Wyoming Paul has surveyed the dark and the light of #BookTok – here’s everything you need to know.
TikTok, naturally, is the nemesis of old-fashioned print books: addicting us to our screens, shortening our attention spans and ruining our abilities to concentrate for longer than 25 seconds. As Hugh Grant, wonderfully grumpy and nostalgic about the pre-digital age, put it, “I can barely get to the end of a Tweet without getting bored now. I used to be able to read novels.”
Technology has wrecked our brains, young people are addicted to their phones, and TikTok, with its quick-fire shots of dopamine, is at the helm of this ruination. The world of books, many presumed, would be trampled in the process.
It’s a plot twist, then, that readers gushing about their favourite books under the TikTok hashtag #BookTok has made reading cool again amongst young people – and fuelled the sales of print books.
For months last year, I started to notice older titles and new authors popping off in the Unity Books bestsellers lists, and scratched my head thinking “Where on earth is that coming from?” The answer: BookTok.
For the uninitiated, BookTok is a community on the social media platform TikTok, where people share their passion for all things books. Two weeks ago when I checked, BookTok had 118.3 billion views. Today, that’s jumped up to 121.4 billion. When an author or book blows up on BookTok – which looks like enormous numbers of videos, comments, and views – the real world feels it too.
Because I’ve never really used TikTok, I spoke with BookTok aficionado and bookseller Abby to get a sense of how it works.
“It’s not about one prominent person talking about the books they like and leading the way,” Abby explained. “TikTok’s algorithm knows exactly what content I like, so if I’m on TikTok and within 30 minutes I see five videos from different random people raving about how much they liked the same book, I’m thinking, ‘OK, cool, I should probably read that, too.’”
BookTok made you buy it!
For the book industry, the impact of BookTok has been huge. TikTok (and other video and social apps) have been credited with 9% of 2021’s book purchases for the 13 to 24 age group, as well as 5% of overall book sales that year. In the first four months of 2022 in the UK alone, there were 2.2 million copies of books sold that proclaim “TikTok made me buy it!” or are tagged with “BookTok” or “TikTok” in their description.
While 5% of sales may not sound like a huge amount, it’s likely an understatement of BookTok’s true impact on the industry.
If you’ve read a book by Colleen Hoover, Madeline Miller or Taylor Jenkins Reid in the last couple of years, there’s a good chance it’s ultimately because of BookTok – even if you’ve never had a TikTok account. Books that go viral on TikTok shoot up bestsellers lists and get placed on dedicated BookTok shelves in bookstores (you’ll see this at Whitcoulls and PaperPlus), which creates more word-of-mouth chatter. Think of BookTok as the gunpowder that lets an otherwise smouldering book catch fire — and eventually burn the house down.
“In high school, the books I read were definitely influenced by BookTok,” Abby said. “Not because I was buying the books I saw in TikTok videos, but because those were the books my friends had seen and were constantly talking about. It’s a domino effect.”
So who’s winning BookTok?
BookTok’s impact can also be seen through which books are selling. Young adult, romance, and fantasy novels have done particularly well on BookTok, which is a matriarchy, majority-ruled by teens and young adults.
At the very tip of the iceberg is romance and young adult author Colleen Hoover, who went from selling 237,000 copies of her novels in early 2020, to selling 8.6 million print copies in 2022 alone – more sales than the Bible that year. Her novel It Starts with Us was the most pre-ordered novel in the history of publisher Simon & Schuster, and in the first week of 2023, five of the six bestselling adult fiction novels were authored by Hoover. According to Nielsen BookData, in 2021, 28% of Colleen Hoover books were discovered on social and video sites. Likely the rest were from that domino effect.
Another sales trend attributed to BookTok is the surprise comeback of several older titles. Usually, a book will have its time in the limelight for 12 months and then fade into oblivion. Now, however, years and sometimes decades after their publication, novels that have gone viral on BookTok have risen once again into New York Times and Goodreads bestsellers lists, such as Taylor Jenkins Reid’s 2017 novel The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo and Madeline Miller’s 2011 novel The Song of Achilles. Even Wuthering Heights, The Great Gatsby and The Bell Jar are having new moments in the sun off the back of BookTok buzz.
We’ve clearly seen the impact of BookTok in the Unity Books bestsellers charts, with backlist titles like Mona Awad’s Bunny (2019) and Madeline Miller’s novels The Song of Achilles and Circe appearing week after week. In January, Donna Tartt’s 1992 novel The Secret History made it to number 5 in Auckland, and the same week Bunny was number one in Wellington, and The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo was number four. All are BookTok winners, boosted by a machine that’s directing the industry and dictating what sells around the globe.
Phew! Books are culturally relevant again
There’s no doubt that BookTok has rehabilitated the reputation of reading among young people, and made print books culturally relevant again. I know so many people in their twenties who haven’t read a single book since high school because reading was just something forced upon them in English class — the books were boring, irrelevant to their lives, and analysed until each juicy detail was sucked dry.
Abby told me that when she was in high school, she was the only person she knew who read for fun. “Then BookTok came along, and suddenly everyone was reading and talking about books.”
For the book industry to continue, we need young people who love to read. After fears that books will die out in the digital age, BookTok is a blessing and a relief.
There’s also something kind of lovely about the workings of BookTok (if we forget for a moment the nefarious being that is TikTok) — the recommendations are organic and democratic, grassroots and word-of-mouth. It’s a way that book sales are generated that isn’t strictly tied to the publisher’s marketing budget or accolades from a handful of literary judges, but real readers, sharing their love for a book with the world.
The dark side of BookTok
There’s always a dark side, though, isn’t there? Certainly there is when it comes to social media. While it’s often assumed that reading = good, that’s not always the case. I spoke with bookseller Roman, who said, “It’s great because BookTok is like the gateway drug to reading. But some of these books are like benzos.”
Sometimes, that simply means that popular BookTok books aren’t of the highest literary quality. Nothing wrong (or particularly surprising) with that — the Fifty Shades of Grey series has been translated into 52 languages and sold more than 150 million copies. Reading a poorly written book isn’t so bad; as Roman put it, “I hope that trashy BookTok books get people into reading, and then after a while they develop some taste.”
However, there are other books that young minds could do without. Although it’s mainly teenagers and young adults who use TikTok, often the books that go viral are intense and very adult, exploding in popularity because of their shock factor and the emotional way people react to them. It’s not dissimilar in flavour to the way that distressing TikTok videos of people dressing up as murder or Holocaust victims (“trauma porn”), or sharing intimate details of a family member’s suicide or their domestic abuse (“trauma dumping”), have blown up.
By far, Hanya Yangihara’s novel A Little Life is the most distressing book I’ve read as an adult. With repeated, detailed, visceral, agonising scenes of self-harm, paedophilia, sexual abuse and suicidal thoughts, I wouldn’t recommend it to most people, yet alone young teenagers – I’ve met grown women who wish they could scrub it from their brains.
Yet it’s a popular book on BookTok where trauma and emotionality thrives, leading younger and younger teenagers to hear about and consume the novel — Roman recently sold a copy to a 14-year-old. Colleen Hoover’s It Ends With Us, about domestic abuse, is another example.
Now, I read some very adult books when I was a teenager, and it infuriated me to be told that something was beyond my age group. It’s also certainly true that reading is a safe way to explore difficult topics for the first time, and that some people are overprotective about what young people read — once, working at a bookstore, a woman told me that she wanted to return an early chapter book that she had given her six-year-old granddaughter because it “contained a character being bullied”. Without a doubt, we can go overboard and wrap children in cotton wool so securely that they’ll be unable to cope with anything difficult.
However, the books I chose to read were never beyond my capacity to process, because those simply weren’t the novels I was interested in or aware of as a 14-year-old. BookTok is different. Just like the YouTube algorithm has been criticised for the way it leads viewers toward extremist content, BookTok has brought intense content (including books) to the attention of young people – and made it part of the zeitgeist. To get likes, get traumatised! That’s what all the cool kids are doing.
Status, commodification, and ‘hot girl’ books
At this point, I’m beginning to feel like a 28-year-old grumpy codger, but I simply have to mention the hot girls.
When Abby explained which books are going off on BookTok, she listed off young adult, romance and fantasy. “Obviously,” she said, “there’s the whole aesthetic of sad girl books, where the videos are of people sobbing or throwing the book across their room. At the moment it’s the dark, weird, twisted novels that are having their moment, like Mona Awad’s Bunny and Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enriquez. Then,” she added, “there are hot girl books.”
“Hot girl books?”
“Yeah, books that are just about how sophisticated you can look to other people. The book you put in your cute tote bag that you never read, but is there so you can look cool at the bus stop. You know, Ottessa Moshfegh, Sylvia Plath, Donna Tartt. They create this distinct brand of looking intellectual that’s really about looking ‘hot but also smart’.”
Like just about anything, books are sometimes used as symbols for identity and status, to indicate depth, sophistication, and intellect. While there’s nothing new about using books as props (I went to school with a guy who always carried around a copy of Lolita; an interesting message), with BookTok, it’s gone into hyperdrive. You don’t need someone to inspect your living room bookshelf to know what kind of books you like – you can simply post a video.
Or as Vogue put it, “what better way to illustrate your wells of depth, pathos and alluring self-containment than an aesthetic social media shot of you, a gorgeous, gorgeous girl, reading Sylvia Plath in a hammock?”
Hot girl books are generally written by iconic women, have attractive, young, female protagonists, and have also been read (or at least held) by models like Gigi and Bella Hadid and Kendall Jenner. Goodreads has its own Hot Girl Books category, which it helpfully explains as “Books hot girls read”. At the top of the list is My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh, followed by Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Sally Rooney’s Normal People and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.
For many, myself included, reading is a personal and intimate activity. Something feels very wrong with the commodification of books, with subverting something that should be an inner experience, a vessel for discovering new ideas and deepening ourselves, and is instead used as an outer garment, selected because it looks brainy and deep — and also, because the cover matches my shoes.
Social media allows us to curate our personas, but by using a novel purely as a signal to the world, we lose the essence of what makes books important. That being said, there may be countless young people who picked up The Secret History because of the fashion trend, and discovered its brilliance. As they say, you shouldn’t judge a book (or a hot girl reading a smart book) by its cover.
We may not entirely like the messenger that is BookTok, or some of the trends it inspires, or even some of its messages. We might think TikTok is a blight and a danger to society — and we could well be right. But if BookTok is the best current way to reintroduce young people to books, I’m at least seeing a glass half full.