Book what, you ask? BookTok (or, as it often appears, #BookTok) is a wildly popular subsection of the huge global community who use the social medial platform TikTok. You may not be on the TikTok app, but very many people are: it now has more than 1.6 billion active users.
TikTok, a video-sharing app, has been around since 2016. In 2018, it was bought by the Beijing-based company, ByteDance. TikTok was last year’s most downloaded app, which demonstrates how much it has grown in appeal since 2016.
Back when it launched, the length of time videos ran to were just 15 seconds. It later expanded to three minutes and, this year, to 10. However, most of the videos on TikTok are still very short: between 20 and 30 seconds. The app is particularly popular with younger users, with its distinctive combination of reach and brevity, and the opportunity to create tiny pieces of home-made content.
In 2020, the hashtag #BookTok started to appear on TikTok. It was created by a community of people who wanted to talk about books they had read, or wanted to read - the “TBR” list. That in itself is not uncommon on social media: people in Book Clubs posting what they are going to read next.
People on BookTok championing the books they love to read don’t care about traditional media or other people’s taste in books
But the demographic on BookTok was much younger than people in traditional, established book clubs, of the kind who meet in each other’s homes every few weeks and where the social element to the evening is at least as important as the book being read.
These were primarily young adults, posting videos about the kinds of books that usually don’t get read in bookclubs. Romance novels, and fantasy being the top two. Romance fiction is a genre that is often invisible in traditional media outlets - including this one. It’s invisible to the extent that those books rarely, if ever, get reviewed, and their authors rarely get interviewed. People on BookTok championing the books they love to read don’t care about traditional media or other people’s taste in books. They know what they like, and they want to tell lots of other people about it.
A typical BookTok video is of a number of actual, physical books being shown to the camera. I spent some time looking at #BookTok videos, most of which were made by girls and young women. Some are first displayed with the cut pages straight on, so you can see neither spine nor covers, and then the titles are gradually revealed. Other videos show a stack of books, their covers shown to camera one by one. Some of the videos have marks out of 10 for each book; some feature the reader narrating one or two sentences maximum about the books. It is the simplest and most low-tech kind of content, but it has since had an extraordinary impact on book sales, due to its reach.
It’s common now for larger bookshops to have stands that feature BookTok books. Eason started its BookTok displays last summer, and now has them in most of its shops around the country.
Brona Looby is book promotion manager with Eason. “We get a lot of information on upcoming trends via online searches, and in April of 2021, we stated to notice a phenomenal number of searches for the YA [young adult] and LGBT writer Adam Silvera,” she says. “We wondered what was driving it. Then we discovered that people were talking about it on BookTok, mostly in the US and UK: a much younger demographic of readers.”
In the beginning, it was initially focused on YA, but now it has grown so much. It’s expanded into romance, fantasy, and LGBTQ fiction
By the summer of last year, Eason had a dedicated display stand for books that were featuring most strongly on BookTok. “In the beginning, it was initially focused on YA, but now it has grown so much. It’s expanded into romance, fantasy, and LGBTQ fiction. Sales are growing all the time. BookTok is like word of mouth recommendation, but a lot of it is among a cohort of young people who usually stop reading for a while.”
The Nielsen Book data charts is a method of recording what books are selling the most in any one week, and which gathers its data from most of the main bookshops in Ireland. The list of the top 10 sellers in different genres are published weekly. “In the Nielsen Top Ten, almost half those books are now BookTok titles,” Looby says.
The American writer Colleen Hoover, who writes YA fiction, is not an author name I was familiar with, but she is an undisputed queen of BookTok, and prominently visible on the Eason BookTok stands. She has close on a million followers on TikTok, and at least one of her books consistently featured in the many BookTok videos I watched one afternoon. It Ends With Us, Reminders of Him, and Verity being among her titles. It Ends With Us was published in 2016, but thanks to BookTok, it’s now having another life.
Looby mentions “tropes”, which is how people on BookTok describe the book categories they are talking about. “Dark academic” are books like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, published back in 1992, and is set on a college campus. “Those books that have been out a long time are getting a new life now. The Twilight series is on the go again too, as are The Hunger Games.”
Then there are the tropes attached to romance books, which BookTok loves. Enemies to lovers. Friends to lovers. Slow burn. Forbidden love. Fake dating.
I went down a rabbit hole to look at a couple of these tropes, such as the “fake dating” one. I confess I had not heard of The Love Hypothesis by Ali Hazelwood. The plot features a PhD candidate named Olive Smith, who for some reason, doesn’t believe in love. Enter professor Adam Carlsen, who agrees to be her fake boyfriend. You can probably figure out what happens next.
This dedicated hashtag to this particular book on BookTok has had a staggering 323 million views. No traditional marketing campaign could ever achieve that kind of promotion of a title.
It used to be the case that most books came out, had their day in the publicity sun, and then faded away, unless they were the rare ones that later became the subject of a movie or TV series. But BookTok doesn’t care about when books were published. It just cares about what it likes. The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, by Taylor Jenkins Reid came out in 2017. Centuries ago by the metric of traditional publishing campaigns. BookTok found it, raved about it, and it’s selling, selling, selling.
According to Brona Looby, the current buzz on BookTok is for two upcoming titles, that are both being published in October. It Starts With Us, by Colleen Hoover, and The First To Die At The End, by Adam Silvera. “There are huge pre-orders on both those titles,” she says.
Authors are also getting book deals via exposure on BookTok. In March last year, Alex Aster (26) posted a slick video on TikTok about a book she wanted to write, complete with images. “Would you read a book about a cursed island that only appears once every 100 years to host a game that gives the six rulers of the realm to break their curses?” was the gist of it. This was the premises of a book she had been working on for some years, a YA fantasy novel called Lightlark.
Aster’s book had already been rejected by more than a dozen publishers. She had an agent, but her agent had dropped her, because she had kept pushing the Lightlark book, which her agent did not consider commercial.
By the following day, her BookTok video had been viewed over a million times. There were thousands of comments from people saying, yes, they would buy it and read it. BookTok went absolutely crazy for it. The result was that a week later, Aster had a six-figure book deal.
The book came out in August, and with publication, the news that Universal is going to make a movie from it. One can guess that her former luckless agent is lying on the floor somewhere, a cool flannel on her head, and may stay there for quite some time.