#BookTok: Is TikTok changing the publishing industry?

A book.
A book. Illustrated | Getty Images

Book sales have been on a steady incline since the height of the pandemic, and publishing industry insiders attribute some of the enthusiasm to a community of book lovers making relatable content on TikTok. "BookTok" trends have pushed some books out of relative obscurity onto bestseller lists and lead publishers to rethink their marketing strategies. Here's everything you need to know:

What is BookTok?

BookTok is a TikTok subcommunity where bibliophiles make content about the literature they love. What started as a small community of avid readers has evolved into one of the more popular corners of the platform. The hashtag #BookTok has 92.7 billion views on TikTok, with some creations garnering nearly 100 thousand likes. Videos from the community of book lovers include book hauls, reviews, bookcase setups, and recommendations.

BookTok content creators are primarily young people and women, many of whom cover young adult fiction and romance, per The New York Times. Other creators focus on promoting diversity in publishing by highlighting books written by LGBTQ or BIPOC authors. Some of the most popular videos center on the creator's emotional response to the book, as opposed to the typical review format. Instead of focusing on the plot or author, they speak about the emotional journey the book offers.

Has BookTok affected book sales?

Industry insiders say BookTok has been a factor behind an unprecedented surge in book sales, Business Insider reports. Industry data shows that from mid-2020 to the end of 2021, book sales reached an almost 20-year peak. Eight hundred and twenty-five million books were sold in the U.S. in 2021 per NPD BookScan, up 9 percent from the previous year. The company said it was the highest number it had recorded since 2004.

Kristen McLean, executive director at NPD Bookscan, says along with the pandemic, BookTok has "definitely been a factor" in the recent boost in book sales. McClean said TikTok has "made the transition from a novelty to a real anchor for the market."

She first noticed the platform's influence in 2020, as it appeared to drive sales in the young adult genre before expanding to adult fiction and non-fiction. BookTok helped adult fiction writers sell 20 million print books in 2021, according to Bookscan data. As of mid-2022, sales in the genre increased another 50 percent, per The New York Times.

One example of BookTok boosting sales is the massive success author Colleen Hoover has experienced this year. Before BookTok gained popularity in 2020, Hoover had sold only 237,000 copies of all her books. As of August 2022, Hoover had sold 2.3 million units — more than the annual sale of Bibles in the U.S. — for a total of 7.3 million print copies. McLean said Hoover held "six out of the top 10 spots on the NPD BookScan print bestseller list for August." Currently, six of her books are in the top 10 of the Times' paperback fiction bestseller list.

Another anomaly in the surge in book sales is the amount of backlisted books gaining popularity years after their initial release. Taylor Jenkins Reid's The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo and Madeline Miller's The Song of Achilles went viral years after their publication in 2017 and 2011, respectively. Both likewise landed on the bestseller list years after being published, a feat that is largely unheard of in traditional publishing.

How is the publishing industry responding to BookTok's popularity?

Traditional publishers and book retailers have caught on to how influential BookTok has become and are trying to find ways to utilize it in their marketing efforts. However, some struggle to find a way to maintain the authenticity of BookTok's content style. Due to the complicated nature of TikTok's algorithm, industry insiders say it can be challenging to discern what would make a book's popularity take off.

BookTok influencer Kendra Keeter-Gray says that paid advertisements undermine the authenticity that makes BookTok thrive, and they don't tend to do well on the platform. "A lot of sponsored content doesn't do well on TikTok," she said. "TikTok sees the 'sponsored' hashtag and suppresses it."

Still, that hasn't stopped traditional publishing houses from trying to incorporate the subcommunity into their marketing efforts successfully. The sales team at St. Martin's Press, an imprint of Macmillan Publishing, has hired marketers familiar with the platform to help create authentic content. Jeff Dodes, the publisher's executive vice president for marketing, says they hired experts, so their content doesn't come across like "a bunch of out-of-touch people in an ivory tower who don't really know what's right," per Business Insider.

Simon & Schuster has started to reach out to content creators, sending them swag boxes filled with books and related gifts. Other publishing houses send creators advance copies or offer them a fee to promote their books.

Penguin Random House collaborated with TikTok to present a new feature that allowed creators to link to the publisher to tag their books in videos. In the announcement, Alyssa Castaneda, the head of social at Penguin Random House U.S., said, "#BookTok validates that word of mouth is still the most powerful force for our industry. People want to know how a book will make them feel, and TikTok values authenticity more than any other platform."

Major bookseller Barnes & Nobles has begun tracking titles trending on the platform, even dedicating space in their physical locations to "BookTok Favorites." The bookstore chain's CEO, James Daunt, said BookTok's effect on book sales is unprecedented and is helping the retailer gain momentum across demographics.

"It's bringing energy into the bookstores," he said. "It's just more fun being in a bookstore where there are people having fun, where there's a bunch of kids talking."

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