The book industry had a banner year in 2021 thanks, in large part, to TikTok.
In a niche corner of the app, #BookTok—a community of TikTokers who review books and give recommendations—has blown up since the start of the pandemic. While users are treated to a bountiful number of new reads, authors of those books have seen an increase in sales and appearances on the New York Times Best Seller list years after release.
According to NPD Bookscan, the publishing industry sold approximately 825.7 million print books in 2021, led by fiction. This is up from 757.9 million in 2020. Kristen McLean, NPD Group’s executive director of business development, attributes the rise in sales to BookTok. “I’ve been an industry analyst since 2010, and this is the first time that I have seen organic social-media impact like this,” McLean says. “I don’t think this would have happened without COVID. People, teens especially, spent more time at home with their books.”
BookTok’s impact has affected both old and new titles, with such works as Taylor Jenkins Reid’s The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo and Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles going viral years after their initial releases in 2017 and 2011, respectively.
That kind of momentum led to debut author Chloe Gong putting her trust in the algorithm to reach readers.
In April 2020, Gong joined TikTok and posted about books she enjoyed, along with her own book, These Violent Delights, a retelling of Romeo and Juliet set in 1920s Shanghai. While publicity teams in publishing houses create their own plans on how to market books and where, Gong took it upon herself to self-promote on TikTok.
“When I joined, it wasn’t yet this influential market the way it is now,” she says. “It was the kind of place where people who loved books and who loved talking about them and writing about them came together and made funny videos.”
Both These Violent Delights and Gong’s follow-up Our Violent Ends became New York Times Best Sellers soon after their releases, which Gong largely attributes to her TikTok.
Traditional publishing is taking note of the impact that BookTok has, with most publishing houses pivoting to create TikTok content in the past year. Some publishers—in particular, Random House—are collaborating with known creators on the app to boost titles. Since November 2021, TikToker @kimmybookss has helmed the publisher’s account, posting about her love of romance books and spotlighting Black authors.
Of course, authors taking to social media isn’t new.
Instagram has long been the social platform of choice for bibliophiles. Members of the Bookstagram community post photos of books positioned neatly in the sand by a crystal blue sea or show off a freshly manicured nails gripping the spine of the latest Jasmine Guillory novel.
BookTok rejects the aesthetic that Instagram leans into, and, according to book blogger Cait Jacobs, that’s exactly why TikTok has become a more powerful promotional tool.
“TikTok as a whole feels a lot more authentic than Instagram,” Jacobs says. “The app favors that unfiltered version of you, where you can have bad lighting or makeup and still go viral.”
“On Instagram, you have to bring the ring light out, and look prepared and polished,” Jacobs continues. “Everything on Instagram is filtered and staged. While I try to have authentic engagement with my audience, you don’t get that through my photos.”
There’s also an overall deeper level of engagement within TikTok. Creators make video replies to comments, they stitch or duet content—all of which lends itself to what feels like book club 2.0.
Jacobs points out that Selene Velez, a TikToker who goes by @moongirlreads, posted a video about the emotional weight of Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, and soon after that, the book hit the New York Times Best Seller list a decade after its debut.
“It’s a way for us to bond with the community, a way of us saying, This book made us all cry and destroyed all of us emotionally, and it does have an impact,” Jacobs says. “I sometimes joke that I read sad books and recommend them not just because it’s emotional, but also because if I’m going to suffer, I’m going to make everyone else suffer, too.”
TikTok’s reign over the book industry has also turned heads with booksellers. Retailers both big and small are setting up sections of their stores devoted to books seen on BookTok. Bonnie Monnier, the marketing and events manager at Curious Iguana, a bookstore in Frederick, Maryland, began posting on the store’s TikTok just a few months ago and has found many customers coming in and saying, “I want this book because I saw it on TikTok.”
“BookTok has been a great resource for readers to find out what they want to read next,” she says. “We feature a lot of books that we don’t necessarily see on TikTok, and it’s done pretty well. It also broadens our reach with younger readers, so we’ve adjusted our shelf display to reflect that.”
As the book industry attempts to ride the wave of a flush 2021, Monnier believes publishers and booksellers should double down on TikTok.
“I believe that having a larger presence on TikTok and working with bookstores, booksellers, and content creators in the BookTok community would be really helpful,” Monnier says. “BookTok has just made the process of selling books more personal.”