Arts Muse

Booktok: A New Kind of Book Club

Cara Lee explores how a social media upsurge is transforming the publishing industry.

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Image Credit: Michael Gardia / Pixabay

I have to admit, I was late to the TikTok party.  I was of the mind that it was going to be a short-lived fad, a brief, maybe embarrassing moment in time. Then lockdown hit, and suddenly I found myself in the exact same position I’d sat down in thirty minutes ago, drink paused halfway to my mouth, everything else forgotten as I focused entirely on scrolling through my ‘For You’ Page.

It’s addictive, I get it now.  I’m ashamed to say it.  I daren’t open the app because I know that if I do, a large chunk of my day will disappear into a hole of new trends and partly irritating, partly catchy sounds.  But one corner of TikTok that has increasingly caught my attention is BookTok, dedicated entirely to discussions of books, their characters, and memes about them.  It’s like a virtual book club, with short form videos and a whole community reviewing and marketing their reads.

Being obviously a very visual platform, TikTok has taken some of the glamourised aesthetics that were once reserved for Instagram, which in turn is now becoming a much more raw, show-it-how-it-is place.  BookToks frequently interlace highly filtered and romanticised photos with videos of readers progressing through a book, to create a very vivid and tangible world that - they suggest - can only be conjured by reading that particular book.  Videos such as “convincing you to read this book based on its aesthetic”, followed by a montage of Pinterest-ready photos, could, arguably, be seen as a superficial way of reading. But can a world where people read more, regardless of why, ever be a bad thing?

The merit of TikTok’s audience is that it is primarily young. Therefore, BookTok is encouraging a new generation of readers, who perhaps fell out of love with literature during school, when reading often becomes homework or a chore.  It’s interesting to see how this plays out away from the screen too.  Book sales have soared with the rise of this subsection of TikTok – with 17.5 billion views of #BookTok in August 2021, it seems to be a change in the industry that is here to stay.

Sales of Young Adult literature in particular have skyrocketed and in fact, publishers and booksellers are now harnessing this.  I went into a bookshop a few weeks ago and there was a display specifically of books that have been recently plastered all over BookTok, just waiting for the next TikTok user to come and purchase.

Though books perhaps seem an unusual content matter amongst dances and dog videos, the rise of BookTok is not unexpected.  Trends such as dark academia (think brooding, gloomy libraries, coffee, rain, classical music – everything that epitomises Donna Tartt’s The Secret History) have undoubtedly played a part in the popularity and prevalence of BookTok.  Dark academia now subsumes whole Instagram and Tumblr presences and is a well-recognised subculture, making BookTok not the first online literary phenomenon of its kind, but a more accessible and healthier one.

Social media has been a huge part of our lives and has been embraced by publishers increasingly in the last decade.  What BookTok shows though is that sometimes, the best marketing is created by readers, for readers, who have a genuine passion and love for both TikTok and books.  Its popularity is testament to the creativity of TikTok’s users; how the industry will continue to respond to such an intensely dedicated corner of the internet is up for debate, but online communities such as BookTok are certainly here to stay for a while -- changing the face of publishing one video at a time.

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