“Start reading, besties,” TikTok creator Larissa Cambusano passionately asserts, “it will give you a superiority complex and make your life better. You will also be able to be one of those ‘the book was better’ people, gotta love that.”
Cambusano (@larryreads) has quickly amassed a large fanbase on TikTok, specifically in the BookTok community dedicated to readers of all kinds. In a September 2021 email interview, Larissa explained to me how she began on the platform primarily because she “was always looking for someone to listen to [her] rant about the things [she] was reading” but didn’t know anyone in her personal life who read often. Reading has slowed down in younger generations lately, but Larrissa proclaims that “if you don’t like reading, it’s probably because you haven’t found the right genre for you yet.” For anyone looking for a new read, the BookTok community has been quickly growing and is always “nice and welcoming.”
With the rise of social media in recent decades, potentially making it seem as though there is everything consumers would want already in the market, TikTok has skyrocketed as a top social media option with its relatively new 2016 platform dedicated to short clips about whatever its creators choose. Last year, Tik Tok was entitled the “third fastest-growing brand.” Such a vastly growing following means that users create on the app for enjoyment but also for its powerful promotional and marketing abilities for various products.
In recent years, “sides” of the app have emerged, focusing on specific interests and communities. A noteworthy and growing side has been “BookTok,” which focuses on many sides of literature. This community posts recommendations, reviews, analyses and overall summaries of their thoughts and feelings on any book-related topic. These creators, and subsequently the authors they promote, have quickly gained a large following and have thus heavily impacted not only the reading community but also authors and publishers.
Creators have managed to visualize the works they’re reading in a cinematic way that “publishers have been trying to do with marketing book trailers for a really long time,” says The Guardian author Alison Flood in her June 2021 article. As a result, publishers have seen spikes in sales for certain works that gain a footing in the community. Along this thread, authors such as Colleen Hoover, Tessa Bailey, Sarah J. Maas and many more have found overnight fame from being promoted on the app through these BookTokers’ videos. The excitement and passion in the community have also encouraged a new generation of readers to fall back in love with reading and all that it entails.
Substantial Sales Impact
Colleen Hoover’s 2016 novel “It Ends With Us” is a prime example of the power of BookTok on sales. After the book’s release in 2016, about 21,000 copies were sold in the first month, with sales flatlining relatively soon after. However, BookTokers began to share their reading journey with Hoover’s work, and the title spread like wildfire across the platform. Thousands of videos were dedicated specifically to this book. Many videos mapped readers’ reading journey and how their perspective changed at specific chapters in the book. Others took viral sounds used in vastly different contexts than books to relate them to the plot. Some were even so dedicated as to create their ideal cast for if the beloved book was adapted into a film.
Since “It Ends With Us”’s fame on TikTok, sales spiked dramatically; just in the week of August 14 alone, around 29,000 copies were sold, exceeding the total sales in the book’s first month of publication.
Since its initial release, the book has sold around 450,000 copies, with stores such as Barnes & Noble (B&N) still ordering more to keep up with the continual high demand. As a B&N bookseller myself, we are continuously restocking her oeuvre. Hoover is not the only author to see such increased sales in their work due to BookTok. Booksellers at Barnes & Noble quickly recognize the titles of works heavily promoted on the platform despite some workers not having access to TikTok personally and can easily locate them within the store due to the high demand of customers coming in for such titles. For example, a fellow coworker of mine in her mid-seventies is fully acquainted with the Court of Thorns and Roses series by Sarah J. Maas, even though she does not have and never has had TikTok. Many Barnes & Noble locations set up frequently restocked displays purely dedicated to BookTok to make finding these books in-store as easy as finding them on TikTok. Furthermore, sales of adult fiction have increased by 27.8% in the past year, and Young Adult Fiction sales have increased by 35.6%. Moreover, a whopping 60% of TikTok’s users are between 16-24 years old — the Young Adult age grouping. Since BookTok primarily promotes and works with Young Adult and Adult fiction, there seems to be a heavy correlation between the audience reach and the power of BookTok on these increased sales.
BookTok’s immense power over the reading scene in younger generations has not only affected sales but has also, as a result, changed authors’ lives. New York Times bestselling author Tessa Bailey (@authortessabailey on TikTok) has quickly amassed a large fanbase on TikTok. When I asked Bailey over email this October about how the response to her works has been to her, she said, “Amazing. Most of the people who are finding my books through TikTok have never read a Tessa Bailey book before, and I’ve written approx. 55 books.” For authors such as Bailey, years of hard work and dedication over dozens of works can result in little attention when not promoted online in today’s day and age. However, one book that grabs the attention of a few BookTokers can change their careers and lives. Despite this potential, authors still use their platforms in personal ways, not always directed toward sales promotion. Author Laura Silverman (@laura_silverman) wrote to me in our October 2021 email interview that “If the video reaches people, amazing! If it doesn’t, that’s okay — I had fun making it!” Authors that many young readers would never have recognized a year ago are now taking over bookshelves in countless homes and offices across the world.
New Generation of Readers
The authentic and unsponsored nature of BookTok and its content from similar demographic creators seems to have played a part in the recent emergence of a new generation of readers. BookToker Madita Schmuker (@maditasbibliotheca) very simply explained her content to me through our September 2021 email interview; it is just her in her room with a book. This type of content is common among BookTok creators and has struck a chord with younger audiences. This simplicity and authenticity, because the content is not through sponsorships or for personal gain, are appealing to these younger audiences who have constantly been exposed to photoshopped and edited media for most of their lives. Moreover, the content is addictive and endless. Writer for Publishers Weekly, Chelsea Apple, admits that she “fell down the TikTok rabbit hole during pandemic isolation in May 2020.” No reader is immune to the enthralling content.
It’s not just users that have noticed this insurgence of new readers. During our October 2021 email interview, author Tessa Bailey, unprompted by me, acknowledged how “the potential is there on TikTok to reach an entirely new generation of readers who love to talk and share and be part of the romance community in a vocal way.” In fact, countless users poke fun at the fact that they picked up a random book once because it was recommended to them through TikTok and are now spending their hard-earned money to buy yet another book to add to the massive pile.
Despite the jovial nature of this content, TikTok actually offers a unique take on social media content that has an alluring effect on people. In a November 2021 email interview, Dr. Colin Campbell, assistant professor of marketing at the University of San Diego and “expert on digital and social media advertising with a particular focus on online video advertising,” identifies this unique nature: “What is interesting is how we’re seeing different niches emerging on TikTok that are specific to the platform. I think to some extent those are somewhat random and maybe even like fads, but still very neat to see.” This unparalleled environment that welcomes all areas of interest is appealing in a way that most social media platforms that have been around for a while are lacking due to their stigmas and expectations for what content should be on their platform. In a way, the emergence of this new generation of readers was somewhat inevitable because of this inviting nature.
Social Media Marketing on TikTok
The reading community on TikTok has amassed such a following that there is virtually an audience for every genre. Many creators, publishers and authors have found that this online environment has been heavily conducive to book promotion. This book promotion in certain genres has negatively impacted others, though, with adult nonfiction sales dropping by 8.8% in the past year. This drop is due mostly in part to this new generation of readers that is increasing demand for primarily fiction pieces, so publishers put more resources into those genres.
BookTok offers a completely different outlook to marketing than seen before — one much more casual than expected. Bailey further emphasizes to me that “these books are being blown up because they’re damn good and word of mouth is driving the sales. It’s not a marketing ploy or a gimmick.” Creators most definitely put effort into creating videos, but they choose to promote what they enjoy without fiscal incentives creating biases within their recommendations.
An appeal to TikTok over other major social media platforms, such as YouTube, is its accessibility. In order to create a video on TikTok, users simply have to click the large red button with a plus sign on the bottom of the screen and begin recording. From there, users can add effects, filters, audios and much more easily with their organization and visualization of these tools. Creators on Youtube and similar platforms, though, require pricey software to create desired content that can stand up to other creators’.
There seem to be common characteristics among works that these BookTok creators gravitate towards, oftentimes where making the reader cry has become a sort of prerequisite for approval. Some key examples include works such as A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, and They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera. Dr. Colin Campbell touched on this topic, stating that “Generally content that evokes stronger emotions, has what they call an ‘emotional rollercoaster’ (both extreme highs and lows in the video), and is edgier (without reflecting poorly on the sharer) tend to be more likely to go viral.” However, the contemporary romances with cute cartoon covers that are seen covering every romance endcap have also gained the attention of Booktokers. Users often see the covers of these quintessential rom-coms as the thumbnail to many videos, luring viewers in with the aesthetically appealing designs. This light-hearted rom-com heavily contrasts the gut-wrenching stories within other novels as described above. Notably, though, this discontinuity in the types of books begs the question of whether or not there is one type of book that BookTok creators gravitate towards or if any respectable work can go viral.
While TikTok may be deemed unprofessional or seen simply as entertainment, its effects are vast. Users who may have started up an account to share their reading experiences online rather than in person find themselves amassing fanbases larger than ever expected. Smaller authors that are trying to break through become heavily recognized. And, to appeal to the capitalistic side, sales due to the new generation of readers have spiked significantly. Despite the nonchalant nature of this content, it has deep implications for countless areas of society. So, the next time you pick up a book because you recognize the cover from TikTok, know you’re one of thousands that day to do the same.
Bailey, Tessa. Personal interview. 3 Oct 2021.
Cambusano, Larissa. Personal interview. 27 Sept 2021.
Campbell, Colin. Personal interview. 9 Nov 2021.
Schmuker, Madita. Personal interview. 27 Sept 2021.
Silverman, Laura. Personal interview. 6 Oct 2021.
Mackenzie Taylor is a third-year English major with a minor in Civic and Professional Leadership. MT947930@wcupa.edu.