BookTok: When TikTok Met the Book Industry

Author: Amalia Nichols, Graphics: Nina Tagliabue

The BRB Bottomline

There is an entire side of TikTok devoted to books, and it is rapidly increasing in popularity. BookTok, as this side of TikTok is called, is influencing the book industry in a myriad of ways from a myriad of angles.


If you walk into a bookstore today, you may see a table of books with a sign that says “BookTok” or “TikTok.”  Books like The Love Hypothesis by Ali Hazelwood are being printed with “The TikTok Sensation!” on the cover. Even if you haven’t noticed the presence of BookTok, publishers have. They suddenly have books rapidly selling out whose sales they did not anticipate. Why? BookTok.

What is BookTok?

BookTok is a “side” of social media app TikTok that is a community of book lovers, mainly those who enjoy fiction, who have claimed the name and hashtag BookTok. Thanks to TikTok’s algorithm, readers are able to share book recommendations, reviews, and jokes. BookTok has been rapidly gaining popularity on the already popular app and has developed a grip on the book market. 

BookTok Dictates the Book Industry

Influencing the Market

BookTok has proved to have an enormous influence on the popularity and sales of books. The following two books are some  of the most extreme examples of BookTok’s power.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue

In January of 2021, I went to purchase The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab from my local Barnes and Noble in Houston, Texas after seeing a recommendation on TikTok from @aymansbooks. I could not find it anywhere in the store, so I asked a bookseller if they had it in stock. They did not, he explained, because of the unexpected high demand. The publishers simply had not printed enough copies of the book to meet this sudden demand, so The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue was sold out at my Barnes and Noble and almost everywhere else.

What is so amazing about the success of The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is that its popularity came almost single-handedly from Ayman’s recommendation video. Ayman made one video, and suddenly The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue was sold out everywhere.

Ayman was generous enough to get on a call with me to talk about this experience. She shared that within three days of her video, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue  sold out on Amazon. She explained how viewers were commenting that it was out of stock  on Barnes and Noble’s website and at their local bookstores. Ayman’s friend in Minnesota went in to buy a copy and found that it was “sold out in the entire state.” There was, according to her, “nothing even in the warehouses.” 

Within a week of Ayman’s video, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue was back on the New York Times (NYT) Best Sellers list, where it stayed for forty weeks, peaking at second less than a month after Ayman’s initial video.

While it may be hard to prove causation despite the video’s now three million views, author V.E. Schwab attributes much of her book’s success to Ayman. On January 6, 2021, following The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue reaching second on the NYT Print Hardcover Best Sellers list, Schwab posted the list on her Instagram story with the caption “LOOK AT WHAT YOU DID, @AYMANCHAUDHARY,” tagging Ayman’s old Instagram username. 

They Both Die at the End

Another ridiculous example of BookTok’s power is seen through the sales of They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera.

When it first was published on September 5th, 2017, They Both Die at the End spent two weeks on the NYT Best Sellers list under Young Adult Hardcover before falling off. Three years later, the book became popular on BookTok and reappeared on the Best Seller List under Young Adult Paperback. It has now ranked first in Young Adult Paperback for the last eight months.

Author Adam Silvera created a TikTok account partially to thank BookTok for They Both Die at the End’s revival. “You all have really given this book a second life,” he said in his first post on March 10th, 2021.

They Both Die at the End’s success proved that not only does BookTok have the power to sell new books, but it can resuscitate the old.

Influencing Bookstores

Walking into Berkeley’s Sleepy Cat Books on December 1st, 2021, I still saw The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue featured on its shelves, along with many other “BookTok books,” books that are popular on BookTok. At Powell’s Books, the largest bookstore in the world, 16 of their 42 bestsellers in fiction books could be considered “BookTok books,” with four of the top five soundly falling into that classification (They Both Die at the End, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, The Song of Achilles, and A Court of Thorns and Roses). Bookstores are even adapting their storefronts to BookTok’s popularity and are reaping the benefits.

Many stores have devoted entire tables to BookTok fan favorites. They place these tables prominently in their stores, knowing many of their customers come in for these books. 

Vanderbilt Square Barnes and Noble in Houston, Texas with two tables devoted to BookTok.

Photos by Callie Nichols

A manager at the Vanderbilt Square Barnes and Noble in Houston, Texas explained their store’s reason for devoting their tables to BookTok. He said corporate had realized how influential BookTok had become and encouraged BookTok tables for ease of purchase and to satiate demand.

Book sales in general have increased since the onset of COVID-19 pandemic, largely due to people picking up new hobbies in quarantine. However, in the first half of 2021, the largest gain amongst all major book categories was Young Adult (YA) Fiction, having sold 48.8% more units than the comparable 2020 period. The gain can largely be attributed to BookTok, YA Fiction being one of BookTok’s favorite genres. In fact, Publishers Weekly cites BookTok as “a forum that lifted sales of a number of YA titles this year. As bookstores want to benefit from these gains, they are stocking more and more of BookTok’s favorite books.

Using BookTok for Business

Bookstores Using BookTok for Sales

Many bookstores have fully embraced BookTok’s popularity and have created their own accounts. Many individual Barnes and Noble storefronts and independent bookstores have their own accounts and make consistent book-related content. 

The Novel Neighbor, an independent bookstore in St. Louis, MO, posts multiple times a week and includes multiple book recommendations. They end every book recommendation video with a reminder that they ship. According to social media and marketing manager Kassie King, the Novel Neighbor initially turned to BookTok because much of their staff was already on BookTok. They have found their e-commerce and shipping orders to have increased significantly since creating their TikTok account, and many of their in-person customers tell them they found them through TikTok. The Novel Neighbor has seen firsthand how BookTok can impact sales. “We sell out of books that are popular on BookTok and titles that we’ve featured on our BookTok all of the time!” said King. “We’ve had several instances where we’ve featured a title and then seen it pop up on a bestseller list shortly after,” she furthered.

Authors and Publishers Using BookTok for Promotion

Meanwhile, authors and publishers have taken to TikTok as a marketing platform that can be used to promote their books. Depending on the role (new author, established author, or publisher), there is a different approach to promoting their material on BookTok.

New Authors

Many new authors will share their book premises on BookTok with the hope to earn a publishing deal and/or garner interest in their books. Author Alex Aster posted the premise of her then-in-the-works book Lightlark on TikTok. After the video went viral, receiving 1.5 million views, she received a six-figure book deal for the book to get published. Many other budding authors will share snippets of their ongoing books, normally hoping to gain interest and views that will develop both into publishing deals like Aster’s Lightlark and increased readership.

Established Authors

More established authors will capitalize on their ongoing popularity by creating TikTok accounts for further promotion and to interact with readers who have pushed their books into such popularity. For example, Ali Hazelwood joined TikTok following her book The Love Hypothesis’ success. This has allowed her to engage with readers, responding to multiple readers with videos. Joining TikTok has also allowed her to further promote herself and her works. In October of 2021, Hazelwood encouraged readers to join her newsletter to receive an exclusive chapter from another character’s point of view (the website with the chapter ended up crashing when the chapter was released due to an accidental distributed denial of service attack from the high demand). On November 18th, 2021, she also used the platform to announce three new books to come out in 2022.

Publishers

Publishers have also noted the influence of popular BookTok creators like Ayman and will contact these creators to promote their books. Ayman talked to me a little through the process she has experienced with publishers. “I love working with publishers,” she said. “When publishers reach out to me,” she continued, “that’s how I know what books are being released and I can get ARCs before the books have actually been released.” ARCs, or Advance Review Copies, are free, early copies of books that publishers give to booksellers, librarians, journalists, celebrities, or others before the book is printed for mass distribution. This way, publishers can start building excitement around a book through reviews or promotions from these early readers. Now, publishers will reach out to creators like Ayman to read these ARCs and make positive content about the books. Most of the videos Ayman creates promoting publisher-offered books are compensated and probably marked with #ad. However, this is not to say creators are selling their standards for books. Ayman, for one, normally accepts the offers only of books she would be interested in regardless, usually YA and Adult Fiction. Additionally, BookTok creators often gain their following recommending books that their now-followers ended up enjoying. If a creator starts recommending publisher-sponsored books they wouldn’t actually have enjoyed, that are below their usual recommendation standards, and their followers are disappointed with the recommendations, the creator can easily lose their following. This provides a sort of check to BookTok. Hitting a “follow” button is not a long-term commitment and a book-recommendation account can be easily substituted for another due to a very saturated market with next to no barriers to entry.

Influencers Using BookTok for Views

Just like most things that are popular and well-loved, BookTok is subject to attempted exploitation. Recently, TikTok influencer Cory Winn received backlash from the BookTok community for exploiting BookTok books for views, which in turn gives the influencer money. Talking to Ayman, she mentioned how, to the BookTok community, it’s obvious that Winn “doesn’t genuinely have any interest in any of the books he’s ‘reading’ and showing off,” and that he doesn’t have any “care for the actual physical books,” both of us recalling Winn’s video with a book in a toilet

In a recent video, @thecalvinsbooks renounces Winn for “using this community.” His video, as of December 2021, has over 112 thousand likes, and many other BookTok creators have made similar videos renouncing Winn’s videos.

The main difference between the influencer view and the author/publisher/bookstore view of BookTok is that authors and publishers are active members of and contributors to the BookTok community. The authors and publishers create the works people talk about and engage with readers. Bookstores provide consumers with the works. All share an obvious love of books and reading. Their goal is to get a creation out into the world, in addition to making money. 

Why people have a problem with influencers like Winn is that, because they don’t share obvious love and excitement towards books and reading, they come off as disingenuous and even mocking. In the eyes of BookTokers, these influencers offer no real contribution to the community, much opposed to authors, publishers, and bookstores. Hopefully, BookTok will continue to root out the disingenuous, but due to BookTok’s popularity, it may well attract more people with similar influencer mindsets.

How Do You Get “on BookTok?”

As someone currently “on BookTok,” I would recommend attempting to get BookTok videos on your TikTok For You Page (FYP) if you are considering getting into reading fiction or looking for a community of readers. The book recommendations I have received and the community I have found have rekindled the reading obsession I had as a child. Due to TikTok’s algorithm, it can be somewhat difficult to join a “side” of TikTok, but here is how to get started:

  1. Follow some book-centric accounts like @aymansbooks and @novelneighbor for book recommendations and funny book content!
  2. Favorite the #BookTok hashtag so videos with that tag will start showing up on your FYP.
  3. Like all book-related content that you see and enjoy. Your FYP will then keep showing you similar content.
  4. Start tracking your reading on Goodreads. It’s no secret that your phone is always monitoring your searches and updates. It is not uncommon for a book to show up on your FYP moments after marking a book as “read.”

In the meantime, while you wait for TikTok to put books on your FYP, here are some of BookTok’s favorites for you to get started on:

Happy reading!

Take-Home Points

  • BookTok is a subset of social media app TikTok that exclusively focuses on books and is rapidly gaining popularity.
  • A single video, like @aymansbooks’s video promoting The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, can skyrocket the sales of a book.
  • BookTok has the power to make books suddenly top the charts three years after they were published, like it did to They Both Die at the End
  • Bookstores are rapidly adapting to BookTok’s influence, both altering storefronts and creating TikTok accounts.
  • New authors take to TikTok to garner attention for their books, and their popular videos sometimes earn them publishing deals.
  • More established authors recognize TikTok as a platform to promote their books and engage with readers, so they make accounts.
  • Publishers reach out to BookTok creators to promote their authors’ books.
  • Some TikTok influencers without a legitimate interest in books have already tried to exploit BookTok’s popularity for more views.
  • Join BookTok!

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