BookTok is the ‘last wholesome place’ on the internet. Can it stay that way?

A 26-year-old woman is speaking to a camera and crying. It could be the product of anything: the contemplation of an Omicron-doomed existence, or a classic apology video. But the subject of her distress is actually the book she’s holding just inside of her phone camera frame. The TikTok has been viewed over 6 million times.

This falls part of BookTok: a space where readers and literature lovers can laud or point flaws in their favorite young adult fiction, romance stories, and fantasy novels. With #BookTok racking up 46.6 billion views and counting, “The BookTok Effect” has been noticed.

Having been described as the “last wholesome place” on the internet — enabling queer readers and readers of color to carve out an inclusive space to share their thoughts and have a platform — creators are able to establish a book as a must-read. TikTok is helping drive sales of print books in the U.S., reports the World Economic Forum. In 2021, readers bought over 825 million print books, setting a new record; and 2022 is on track to boast even stronger sales for retailers like Barnes & Noble, according to Bloomberg. 

The conversation is often dictated by the books trending on BookTok, or the in-app trending page itself. But when confronted with the growing encroachment of publishers eager to capitalize on the trend, how long can BookTok remain one of the last communities on the internet uninterrupted by commodification?

“We read a book…and we just want to talk about it.”

Kendra Keeter-Gray, 23, from @kendra.reads, started her channel in March 2021. She’s since amassed 119.9k followers and calls the growth “very organic.” In essence, she believes the draw of her content comes down to the simple fact of “we read a book, we’re really excited about it, and we just want to talk about it.”

And when what we consume shapes our perceptions of — and reaction to — books, there’s potential for profit. Some of the most high-profile examples of books propelled to popularity by the platform include Adam Silvera’s They Both Die at the End (2017), E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars (2014), and Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows (2015), the latter amassing 972 million views on the app.

The rise of BookTok

Online book forums have long been ways of bringing together the reading community, but BookTok’s digestible content coupled with its novelty have amplified the video platform’s success. In 2020, British publishing house Bloomsbury saw a 220 percent rise in profits, which CEO Nigel Newton partially attributed to the “absolute phenomenon” of BookTok. Titles particularly impacted by BookTook hype include The Song of Achilles by Madeleine Miller and Piranesi by Susanna Clarke. 

Online communities like BookTube have subsequently been “an incredibly important focus” for the publishing industry since 2010, according to non-fiction book publicist Daniel Freeman.

However, there are marked differences between BookTok and BookTube that are luring publishers to the former: “BookTok has had a much bigger effect and influence on sales,” says Shannon DeVito, Director of Books for Barnes & Noble. “BookTube tended to foster flash-in-the-pan successes, usually tied to a specific YouTube personality or gamer. BookTok on the other hand has had a broad effect on hundreds of titles, and these sales sustain for a very long period of time.” Stylistically too, adds Freeman, “BookTok tends to be far more playful with content creators engaging in different themes around books and employing visual techniques, which are far more prone to go viral.”

The most visible difference is the length of the content. “BookTube has established itself as a place for long-form content, reviews and of course, un-boxings,” says DeVito, “while BookTok is all about the short, snappy reviews and emotions about the book.” She’s naturally referring to the 45-second reviews that have the potential to dictate whether a reader chooses to pick up or put down a book. “BookTok has a leg up because it is so quickly consumable, and the genuine emotion from fellow readers and booksellers has created a flourishing community.”

But with books traditionally being designated as an offline activity — a form of escapism that takes one away from the screen — is there a paradox in screens being the only way to learn about books?

[BookTok] has had a broad effect on hundreds of titles, and these sales sustain for a very long period of time.

Not at all, says Pauline Juan, who currently has 529k followers on @thebooksiveloved. With more people than ever reading on their phone, iPad, or downloading ebooks, BookTok has made reading more accessible. “Some people don’t have the money to buy a $20 book every single time, but there are subscription options like Kindle Unlimited where you pay monthly and have access to a whole range of titles,” she says.

It’s also allowed readers to make the often solitary act of reading a more communal activity. “Being on the app opens up an entire like method of ‘I already have this copy, do you want me to share it [with] you?’ or ‘did you hear this is on sale right now — it’s 99 cents’” Juan continues.

At its root, the digital consumption of media revolves around a search for connections,  either through shared hobbies or experience. It’s therefore unsurprising that BookTok, a digital community of book-lovers, has gathered pace so quickly and enkindled a deep love of reading in the process.

Before, reading was an insular activity, acknowledges Juan. But BookTok offers a form of connection not just to another world through books, but to users’ own world; it provides a platform where “you can pick up any book and still be able to connect with other people online as you’re reading it — so not only do you get to enjoy this book on your own, but you get to enjoy it with somebody who lives in a different area of the world.”

A new era of bookfluencers

But will BookTok stay an organic community of book-loving reviewers, or will it become another influencer machine?  Bookfluencers are beginning to emerge. “That’s already happening,” says Juan. “There are a lot of big BookTok accounts out there who [people] swear by.

“Publishers are now heavily focused on trying to get creators on TikTok to push out what they would like to push out,” she continues. While the way in which the industry is using BookTok to advertise books is gaining momentum, “it’s not as heavily induced as [via] Instagram or BookTube.”

“It’s still organic,” says Keeter-Gray. “It’s just there’s money that can be made from people simply saying, ‘I really liked this’ — you’re taking something that you really love, and that’s now translating into direct sales for people.” The proportion of sponsored content is still low, according to Juan. Another BookTokker tells Mashable that opting into the creator fund reportedly pays creators around 2 to 4 cents per 1,000 views. For most creators, this doesn’t add up to a lot, and while sponsorships are a “better way to make money,” they aren’t a reliable source of income.

This is where BookTok differs from Bookstagram, BookTok’s Instagram counterpart, which is much more influencer-aligned. “There are so many tools on Instagram now,” says Juan. “You can tag your brand partner on your story [and] every potential outlet for you to push out your content is monetized. TikTok is gaining that traction, but we’re not quite there yet.” BookTok’s attraction also derives from the nature of the algorithm, too. While Instagram’s algorithm produces tailored content, BookTok fosters a more organic interest in books by increasing the chance of a user randomly stumbling across content.

Can BookTok stay authentic?

Ultimately, reconciling publishers’ drive for sales with creators’ authenticity will be key. “I’ve always pledged to myself that I’m never going to promote a book on my page I haven’t read — if I haven’t read it, then I’ll say, I’ve never read it!,” says Keeter-Gray. There’s a difference between “when someone has read something versus when someone hasn’t, and when [people] want to talk about it because it’s trending and what’s going to get them views.”

This sentiment is echoed by Juan: “I don’t post strictly for other people [to like] because I’ll get so burnt out if I’m just posting for other people,” she says. “Where’s the authenticity in that?” The enduring nature of the connections formed by books and authenticity may override encroaching capitalism. Despite all platforms being fallible, it’s reflective of how BookTok may be able to retain its magic.

Reading and talking about our favorite books will never go out of style… We’re just finding new ways to do it.

Publishers are naturally optimistic about preserving BookTok as a digital community and inclusive space. “Reading and talking about our favorite books will never go out of style,” says DeVito. “We’re just finding new ways to do it.”

An emotional journey with a book never truly ends — take the young woman who was left reeling by the ending of You’ve Reached Sam by Dustin Thao, a novel about loss, love, voicemails and what it means to say goodbye. She immediately took to BookTok to ruminate on her feelings. “The ending is going to destroy you,” she says, her voice muffled through fresh tears. “I couldn’t read it the whole way through.” That’s the kind of emotion you can’t replicate in a sponsored post, and that’s the enduring appeal of BookTok.

“We are in the midst of a reading renaissance,” DeVito adds. “It’s a beautiful thing.”

Mashable

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.