A few weeks ago I wrote a blog on a book called The High Mountain Court (great read, by the way, definitely check it out) and how BookTok made me buy it. I even put that in the title. It occurred to me and my marketing brain as I wrote that post to wonder, “How?” 

What exactly is it about BookTok that can cajole you into buying a book you’ve never seen or heard of before, know nothing about, and probably don’t need right now because, let’s be honest, most of us on BookTok have a TBR pile so large we’ve to rent whole offices to accommodate it. (Okay, that might just be me, but in my defence I used to have a spare room in my house that was just for books. I no longer have a spare room, so it was either rent an office or buy a bigger house…)

The phenomenon of “Booktok Made Me Buy It” is a testament to the influential power of social media, particularly TikTok, in the realm of book sales and reading habits. The #BookTok community on TikTok has become a pivotal force in driving book sales, with its impact evident in various aspects. As a writer, this interests me because it gives me a potentially powerful platform to sell my own books on (and indeed, I have started building my own account). As a marketer, it interests me because I have clients who want to sell books and I want to leverage this power for them, also.

So, naturally, I overthought the whole thing. Here’s how BookTok makes you buy books…

The #BookTok Community

Considering the nature of the #BookTok community, it’s clear why this platform has become a significant force in the book world. There’s something unique and deeply engaging about BookTok that goes beyond just talking about books. It’s about the shared passion and connection that readers find in this digital space.

BookTok is more than just a hashtag; it’s a thriving community of readers, authors, and book enthusiasts. What sets it apart is its inherently welcoming nature. Here, people from all walks of life come together to share their love for literature. It doesn’t matter if you’re a fan of classic literature, contemporary novels, or niche genres – on BookTok, there’s a place for everyone, often literally, with niche hashtags drawing you to #FantasyBookTok or #RomanceBookTok. This inclusivity fosters a sense of belonging, making it a comforting corner of the internet for many book lovers.

That’s not to say there isn’t some cliquey behaviour and judgemental nonsense. In any community there will always be negative Nellys and Karens who believe anyone who doesn’t read their favourite genre or author is dumb/’not a real reader’. And anyone who does read a genre or author they don’t personally like is dumb/’not a real reader’. It’s inevitable to have negative elements, but the wonderful thing about BookTok is that this is the exception, rather than the rule. 

The rule is a thriving and incredibly wholesome, welcoming community. 

Influencers Driving Book Discoveries

BookTokers are the backbone of the success of this community, those who don’t just enjoy watching the content of others, but actively create bookish content themselves. They’re not your typical influencers; they’re avid readers, often with day jobs, who just happen to love talking about books. Their content is as diverse as their backgrounds – from heartfelt book reviews and exciting book hauls to creative reenactments of favourite scenes. These influencers have a unique way of connecting with their audience, often using humour, honesty, and a deep understanding of what it feels like to be lost in a good book.

One of the key aspects of BookTok content is its authenticity. These aren’t polished, commercial reviews; they’re real reactions and emotions shared by people who love books. Whether it’s expressing joy over a well-loved character arc or sharing the sorrow of a book’s tragic ending, these moments create a strong, emotional bond with viewers.

They’re also often quite clever about it too, as most of the community hates spoilers and avoids saying or doing anything that will ruin a book for those who haven’t read yet. This leads to a lot of very short, reactive content that is funny or comforting to those ‘in the know’, but doesn’t give the game away for those who haven’t read it yet.

A recent example was the slew of readers posting their reactions to the end of Iron Flame with the sound of Klaus from The Originals screaming “Rebeccaaaaa!” We all figured out that Rebecca Yarros had ended on a cliff hanger and it was a doozy, but that didn’t give away specifics or spoil the ending when we finally had time to read.

@mrsashleybrown SERIOUSLY WTH REBECCA?! Potential spoilers in comments tread carefully.  Ib: @karen reads a lot  #ironflame #ironflamebook #ironflametheories #ironflamerebeccayarros #fourthwing #fourthwingrebeccayarros #fourthwingbook #fourthwingfanart #xaidenriorson #violetsorrengail ♬ original sound – karen reads a lot

Shared Experiences and Emotional Connections

What truly makes BookTok recommendations so compelling is the shared experience. It’s one thing to read a synopsis or a professional review, but it’s entirely different to hear someone gush about a book they love or share their emotional journey through its pages. This relatability is what hooks people in. When a BookToker talks about a book, they’re not just selling a product; they’re sharing a piece of themselves. This authenticity resonates with viewers, making the recommendations feel more personal and trustworthy.

It’s also why a lot of BookTokkers find more success as influencers when they don’t plaster product links all over their videos and try to push people to TikTok shop to buy. Instead, they opt for alternative ways of monetising their content, while maintaining their authenticity and avoiding the appearance that they only like the book because they want you to buy it.

BookTok isn’t just about individual experiences; it’s a community experience. When a book becomes popular on BookTok, it often becomes a shared talking point within the community. Discussions, debates, and even book club-like read-alongs and buddy reads happen, deepening the connection not just with the book but with other readers too.

The magic of the #BookTok community lies in its ability to create a collective, passionate space for book lovers. It’s a place where books are more than just stories; they are experiences shared and cherished together. And it is this very essence that makes the recommendations from this community so powerful and influential in the world of book buying.

Demographics and Discoverability

BookTok has notably captivated a specific demographic segment – young females aged between 13 and 34. This group’s preferences have significantly influenced the popularity of certain genres within the BookTok community. Particularly, genres like young adult fiction and romance have seen a surge in popularity, driven by this demographic. Their purchasing power and engagement levels on TikTok are considerable, making them a key demographic for authors and publishers to consider. 

Their tastes, meanwhile, particularly in genres like Romance, Fantasy, and the ultimate combination of the two, Romantasy, are shaping the book market. Publishers are increasingly recognizing this demographic’s preferences, as seen in the popularity and promotion of books like Sarah J Maas’s A Court of Thorns and Roses series. However, there is also a concern about the homogenization of the industry and the lack of diversity in BookTok recommendations, both in terms of authorship and genre variety​​.

In other words, BookTok may be making you buy stuff, but it’s likely stuff in a fairly narrow subset of the most popular genres on the platform. If you’re not already a fan of these genres it’s great for introducing you to them. But it’s not so good at introducing or recommending books from other genres.

Stats suggest that 59% of 16-25 year olds report that BookTok has helped them discover a passion for reading. Importantly, nearly half of these respondents also mentioned that they have visited a bookshop in person due to TikTok, demonstrating the tangible impact of BookTok not just online but in physical book sales as well. This trend is vital for booksellers and publishers, as popularity on BookTok often translates into success in book sales​​.

How The TikTok Algorithm Makes You Buy Books

The TikTok algorithm plays a vital role in enhancing the discoverability of books and authors. Unlike traditional book discovery methods, which might rely on bestseller lists or editorial reviews, TikTok’s algorithm tailors content to individual user preferences based on their interaction with the app. This means that users are more likely to encounter book recommendations that align with their specific interests and reading habits.

For instance, if a user frequently engages with content related to fantasy novels, the algorithm is more likely to show them BookTok posts related to this genre. This personalised approach not only helps users discover new books and authors but also aids in exposing them to a broader range of genres they might not have considered otherwise.

This algorithm-driven discoverability has significant implications. It democratises the process of book recommendation, allowing lesser-known authors or niche genres to gain visibility which they might not achieve through traditional publishing routes. The algorithm can level the playing field, enabling books that might not have big marketing budgets or widespread critical acclaim to find their audience.

Moreover, the algorithm’s effectiveness in aligning users with their interests means that book recommendations on BookTok are often met with enthusiasm and genuine interest, leading to higher engagement rates and, ultimately, more book purchases.

The interplay between the young female demographic and the TikTok algorithm creates a unique and potent mechanism for book discovery on BookTok. This combination not only drives sales in popular genres but also opens up new avenues for diverse book recommendations, catering to a wide range of reader interests and promoting a richer literary culture.

Impact on Sales and Genre Trends

BookTok’s influence on book sales, especially in genres like young adult (YA) fiction and romance, has been significant. The platform has become a powerful marketing tool, affecting not just new releases but also bringing renewed attention to older titles.

In the realm of YA fiction, BookTok has contributed to a substantial increase in sales. By May 2021, sales of YA fiction novels in America were up nearly 70% compared to previous periods. This surge is largely attributed to the visibility and hype generated by BookTok. Such an impact highlights BookTok’s ability to drive sales and influence reading trends, particularly among younger audiences.

A notable example of a book that gained immense popularity due to BookTok is Adam Silvera’s 2017 novel They Both Die At The End. The book experienced a remarkable resurgence, particularly in 2021, with sales exceeding 200,000 copies in the UK alone. Much of this success is credited to the dedicated hashtag on TikTok and the engaging content created by readers, showcasing their emotional journey with the book.

Similarly, The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller also saw a resurgence in popularity, years after its initial publication. This novel became a bestseller once again, partly due to its adoption by the Dark Academia subculture on TikTok. The platform allowed users to express their identity and interests through the books they read, creating a unique bond with certain titles.

The success of these books on BookTok indicates that the platform is not just about promoting the latest releases. Instead, it provides a space where both new and older titles can find an audience, irrespective of their publication date. This trend is crucial for both authors and publishers as it opens up new avenues for book promotion and reaches audiences that traditional marketing might not capture.

All that being said, while the impact of BookTok on book sales, particularly in the young adult and romance genres, has been substantial, it’s experienced a dip last year. Initially, BookTok significantly boosted book sales, with remarkable growth seen in 2020 and 2021. For instance, sales for BookTok-tracked authors rose from 13 million copies in 2020 to 27 million copies in 2021. However, a recent analysis by BookScan indicates that BookTok’s effect on sales has begun to diminish slightly in 2023 compared to the previous year. As of July 2023, the year-to-date sales, which had been up by as much as 38% through May, were up 23% through July. I’ve not seen stats for the end of 2023 yet but I suspect that has continued. 

I’m not convinced it reflects a downturn in TikTok’s effectiveness where book selling power is concerned. Book sales in general were skyhigh during 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic. Comparing figures from these years to last year once things had calmed down is inevitably going to show 2023 sales are lower.

We only need to look at the runaway success of Fourth Wing and Iron Flame last year, largely driven by TikTok, to see the platform is still very much at the forefront of influencing sales of certain books.

Honestly, TikTok made me buy Fourth Wing; I would have dismissed it as YA nonsense not worth a look otherwise. And I’m SO glad I read it! 

Response from the Publishing Industry and Retailers

The publishing industry and retailers have been keenly responsive to the trends and influence brought about by BookTok. Bookstores, notably Barnes & Noble and Waterstones, have adapted to these trends by featuring BookTok-popular titles. These adaptations highlight a strategic shift in how bookstores approach marketing and merchandising in response to social media trends.

Publishers have also noticed the significant impact of BookTok. For instance, Atria Publishing has seen exponential growth in the way TikTok has helped in putting books into readers’ hands. A notable success story is Colleen Hoover’s It Ends With Us, which saw a dramatic increase in sales following attention on TikTok. 

Initially selling 21,000 copies in its release month in 2016, the book was selling around 17,000 copies weekly by the summer of 2021. The tag #ItEndsWithUs has garnered millions of views on TikTok, underscoring the platform’s power in book marketing. This isn’t a book I’ve any interest in personally, but this is a great review for those interested).

BookTok has not only boosted sales for existing popular genres like YA fiction and romance but also led to the popularisation of micro-genres and specific tropes. This has broadened the appeal of books that might not have received as much attention before, including older titles and books in genres traditionally popular among women.

Plus, the BookTok community’s diversity is gradually influencing the publishing industry. Publishers and brands are increasingly partnering with BookTok creators, bringing attention to more diverse books and authors. This trend is seen as a positive shift towards greater representation in the publishing world.

Broadening Literary Horizons

BookTok has been instrumental in boosting the popularity of certain genres, particularly young adult fiction, romance, and fantasy. However, this has also led to criticism regarding the platform’s tendency to favour specific types of books, often authored primarily by white individuals and featuring white protagonists. This trend raises concerns about reinforcing stereotypes and limiting the exposure of diverse voices and stories in the literary world. The issue of BookTok’s racial bias and the platform’s algorithms perpetuating unequal representation are significant points of discussion within the community.

Despite these criticisms, BookTok also plays a vital role in promoting a diverse range of books and authors. The platform has been noted for its ability to highlight books that might not receive as much attention otherwise, including older titles and books in genres traditionally popular among women. It has also been a gateway for highlighting micro-genres like dark academia and various tropes like enemies-to-lovers, which resonate with its audience. BookTok’s influence spans a range of age groups and identities, but young women, specifically teenagers and young adults in their twenties, form a large part of its community. While many viral books on TikTok are by white authors and often centre on white characters, some BookTok creators actively seek out and promote more diverse books.

BookTok’s influence extends to the publishing industry, where it has been acknowledged as a significant force in book marketing and sales. The platform’s unique grassroots structure centres readers and their preferences, allowing for a democratisation in the flow of the book publishing industry. It challenges traditional literary gatekeeping by validating every type of reader and genre, including those previously stigmatised. By encouraging reading for pleasure and enjoyment, BookTok has redefined the relationship many people have with literature.

While BookTok has faced criticism for a lack of diversity in its promoted content, it also offers a platform for underrepresented voices and has the potential to diversify literary horizons. The platform’s impact on the publishing industry, shifting trends in genre popularity, and the promotion of diverse books and authors are significant contributions to the literary world. The challenge going forward is to balance the promotion of popular genres with the inclusion and representation of diverse voices and stories in mainstream BookTok discussions.

Why BookTok Made Me Buy It

There’s really no disputing that BookTok has become an integral part of the world of booklovers. It’s not overly surprising, considering Bookstagram already did this over on Instagram, and continues to be very popular. TikTok, like Insta, complements traditional methods like word-of-mouth and the physical allure of bookstores, bringing a digital and highly engaging dimension to how we find and fall in love with books. 

BookTok, however, with its unique blend of emotional authenticity, community-driven recommendations, and a platform that elevates both new and classic titles, has reshaped our reading trends and behaviours.

For me, both as a reader and a professional in writing and marketing, BookTok represents a significant shift in how books reach their audience. The platform not only influences what we read but also how we connect with literature. It’s about the shared experiences, the discovery of hidden gems, and the revival of classics in the digital age. It’s not just about trends but about finding books that speak to us, often ones we might have otherwise overlooked.