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How BookTok breaks barriers for budding bookworms

With fun videos and flashy graphics, BookTok cracks the spine of the publishing industry and opens the doors for new authors and readers

Photo illustration of a phone leaning up against a stack of books.

Photo illustration of a phone leaning up against a stack of books. Photo taken on Tuesday, March 21, 2023.

BookTok, TikTok’s online community of voracious readers and writers, has transformed the publishing landscape. 

Walk into any Barnes & Noble bookstore and you’ll see a table piled high with “#BookTok” novels, as the literary retailer quickly capitalized on BookTok’s incredible market power. 

In 2022, Barnes & Noble even partnered with BookTok’s creator community to launch the #BookTokChallenge, an effort to mobilize TikTok users to discover and read new books and share their reactions, boosting creators’ engagement and driving traffic over to Barnes & Noble’s dedicated #BookTok page on its website. 

The hashtag has garnered over 131 billion views, with TikTok itself launching a new feature with Penguin Random House that allows BookTok creators to link their favorite Penguin Random House novels within their content.

BookTok’s recent omnipresence in stores hasn’t gone unnoticed by ASU students. 

Natasha Kiriluk, a freshman studying economics, history and political science, notes that BookTok’s innovative marketing has affected the way she categorizes books.

"I think it’s more affected how I filter books and media," Kiriluk said. "Like within that community (BookTok), there are a lot of terms that people assign to different tropes and different styles of books and I’ve just become more aware of those patterns. When I do read books or consume media, sometimes I’ll view it through that BookTok lens."

This is in reference to BookTok’s frequent utilization of common tropes to advertise up-and-coming authors’ books on the platform. For instance, rather than giving an entire plot synopsis, creators opt to film themselves listing the tropes their novels fall under, such as enemies to lovers, grumpy sunshine or second chance romance. 

These SEO terms have quickly become BookTok cliches, summarizing plotlines in a digestible way that both sparks intrigue for the book and conveys what it’s all about to the prospective reader.

@kevintnorman Have you read any of these books yet?! I have not read all books featured in this video, so if my research was incorrect in compiling this list. I apologize in advance and ask that you kindly correct me! I am so excired to see so many of my fellow creators participating in their own ways. There is no right way and this is not a competition. We are here to uplift one another and diversify what we read. Please check out some of the creators I tagged for more book recommendations and information on the Trans Rights Readathon :smiling_face_with_3_hearts:. #books #lgbtqbooks #transbooks #gaybookrecommendation #booktok ♬ Calm Down - Rema

Traditional book publishing, on the other hand, relies on agents to conduct transactions between the publishing house and the author. The burden falls on the author to prove their manuscript to agents and then to publishers, who can then promote the book. Often, aspiring authors expect rejections.  

With BookTok, however, authors can skip the agent and go straight into marketing and promoting their books themselves, lowering a major barrier to entry. 

"There’s also a certain style of book that if I read, I’ll be like 'Oh, this is a BookTok book,'" Kiriluk said. "I see it on TikTok where you scroll and you see an author promoting their book and they’re not promoting the story or anything, they’re promoting a very specific type of trope or a very specific type of character dynamic that’s become popular on BookTok."

Meghan Offermann, a senior studying English literature, highlighted the drawbacks of this marketing strategy since it tends to blur the distinction between genres and overgeneralize a book’s contents.  

"They’ll be like 'Here’s enemies to lovers you’re going to love this' it is dark romance when it’s actually a body horror thriller in which body parts are being removed," Offermann said. "People aren’t fully prepared to go into these novels. It’s really bad because there are people who don’t want to read that."

Offermann notes that book marketing prior to the advent of BookTok would give a description of the book’s specific contents rather than trying to fit it into a box. But BookTok’s style of branding has its good sides as well, according to Offermann. 

"It’s good because if you're in a 'found family' mood and you want to read wholesome family content, you can easily type in '#foundfamily' to TikTok and it can come up with a whole bunch of recommendations," she said. "Or there are even some TikTokers who dedicate themselves to looking at certain specific books."

This decentralized and accessible approach to book marketing has centered the voice of the "average reader" in deciding what books gain commercial success. 10 of the 15 books headlining The New York Times combined print & e-book fiction bestseller list are the ones going viral on TikTok. 

BookTok’s influence has now established a formula for aspiring authors and profit-driven publishing houses to follow, one that’s hyper-focused on appealing to a TikTok demographic. 

"(Authors) are definitely relying on what’s popular, and not so much what they write about," Kiriluk said. 

Edited by Claire van Doren, Jasmine Kabiri and Caera Learmonth.

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