The Impact of BookTok

Whilst the very mention of TikTok might make you shudder and cringe, we can all agree that the app has secured an undeniable hold on society. BookTok is a subcommunity on TikTok where readers share their book recommendations, reviews, criticisms, and (often emotional) reactions. Videos lead with such enticing statements as “Books I would sell my soul for to read for the first time again” or “Books that everyone should read at least once in their life.” At the time of writing, #BookTok has amassed a staggering 154.4 billion views, with other variations of the hashtag earning millions of views.   

It is, therefore, unsurprising that BookTok has spawned a surge in publishing numbers. Business Insider identified BookTok as a factor in the unprecedented rise in book sales, which reached a near 20-year peak between 2020 and 2021, whilst the Publishers Association reported that the UK’s total publishing income reached its highest level of £6.9 billion in 2022. As a result, bookseller companies, publishing houses, and individual bookshops are scrambling to capitalise on the popularity of the newest sector in publishing. Many have created TikTok accounts to connect with readers, and many more are updating web pages and curating bookshelves of BookTok’s favourite reads. 

BookTok and TikTok

BookTok has understandably been engulfed in a swarm of conflicting discourse. The most glaring positive is that it inspires more young people to read, popularising trends and aesthetics, and romanticising the acts of reading and accumulating books. A survey conducted by the Publishers Association found that “In a poll of over 2,000 16-25 year-olds, almost two-thirds (59%) say that BookTok or book influencers have helped them discover a passion for reading.” 

However, concerns have been raised over how TikTok’s emphasis on quick consumption impacts the quality of literature being created. Social media encourages the exchange of quality for instantaneous commercial appeal packaged as aesthetics and trends. This causes an excessive consumption of new books, with many booktokers displaying their ‘trophy shelves’ (book collections) in their videos.

Books published with the aim of TikTok virality are easily digestible, highly tropified, and marketed for their visual aesthetics. Additionally, many BookTok favourites marketed as YA (a typical age range of 14-18) echo fanfiction works from Wattpad and AO3, causing concerns over age appropriateness. Some are even re-written fanfics, like Ali Hazelwood’s The Love Hypothesis

The indisputable culprit behind TikTok’s world domination is the app’s immediately accessible short-form video format. The ease with which anyone can share their book-related opinions to a wide audience or access the opinions of others is a promising step towards dismantling elitism. Through TikTok, readers without prestigious academic qualifications can influence contemporary literary discourse, and more authors can self-publish their novels by using the platform as a marketing tool. In theory, this allows for more diversity within the book scene and less elitism surrounding who can and cannot read or publish books. 

Yet, paradoxically, an app which feeds on attention spans is being used to promote books. Short videos, as opposed to longer video essays, result in reductive and oversimplified literary discourse, potentially causing readers to lack the judgement needed to form their own nuanced opinions about the books they read or to decide whether to read them in the first place. As the algorithm descends, echo chambers and herd mentality infect the collective consciousness, obliterating impartiality and subjectivity.

Furthermore, when it comes to books written by Colleen Hoover, an immensely popular YA romance author who has faced criticism for her storylines which romanticise domestic abuse, it is important that readers engage in critical thought regarding the messages conveyed by the books they read. A satirical video posted by TikTok user @ratparade featuring the caption: “you are on the colleen hoover side of booktok I am on the Dostoevsky and Kafka side we are not the same” created tension throughout the book community.

There are ongoing conversations surrounding what is considered ‘good’ literature and who gets to decide, as well as the fine line between criticising anti-intellectualism and upholding intellectual elitism. Readers are torn over whether we should (or even if we really can) disconnect our critical minds and read for escapism or if we should seek to engage in critical thought no matter the material.

One of the perks of BookTok is that it provides a communal space for readers to interact and learn from each other around the globe. Increased connectivity between readers means that their preferences make more noise, and more power is put into the hands of the everyday consumer, with readers dictating trends and incentivising publishers to cater to their preferences.

Yet according to Datareportal, most TikTok users are between 18 and 24, and women dominate over men in every age category (though there is no data published on users under 18). BookTok’s disproportionately young female usership means that the most popular books reflect the tastes of this demographic, resulting in the top-selling spots being dominated by a homogenous clump of romance novels and fantasy romances, which are largely YA with similar tropes and aesthetics.

BookTok - TikTok

The demographic suggests that, for young women and teens, the app is an outlet for exploring their burgeoning identities and sexualities. Because of this, there is an element to which the shaming on BookTok’s YA romance readers not only perpetuates elitist canons but continues the misogynistic shaming and invalidation of teen girls’ interests that we see elsewhere with the likes of astrology, music, films, and TV shows. 

Another issue is BookTok’s lack of ethnic diversity. Nearly all BookTok’s favourites (It Ends With Us, We Were Liars, A Court of Thorns and Roses, Red White and Royal Blue, etc.)are written by white women. Most mainstream books are also written in English by American and British authors.

This is perceived as a fault in TikTok’s algorithm because, according to Forbes, there is a tendency for algorithms to reflect human biases, which results in an underrepresentation of minorities. Since TikTok is structured to favour and promote content that is already gaining traction, it becomes a reflection of society’s prejudices.

“A lot of the problems with BookTok are mirrors of problems, not only in publishing but that we’ve seen in absolutely every other book community […] We’ve always had racist algorithms. We’ve always had a majority white publishing industry.”

Creator Marines Alvarez told Rolling Stone

If most books initially blown up on BookTok are written by white authors and are similar in genre, this will continue to perpetuate. Fortunately, more companies are acting in response to algorithmic bias by seeking to make their algorithms more ethical, so we can only hope that TikTok will adapt similarly. 

BookTok gives us much to think about. The app reveals issues of racial biases, consumerism, elitism and the shaming that comes with this, which were already embedded in the publishing industry. But BookTok’s newness also makes it highly unpredictable and ambiguous. The fact that BookTok operates through social media causes a severe disconnect from reality and a hyper-awareness over how we are perceived. This results in increased judgement towards ourselves and others and attempts, whether conscious or subconscious, to filter our opinions according to what we see online.   

Books are paradoxical in that they offer us intimate experiences of self-discovery. Still, they are commodities that capture and reflect the societies and historic moments in which they are written and published. BookTok is still in its infancy, so perhaps we are in a confusing state of transition which will give birth to something better and entirely new. Although it has arrived with flaws, BookTok is a vital new publishing tool which is encouraging more people to read – the most important thing anyone can do. 

Works Cited: 

Biino, Marta. “‘It’s huge, beyond anything in my career’: Publishing industry insiders explain how TikTok has sent book sales surging and how they’re trying to tap into the BookTok phenomenon.” Business Insider, 1 Mar. 2022, Accessed 15/06/2023.

Jones, CT. “How Will BookTok Change Publishing in 2023?.” Rolling Stone, 21 Dec. 2022, Accessed 15/06/2023.  

Spitz, Judith. “Why Tech Executives Must Embrace Diversity As Their First Line Of Defense Against The Business Impacts Of Algorithmic Bias.” Forbes, 1 Jul. 2021, Accessed 15/06/2023. 

“A Year in Publishing.” Publishers Association, 17 Apr. 2023, Accessed 15/06/2023.  

“The BookTok Generation: How social media is transforming Gen Z reading habits.” Publishers Association, 23 Nov. 2022. Accessed 15/06/2023.