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How TikTok bookworms are shaking up the publishing sector

BookTok is a thriving online ecosystem all of its own, and pushing big changes in the rarefied world of book publishing

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Schoolteacher and BookTokker Leona McKernan

Schoolteacher and BookTokker Leona McKernan

BookTokker Niamh Wallace.

BookTokker Niamh Wallace.

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Schoolteacher and BookTokker Leona McKernan

“I’m on the run from a killer again. My brother murdered my entire family when I was seven and it was my testimony that put him in jail.” Elizabeth Cayouette is speaking directly to camera. She’s in a car with her seatbelt fastened and has a worried expression on her face.

This is how she introduces Dark Places by Gillian Flynn, one of the many books she recommends on her TikTok account, @bettysbooklist.

“I act as the main character in the book and tell the plot in first person,” she explains. “Countless followers have told me they didn’t think they enjoyed reading, or hadn’t read a book in years, but my videos made books sound interesting to them again.”

Accounts like Cayouette’s, whose content is purely books-focused, are far from unusual on the video-sharing platform, as #BookTok, TikTok’s books hashtag, has become a massive trend and grown into a vibrant community.

Cayouette originally started her account to promote a friend’s novel. After only three days, one of her videos went viral. She now has 267,000 followers and counting, and her videos have received 3.5 million likes. There are many other BookTokkers with even wider reach – 20-year-old Ayman Chaudhary (@aymansbooks) and 22-year-old Abby Parker (@abbysbooks), have 28.4 million and 24.4 million likes respectively.

“I think the publishing industry is just beginning to realise the power of video content,” says Cayouette, whose day job is in video marketing.

“Short-form videos are the future of advertising. I also think that the publishing industry is just beginning to learn how to value influencer content, and that we will see influencers take on a bigger role in recommending books in the coming months and years.” 

Scroll through BookTok and you’ll find cleverly edited clips of book covers over backing music, photo-collages themed around a book’s aesthetic, and BookTokkers using “sounds” (sound clips over which users often lip sync) to give their take on the reading experience.

This kind of video is the ‘meme’ of the TikTok world. A ‘sound’ becomes popular and TikTokkers riff on it in ironic, sarcastic and witty ways.

You’ll also find BookTokkers waxing lyrical about books they love or dislike, reading from opening pages, sharing quotes from books, and so on.

Video of the Day

One trend, which saw BookTokkers record themselves reading, along with their tearful reactions, caused sales of Madeline Miller’s 2011 book, Song of Achilles to suddenly spike earlier this year. The hashtag #songofachilles now has 75.3 million views.

It’s not the only title to get a new life thanks to BookTok. Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life (2015), Taylor Jenkins Reid’s The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo (2017) and E Lockhart’s young adult (YA) title, We Were Liars (2014) are among a handful of titles enjoying renewed popularity.

Publishers and books retailers have begun to take note. Eason says earlier this year they noticed an uptick in their online searches for BookTok-related titles. They duly curated BookTok ranges in their stores and online.

“BookTok recommendations for young adult fiction have been really well received, especially for authors Adam Silvera and Leigh Bardugo, along with an increased interest in other titles by authors such as Taylor Jenkins Reid and Colleen Hoover,” a spokesperson said.

“For us, BookTok has been a very positive movement – it’s always wonderful to see trends devoted entirely to books and reading.”

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BookTokker Niamh Wallace.

BookTokker Niamh Wallace.

BookTokker Niamh Wallace.

It’s certainly positive for those whose main aim is to sell books. But might commercial interest dilute what made BookTok popular in the first place?

Eighteen-year-old BookTokker Selene Velez (@moongirlreads) recently told the New York Times that she has started making videos that publishers pay her to create. Fees range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars per post.

BookTokkers may have more influence than traditional literary critics (the abundance of Sally Rooney content on the site would suggest publishers think so), but it’s up to viewers to discern the motives behind a video and who they trust. As paid posts become more prominent, BookTok may be in danger of becoming more advertising platform than community.

Though most of the bigger BookTokkers hail from the UK or US, Irish BookTok is growing in size. Irish-Moldovan, Ratchel Andreico (@nymeriasbooks), first got started on BookTok because she was lonely during lockdown. “I was watching a lot of videos on BookTok and the community was really nice. I liked how everyone was kind of connected,” she says.

Niamh Wallace (@booksarebrainfood) joined during lockdown because she liked creating content and it felt like a fun experiment.

“My videos about Sally Rooney’s Normal People have been popular, since I was trying to give some Irish context to her work, and I think my international following appreciated that,” she says.

Romance and fantasy rule supreme on BookTok, along with YA titles. There are also sub-branches of the hashtag, like spicybooktok, where readers enthuse about sexually explicit books, or dark academia, where readers rediscover classics.

Wallace, who has featured the likes of Brandon Taylor’s Filthy Animals, Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This and Eimear Ryan’s Holding Her Breath, on her account, notes: “It’s funny that on BookTok what I read may be seen as more obscure, but in the real world they are the books that are in the entrance tables at Waterstones, heavily promoted and discussed.”  

BookTok is not the first place online culture and books culture have converged. There have long been book bloggers on YouTube, Goodreads, Tumblr and elsewhere. But with the BookTok effect, publishers are starting to sit up and pay heed to the gap between what they think readers want and what readers actually want – a notion that collides with a larger conversation around diversity in publishing.

“One of the most positive impacts BookTok has had on me, and on the publishing industry as a whole, is to bring to the fore more recognition for BIPOC [black, indigenous and people of colour] and LGBQT+ authors and their stories,” says schoolteacher and BookTokker, Leona McKernan (@ateachersguidetoreading).

She also thinks it has “normalised romance reading, or at the very least, empowered lovers of the genre”.

Interestingly, BookTokkers’ approach to literature reflects the prevalent mode of literary criticism. They interpret books based on their cultural context. They value diversity and ethical rigour. Their videos often have trigger warnings and they are not afraid to call out books they feel are problematic.

Still, in terms of age range, BookTok is not as diverse as it could be. At 29, McKernan is the oldest of the BookTokkers I speak to. When I ask around for older BookTokkers, the hashtag #BookTokOver30 is recommended to me. And there I was thinking 30 was young.

My feed shows mostly female or non-binary people. An algorithm controls what appears on my ‘For You’ page and changes it based on the slightest of interactions. BookTok has been called “the last wholesome place on the internet”.

I’m not sure it’s that. I wonder how people ever pull themselves away from this vacuum of shiny digital content and find time to read.

However, the more entrenched I become, the more I feel there is an entire ecosystem that exists around books and it should not be dismissed.

BookTok is a place where conversations around books begin, and the zeitgeist is established. It’s a place where self-published authors can find a readership, and where readers can find like-minded people.

If BookTok is now shaking up the books industry, it’s probably the shake-up it needed. 

On the same page: BookTokkers to watch

@abbysbooks

With over 400,000 followers, UK-based BookTokker Abby Parker’s videos are creative, funny, and at times irreverent. Her “things that bookworms do” series will resonate with many readers.

@kendra.reads

Started because all the BookTokkers she was seeing were white, Kendra Keeter-Gray’s account highlights books in which women of colour are central. Her videos are full of personality and she’s not afraid to say what she thinks.

@craftybookworm

Found on #BookTokOver30, Lymari Yenderrozos’ videos combine her love of wine with her love of reading and often jokingly reference her husband and children as obstacles in the way of her bookish life.

@booksarebrainfood

Irish BookTokker Niamh Wallace’s content is intelligent and energetic. An English literature graduate, her book reviews give great analysis of the books she reads, but her videos are also good fun.

@ateachersguidetoreading

Lovers of fantasy and romance will love Northern Irish BookTokker Leona McKernan’s content, which she says has transformed her own reading habits from one book a month to 53 titles so far this year.

@irishreader

YouTuber-come-TikTokker, Kevin Kelly has amassed over 23,000 followers with his comedic BookTok account, based mostly on YA fare.


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