BookTok Influencers and Their Impact on the Publishing Industry
Every once in a while, lighting in a bottle happens. The introduction of TikTok as a new social media platform caught an unexpected wave with the Covid-19 quarantine in 2020. It is one of those situations that could not have been anticipated by even the most savvy marketing managers. When BookTok began from a simple video by the account @caitbooks in 2020, no one could predict that it would be the origin story of a community that would change the face of modern publishing. Within the slurry of soundbites, TikTok dances, and pranks, the subculture of #BookTok rose into the arena with surprising strength. As of March 2022, #BookTok has amassed 45.8 Billion views and shows no signs of losing momentum.
The BookTok Community
The attraction of BookTok is fairly obvious: having a community of like-minded readers who can open you up to a world of new book recommendations. It feels like a virtual book club with a community of users who feel like friends. Julia J Hynek wrote an article for The Harvard Crimson titled “BookTok: The Last Wholesome Place On The Internet”. Indeed BookTok is a refreshingly wholesome corner of the internet, even with book suggestions that have more than a little bit of… spice.
There are trends within the movement such as “5 Books To Read To Get Out Of A Reading Slump”, “10 Books Everyone Must Read”, “The Books That Made Me Cry”, etc. all with an array of options that introduce you to books that may never have graced the mainstream without the aid of social media. This community and movement brought older books such as Dracula, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Crime and Punishment, The Trial, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Native Son, and others back into the mainstream, acting as an introduction for those who were unaware of hidden gems. Within this platform, niche genres were shared such as Russian Literature, Femanist Short Stories, and Surrealist works by authors that aren’t well known.
By sharing personal favorites, it’s a kind of introduction to the user who recommended it. The books provide a window into the mind of those suggesting, creating a form of connection and vulnerability which is refreshing on a superficial platform. There is a unique bond between those who have read the same book that left them crying, introduced them to their fictional crush, or inspired them. BookTok gets to the heart of shared experiences in a wholesome and distinctly human way. To find someone who loves the same series, or shares a One True Pairing (OTP) is to fast track a connection by finding mutual ground. For some, BookTok acts as a kind of Bumble for readers who want to find their people.
Rebranding the identity of “The Reader”
Perhaps without our knowledge, we made reading as an adult a dower experience. To be a reader as a child means having access to amazing genres of young adult literature that offer adventure, fantasy, humor, and imagination. Then when adulthood creeps up we are expected to replace our favorite books with more intellectual capital. Though biographies, memoirs, and academically acclaimed books can be enjoyed, BookTok is actively rebelling against the misconceptions that more mystical, imaginative, irreverent, or just downright fluff reads, can’t be openly enjoyed by adults. In doing this, reading is no longer a pretentious pastime, but an enjoyable hobby. Julia J Hynek recognizes, “BookTok, on the other hand, removes the intellectualized perceptions of literature and instead welcomes genres that have been previously stigmatized back into the fold.” In short, readers who stumble onto this pocket of the internet are given carte blanche to indulge in a Peter Pan effect, with BookTok acting as a public Neverland. BookTok actively rebuffs the belief that a 30 something who loves to reread their favorite books from childhood or peruse the Young Adult Literature section is somehow stunted intellectually or emotionally. In contrast, within BookTok, there is an accepted escapism and a culture that is unique to those who immerse themselves within literature.
Rethinking the Power Dynamic
As with most individuals who amass a large following, there are now BookTok influencers such as Kevin Norman, Amy Jordan, Kelsey Zagat, Elizabeth Black, and dozens more who are acting as Zagat guides for eager readers. Rather than browsing the stacks at Barnes & Noble or searching through Audible, TikTok has become the reader, reviewer, and advertiser for books. BookTok has cultivated a unique power that has revolutionized reading culture. Books now are able to go viral, riding the wave of trending audio or challenges by applying them to their favorite fictional characters. This is a power dynamic that lays all the cards in the hands of the consumer. It’s true that the consumer was always the make or break factor for a book’s success, however this social media modernization has made the reader the one to push a book into the spotlight and then maintain its visibility and relevance by incorporating it into popular trends.
Rather than fighting for advertising, TikTok users are both the architect and engineer when it comes to the publicity of a book, drawing the blueprint of successful marketing and then constructing upon it with a finesse and authenticity that exceeds the attempts of traditional marketing. When a book falls into the hands of a member of BookTok, they make videos hailing it, overlay trending audio or trending soundbites are used in hypothetical scenarios to make it as though the characters themselves were speaking. In this process, the reader is allowed to have the loudest voice in the conversation, riding on the book club atmosphere previously mentioned, and extracts humor and humanity from the reading experience. In short, they don’t allow the book to be taken too seriously. They are revered, loved, obsessed over, yes, but they never enter the untouchable elitism that’s been inflicted on classic literature.
Traditional Publishing In The Rise of Self Publishing
When it comes to acknowledging the impact of BookTok, the numbers don’t lie. According to Publishers Weekly, NPR, and Forbes, TikTok drove book sales to over 825 million print books sold in 2021, which is the highest amount on record. Within the rise of public availability, as well as the relaxed nature of BookTok, traditional publishing has had to accept that in order to maintain their place in the literary world, they’d need to place themselves in the race.
The strong “us and them” attitude of publishing makes it seem like an insiders club that only a few had the key to and developed an elitist reputation that made many authors feel their work was not worthy of publishing. In short, publishers became gatekeepers. Here is where many recent authors found a loophole through self publishing. Without the pressure of acquiring a literary agent to even place your work in the pile of hundreds of other hopeful writers, on the desks of dozens of prestigious publishing houses, most authors cut out the middleman and publish online. Wattpad has become just one of many popular platforms for people to share original works and fanfiction.
The landscape of publishing has changed drastically, and the publishing houses have learned to change with it. Penguin House, one of the most well known publishing houses, developed a TikTok account to bring themselves back into relevance and to scout out prospective works. Indeed many have employees scrolling through sites like Wattpad, Archive of Our Own, even Fanfiction.net to see potential books.
Elena Armas’ book The Spanish Love Deception, Ali Hazelwood’s The Love Hypothesis, and other BookTok darlings were found and published from this process.
The Author Influencer
Yet another character that has morphed in the narrative arc of modern book culture is The Author. In the past, authors only rose from the shadows into visibility after they already achieved success through good reviews, high sales, and diligent advertising. Now some authors are gaining their acclaim before the book is even published. Once again, the traditional publishing process is being redefined, with some authors offering a kind of soft launch of their books on BookTok, sharing worldbuilding, characters, and potential plots through videos. Many other authors that have risen to acclaim through their books falling into BookTok’s “Must Read List” are now active users of the app that caused their success.
For many decades, authors were not given much publicity unless they had reached JK Rowling or Stephen King levels of fame. On TikTok, the author is now a part of the dialogue. They are allowed a rarified access to their audience through social media. Now, authors are able to duet videos about their book, they can read comments celebrating or criticizing their work in an unfiltered way. Having authors so available to their readers is a double edged sword. On one hand, it demystifies them from being a picture and quick bio on the back cover, to a flesh and blood person that displays the humor, intelligence, and process which created a work that is enjoyed by thousands. On the other hand, such accessibility to the author can make them vulnerable to burning criticism and overly influence their future writing. It can also place crippling expectations on them. The obsessions of BookTok are consuming, making diehard fans who elevate books like The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid, and Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, to cult status.
To follow up something that was so loved and adored can invoke immense pressure on the author. Every work, every series, every character and plot, will be compared to that one work. The need to chase the high of that initial success can leave some authors anxious when producing another work.
Inspiration vs. Audience?
It’s the age-old question: do writers write for themselves, or the reader? In the fear of becoming a one-hit-wonder some may feel the need to pander to audience expectations rather than following their creative instincts or passions. Though there are some authors who have the benefit of a dedicated fanbase who love them because of their writing style, there is always an initial risk that the subsequent works may not be received. It’s a russian roulette process that can result in authors potentially removing the risk and following a formula. Though this may garner some audience satisfaction, the power of BookTok is their appreciation for authenticity.
In limiting the writing to satisfy the audience, their writing could become a consumer product rather than a work of art, creativity, or enjoyment. BookTok has called out many readers’ dedication to specific tropes, such as fake relationships, enemies-to-lovers, or the dark haired morally gray character with biting sarcasm and raw charisma, resulting in entire inside jokes, trends, and even whole genre sections dedicated to them. If an author has established their career on the foundation of a reliable structure of plot, genre, and character, diverting from their original formula to explore other forms makes them vulnerable to losing favor.
The Lasting Legacy of BookTok
What began as a video sharing top picks for book recommendations has snowballed into a major movement that has caused a shake up of the publishing industry. BookTok has provided a space in which avid readers may belong and thrive, encouraging others to join, while also actively redefining what it means to be a reader. This community has integrated the powerful tools of social media with the emotional, universal, and at times humorous experience of reading a book that changes your life. In doing so they have paved a new path for literary marketing which publishers are now beginning to follow. The readers, and writers, are now in the power seat, fostering a person to person connection that gets to the heart of what it is to become absorbed in storytelling. In turn, the publishing industry has followed the numbers and recognized that this form of social media clout has empowered independent self-publishing and reader-led marketing. Acting on this social capital has switched the power dynamic, making the reader the defining critic.
It is in this revolution that the literary experience has shifted. Now when we browse the independent and big box bookstores we see the influence of TikTok on our reading habits. Perhaps the wave is here to stay, or maybe it’s a bubble waiting to burst, but either way, it introduced billions to works that changed their lives, or simply made them happy. All in all, the BookTok Community have proven that they are a force to be reckoned with.
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