book bloggers to adapt to, and that is the desire for shorter and more visual content. [It is] a desire for less ‘demanding’ content — it’s so much easier to scroll Instagram and quickly double-tap a photo, or to lie in bed and watch a YouTube video before going to sleep than to read a 1,000 word-long blog post,” said May, a book blogger of five years, in an interview on the future of the online book community.
The Future of Readers on Social Media
Readers will always be on social media platforms. Though the attention for TikTok has overshadowed many other book-related platforms, the online book community must adapt to these shifts in demand and perhaps gain the attention of publishers in other ways. “It should come as no surprise that both creators and their audience have [changed], whether that’s in the form of podcasts, Booktube, Bookstagram, BookTok or wherever else the bookish community is,” said Vicky, a book lover and content creator of seven years. “Now the community has spread across social media platforms with every person preferring one medium or another. [Book] blogging is here to stay, but if it is going to take its place amongst the likes of [other platforms], we need to adapt.”
In 2021 and beyond, book bloggers and other bookish creators must continue promoting each other’s creativity with their amazing content. Hopefully, content creators across all social platforms will be compensated in a more even fashion. Until then, the online book community can still benefit from uplifting other creators and showcasing the diverse content they want to share with the world.