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TikTok made me read it: reading habits in the digital age

Cara Lee chats to the Nouse editors about the effect social media has on their reading lists

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Image Credit: Cara Lee

Last year, I wrote an article in which I said that the hashtag “BookTok” had been viewed more than 17.5 billion times. Less than a year later, it has 55.7 billion views.
BookTok is a subgenre of TikTok that seems in no hurry to slow its growth. It’s a concept most TikTok users are now familiar with – but TikTok has turned what we’d expect from a book-based social media account on its head. On “Bookstagram”, for instance – the original hashtag where social media users shared what they were reading – we’d expect flat-lay photos, reviews of each book, amongst lots of coffees, candles, and often cats. Users of BookTok go one step further, almost embodying books, dedicating fashion videos to dark academia, popularised by Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, with videos varying between “romance books I will never stop recommending” to “books I wish I could read again for the first time”, plus everything in between. Celebrities such as George Ezra, Stanley Tucci and Dermot Kennedy have all added their say, and it’s a phenomenon that doesn’t seem to be stopping any time soon.

My first introduction to BookTok took me by surprise. I was still new to TikTok and hadn’t even heard of BookTok at this point, and I also didn’t tend to look at captions. So, when the account Lauryn’s Library (@lauryns_library) told me the plot of The Unhoneymooners by Christina Lauren as if it was in fact her own personal experience, I was hooked, and interested to see how else TikTok was being used to promote and recommend books.

Now, some books, including The Unhoneymooners, are almost synonymous with TikTok. There’s even a phrase to define this: some books are now known as ‘TikTok books’ because of their prevalence on the social media site. TikTok has had an unprecedented effect on the publishing industry, increasing reading levels, representation, and book sales - according to Business Insider, 825 million books were sold in the USA in 2021, the highest number since 2004 and up 9 percent from 2020. It’s also created a new way of both individuals and publishers promoting books too, and has a space where interest and demand for potential screen adaptations can be judged and predicted.

Several TikTok books have had very interesting journeys on the platform, so I asked some of our editors and writers which books they’ve bought or read because they saw them on TikTok, and whether they lived up to the TikTok hype.

"It seems that increasingly we’re buying and reading books that have been recommended to us by TikTok."

One of the most commonly featured books on TikTok is, as already mentioned, Tartt’s The Secret History. Arts writer Isobel Neill says that The Secret History“ marks the birthplace of dark academia; through its obsession with 12th-16th century architecture, ‘classic’ literature, Oxford shirts, murderers and monstrosity, and being a literary genre that prioritises fashion and aesthetics, dark academia is particularly compatible with TikTok, and holds over 2.1 billion views.” Isobel also says that Tartt’s, and now TikTok’s, enduring legacy can be seen in more contemporary writing too, such as If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio, another popular book on TikTok, showing that there’s a clear link between aesthetics in writing and aesthetics online.

Additionally, since TikTok has users from all age ranges, BookTok isn’t a static place for recommendations. Users promote young adult books too, encouraging viewers not to be ashamed of what they’re reading – there’s still a common and misplaced perception that young adult books are solely for young adults, and worthless in the wider scope of literature. In fact, young adult books are incredibly valuable: they’re escapist, sometimes bringing about a sense of nostalgia for your own youth, and increasingly, they’re often diverse and representative, telling stories that literature has canonically excluded, such as Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give. This need to dismiss previously held book prejudices is at the forefront of TikTok.
Even with this diversity in age range, I was recently surprised to find one of my favourite childhood books on display on Waterstones’ TikToktable – and more surprised to find that I had somehow missed it becoming an Amazon Prime series too. The Summer I Turned Pretty, written by Jenny Han (who also penned the To All the Boys books, which have since become Netflix films), shows how now, popularity online gives a very tangible sense of how successful a screen adaptation would be, and is then a factor in whether adaptations are made.

This phenomenon is also seen with Delia Owens’s Where the Crawdads Sing. The book has sold over 10 million copies, and because of its status as a TikTok book as well as endorsement by celebrities such as Reese Witherspoon in her book club, we’re soon being treated to a film adaptation, starring Daisy Edgar-Jones of Normal People fame.
Celebrity endorsement online has a huge part to play in book promotion nowadays. Taylor Swift, for instance, has endorsed both The Summer I Turned Pretty and Where the Crawdads Sing, writing songs for the films and promoting them on her social media. Reese Witherspoon’s Book Club is entirely online, constantly reaching hundreds of thousands of potential readers almost instantly. This was the case with Where the Crawdads Sing, with sales boosted immensely by being selected for Reese’s Book Club. Witherspoon’s media production company, Hello Sunshine, allows her to capitalise further on the virtual success of her picks, with Where the Crawdads Sing being produced by Witherspoon.

This has also been the case for Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, another book which is now prominent on TikTok, with a series produced by Witherspoon. Big Little Lies has a particularly interesting relationship with TikTok: the series’ soundtrack is a popular song to use on TikTok, with over 55,000 videos made using it, and 491 million views of the hashtag #BigLittleLies. It’s unsurprising, then, that Big Little Lies– both the book and the series – have been and continue to be so popular. Travel Editor Katy Leverett says that the “constant revelation of new information as the plot constantly evolves and moves across time and the deeply complex characters makes this book definitely worth a read if you’re after a thriller. The TV series is also brilliant too!” As to whether Big Little Lies lives up to the TikTok hype? Katy says it does, and its prevalence on TikTok and the several TV seasons created, shows that hundreds of thousands of others agree.

"Celebrity endorsement online has a huge part to play in book promotion nowadays."

It seems then that increasingly, we’re buying and reading books (and their film and TV adaptations) that have been recommended to us by TikTok, and that in fact, TikTok is popularising older or originally less popular or less known books. Colleen Hoover’s It Ends With Us is another of TikTok’s favourite books, and according to Publisher’s Weekly, when it was published in 2016, it sold a very respectable 21,000 copies – fairly good going. However, since becoming a ‘TikTok book’ in November 2020, it has gone back to press 24 times. In the first nine months of 2021 alone, over 308,000 copies of It Ends With Us were sold, showing the enormous impact TikTok has on publishing sales.
Nouse’s Chief Sub-Editor Abi Ramsay said that although It Ends With Us was “an easy and addictive read, Hoover’s writing isn’t amazing. Her novels fall under the ‘trashy’ genre with the writing style focusing only on getting the story across, rather than how the piece will flow as a whole. I believe It Ends With Us is also one of her lighter reads – my housemate has just read Verity and was surprised at how twisted Hoover’s authorial vision was. Perhaps the success of Hoover based on the dark nature of her books tells us more about the inhabitants of BookTok than her literary skill?”

Popularising an older book has also been the case for Madeline Miller’s work: Song of Achilles is a retelling of Homer’s Iliad, published in 2011.TikTok however has been the cause of a huge up-surge in sales; according to Forbes, over 650,000 copies were sold in 2021. Deputy Politics Editor Hannah Boyle says that “Song of Achilles is incredibly well written and has a story which is beautifully constructed and deserves the hype it has been given. Madeline Miller constructs a love story with poignant beauty and misery which took ten years to craft and was worth all the time she poured into it, and the magic spreads to her other work, Circe, too.” With the success of Song of Achilles, and the subsequent increased accessibility to Greek mythology, undoubtedly Miller has paved the way for more retellings which become popular in mainstream literature – an immense achievement, and one that will surely change the face of contemporary writing drastically. But, as Hannah states, “ultimately, BookTok and the fame it gave to Song of Achilles means the book gets the true focus it deserves,” highlighting that a lot of TikTok’s favourite books become favourites, purely down to their own merit.

Another TikTok classic is Taylor Jenkins Reid’s The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, and increasingly, Malibu Rising too, with over138 million views combined. Abi read The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo for the first time only quite recently, and said that “although I am glad to have read the novel, and have gone on to read more of Reid’s repertoire, I am happy that I read it after the peak of its fame on TikTok, as the association with TikTok publishing can hinder how the novel is viewed in mainstream media. It can be difficult to gauge which books deserve their TikTok fame, and which will just be a fleeting trend”. Evelyn Hugo continues to be a very popular recommendation on TikTok and with Reid’s other works, including Malibu Rising and Daisy Jones and The Six becoming increasingly recommended too, it will be interesting to map where Reid’s writing, as well as TikTok, take her.

It isn’t just contemporary books which grace BookTok either – I’ve often seen classics being recommended, like Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper. Whilst my English literature degree instilled in me a love for the classics, I’m glad that TikTok focuses more on promoting fun, contemporary novels, which users actually enjoy reading: the main purpose of reading for pleasure should, of course, be to get pleasure out of it, and TikTok embraces and promotes that. Classic literature can sometimes be stuffy, restrictive, and frankly, tricky to read, so an emphasis on contemporary fiction will hopefully encourage a new generation of readers. It’s no surprise that doing a degree can tarnish your relationship with reading, but now that you don’t have mountains of reading to plough through each week, it’s the perfect time to rekindle your love for reading. If you’re in need of some inspiration or recommendations, have a look at BookTok – one thing’s for certain though, you won’t go short of recommendations

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