TikTok’s book community is driving sales, influencing bestseller charts and even turning old books into sensations – but is that a good enough reason for writers to jump aboard?
She was far too modest to mention this in her piece, but Gong’s debut novel, a 2020 YA called These Violent Delights, has done something like 20 weeks on the NYT bestseller charts. She has 107,000 followers on TikTok, four million likes, and her #booktok videos routinely reach tens of thousands of viewers. Read more about Gong in our profile, published just as her book hit the charts. – Catherine Woulfe, books editor
I love TikTok, but I’m also a part of Gen Z, so I suppose it would be stranger if I didn’t love TikTok. If you’re anything like me when I first downloaded the app, you know it as the place where influencers do choreographed dances, get a little famous, and then receive product sponsorships, movie deals, or music careers. But after some initial scrolling in March of 2020, I also stumbled onto the very beginnings of the magical place on the social media platform called Book TikTok, otherwise shortened to #BookTok.
I’ve always maintained that authors should only be using social media to promote themselves if they genuinely enjoy what they’re doing. Especially authors of young adult books who are sniffing out the teens – there’s nothing that young people hate more than an ad, and they can smell them from 10 kilometres away. Besides! Our job as traditionally published authors isn’t to promote our books. It’s to write them. The promotional aspect is just an addition on top of everything else if you would have a good time putting a pair of shorts on your head and accidentally going viral – yes, I’m, uh, speaking from personal experience.
Above anything else, the number one thing about thriving on TikTok is doing it for the right reasons. You want to connect with your audience, have a direct line to your readers, take in the sort of content they want to inhale and then directly pop them a little nudge that your book has exactly that? Perfect. You think that teenagers on TikTok are a money wallet and you want to shake them until you get sales by posting the same elevator pitch over and over again? Yeah, nah, probably not.
The coolest thing about TikTok, and using TikTok as an author trying to sprinkle your content out there, is that the app is algorithm-based, and a curated “For You” page will put your videos in front of anyone that they think has any sort of interest in your content.
The first video of mine that went viral was a cute little joke about the difference between reading YA fantasy and adult fantasy. It erupted up to 700,000 views, with all the comments relating that they’ve made the exact same discovery. Other author videos I’ve loved have been about sharing funny bookish experiences. Video platforms are a place of short attention spans and rapid movement. The ones that commonly do well are the videos that immediately draw a “Oh, me too!” reaction, causing an app user to pause and watch all the way through, and suddenly the algorithm has noticed that people like it, so that the video is pushed onto more people’s feeds.
It’s not all just being relatable though. Video platforms are also really good informational sources! Many authors have found a good start posting a little introduction about themselves, and talking to their followers about the journeys they went through to get where they are. These, unlike the more meme-ish content, encourage people to watch all the way through because they want to know how publishing works or how becoming an author happened for particular people – and usually be inspired along the way since traditional publishing is such a long, long journey.
You can probably see from this that a “good” BookTok video could be anything. There aren’t really hard and fast rules on how to thrive on Gen Z social media because finding a hit with your following is key, and that looks different for everyone. Some people spend a while doing professional editing, some people just drop it online after 20 seconds of filming. Some people will learn the cool transitions while others prefer to hit record and start talking. But most importantly – at least no one is dancing on BookTok. (I mean … sometimes some readers might dance for an advanced copy though.)
At the end of the day, TikTok is another avenue of word-of-mouth, and everything in pop culture lives and dies by the power of word-of-mouth. The app’s algorithm has created a platform that has never been seen on other forms of social media. The publishing industry knows now that TikTok moves sales, and authors are being encouraged to use it. But it’s also of considerable note that, of course, the large majority of these sales are not being moved by the author themselves, they’re being moved by passionate readers. Some of the biggest BookTok authors, for example Madeline Miller or Tahereh Mafi, are nowhere near TikTok themselves. They just write the beautiful books and the readers cry as prompted.
I think that’s why sales are rumbling along like never before via BookTok. Because there are people authentically talking about why they love a book. Because there are cool ideas being pitched in new ways – visual ways – that defy traditional marketing. Because readers get access to their favourite creators behind the scenes. If you’re thinking of getting on the app as an author, my only parting advice is this: use it if you want to do all those things and feel like it would add value to your identity as a creator. The sales are only a side effect.
These Violent Delights, by Chloe Gong (Hachette Aotearoa New Zealand, $24.99) is available from Unity Auckland and Wellington. The sequel, Our Violent Ends, releases in November.