Waves and Paths
Edited by Elizabeth Rose
Is BookTok worth the hype? A publishing revolution from below
Opening TikTok has always been an assault to the senses - a menagerie of fast, colourful videos and sounds. In the Booktok community, these videos tell you what, when and how to read, with particular emphasis on highlighting fan favourite excerpts. BookTok has also recently become a force in publishing, driving the renewed success of books such as Song of Achilles, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, and One of Us is Lying. However, though the force of Booktok-bred trends is indisputable, it also has unintended consequences for authors, established and upcoming alike, as well as raising interesting questions about the priorities of readers globally.
The hashtag BookTok has reached over 49.7 million views, and sales of up to £6.7 billion have been attributed to its mass following; with sales concentrated primarily in the thriller, young adult and fantasy book genres. The trend itself has been praised as a way of keeping reading relevant for young adults and children despite digital alternatives, keeping publishing turnover high.
BookTok is also providing a new focus on diversity and representation in contemporary publishing, bringing up new authors that break the mould of white-centric, cisheteronormative works. ‘BookTokers’ argue that it helps creatives and self-published authors to break into success due to the considerable influence the app holds over young people. Notably, the trend has helped authors like Olivie Blake and Elena Armas succeed with The Atlas Six and The Spanish Love Deception. Before their widespread acclaim on BookTok, they were self-published. Moreover, the trend has popularised books such as Set on You and The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, which discuss topics to do with queer, racial, and fatphobic experiences. In this way, BookTok readers gravitate towards books that feature greater representation.
The trend also provides an accessible avenue to reading for people of all backgrounds - short descriptions and images of aesthetically pleasing covers immediately draw in audiences, as Allison DeRose, a Georgetown ‘BookToker’, asserts (Kuloso; Kalhorn, 2021). It engages non-readers and bibliophiles alike, enabling a new method of connecting with what you are reading and sharing your love for it with others. This can definitively be seen in ‘BookTok approved’ signs that are now a common sight in bookstores, and which support the print versions of books in contrast to e-books. Simon & Schuster marketing and publicity manager Olivia Horrox has commented that “Like the ice-bucket challenge that used to be around on Facebook, these TikTok trends become a challenge in the same way, and you don’t want to miss out on the zeitgeist, so you get the book that everyone’s talking about.” (Flood, 2021). Moreover, BookTok allows dense works that have traditionally been associated with the academica ‘elite’ to be shared beyond traditionally academic audiences.
Despite all these positives, BookTok content has controversial elements. On the flipside of promoting diverse content, BookTok can sometimes become an amplifier of solely white authors, magnifying content including racism, misogyny and fat phobia under the guise of tropes. This issue stems from the TikTok algorithm, which, becoming an echochamber, silences and shadowbans creators of colour. These features are notably present in fan-favourites like Serpent and Dove. This book in particular is extremely mature and has been polarising in readers - it contains little worldbuilding, a toxic romance and blatant sexism, which is then spread to huge audiences through BookTok under the guise of a good ‘enemies-to-lovers’ story. This focus on tropes and ‘aesthetics’ instead of recognition of toxic patterns, can also be seen in “dark academia” works such as The Secret History, by Donna Tartt and If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio.
Such solely aesthetic focus additionally poses a problem: how much of BookTok hype centres on the ‘aesthetic’ quality of books, rather than their real quality? BookTok is full of content creators who post videos of painstakingly curated colour-coded bookshelves and reading lists, with no comment or guarantee that the books they promote have been read or enjoyed. While there is great merit in enjoying the design of book covers, promotion of books purely because of conformity to a colour scheme, rather than genuine recommendation, destabilises the trust content consumers have in creators. This additionally leaves a bitter taste due to its inaccessibility for most readers, who cannot afford five copies of the same book to experience the perfectly decorated shelf. Feedback loops that insist on selling established books, as can be seen with The Court of Thorns and Roses by S.J. Maas, are another ugly side-effect of this process that often excludes new content.
Despite this, BookTok can be used to breathe life back into old favourites, walking the same path as shops like Foyles, Daunt and Waterstones in resuscitating books of bygone eras. These recommendations can play a great role in transforming heavyweight literature into contemporary classics, unearthing hidden treasures for readers that were previously deemed inaccessible or boring. BookTok also allows you to discover similar works through its algorithm, minimising the time you need to spend searching on the internet for books to add to your TBR list and ensuring plenty of new reads to devour.
In conclusion, BookTok, much like TikTok, Instagram, or any media that facilitates the sharing of ideas, presents challenges as well as increased opportunities. Its emphasis on established hyped or “aestheticised” books can result in a narrow, somewhat repetitive scope that focuses almost solely on fantasy and romance books, excluding those outside the traditional framework. However, it provides a platform for new authors and presents an opportunity to revive classic favourites in a way that combines all the nostalgia with a sense of the future. Finally, its ability to connect readers, sharing their thoughts, their feelings, and breaking boundaries, establish a platform that is unafraid to cater for the next generation - while allowing them the freedom to explore the past.
1. Culoso, Ava; Kalhorn, Katie. ‘The Next Literary Frontier: The Rise of BookTok. 30 Sept. 2021, https://thehoya.com/the-next-literary-frontier-the-rise-of-booktok/.’
2. Flood, Alison. ‘The Rise of BookTok: Meet the Teen Influencers Pushing Books up the Charts’. The Guardian, 25 June 2021. The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/jun/25/the-rise-of-booktok-meet-the-teen-influencers-pushing-books-up-the-charts.