BookTok: Marketing Print in a Digital World
November 1, 2022
By: Grace Tan
When was the last time you read a book? For many people, especially adults, the answer may be "back in high school". If you're like me, you didn’t even read most of the books that were assigned to you, instead opting for SparkNotes or a (hopefully) accurate movie adaptation. According to an article written by Caleb Crain for The New Yorker, Americans are generally reading less: a trend that has been present for the last few years. From personal experience and conversations with friends, the reason why people don’t read or read infrequently has to do with a lack of time and energy, and, perhaps most important, the emergence of digital platforms like TikTok and Instagram. For many, the easy and sometimes mindless entertainment that social media provides is a much more accessible way to spend free time. To many, print media has practically become obsolete. Books, and therefore reading, have become replaced with online articles and podcasts. However, a challenge to that notion has been created through the emergence of BookTok.
So, What is BookTok?
“BookTok” is a community on TikTok where users can share book recommendations, engage in literary discourse, and promote upcoming authors. It gained popularity in 2020, during the pandemic as people searched for ways to fill time during quarantine. The hashtag currently boasts over 86.4 billion views and has been responsible for the rise of books like The Love Hypothesis by Ali Hazelwood, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid, and authors like Colleen Hoover. Although the BookTok space is dominated mostly by white women and the romance genre, as evidenced by the aforementioned books, there are subgroups within the community that add to the diversity of the group. For example, there are BookTokers who focus specifically on international authors or tend to recommend books that focus on the PoC experience. There are also a plethora of different genre recommendations ranging broadly from science-fiction to the hyper-specific “dark academia”.
Courtesy of WHNT
Though once seen as a brief phenomenon and a soon-to-die-out fad, BookTok has clearly made an impression on the print media world, becoming a significant driver in book sales and propelling certain authors to fame. In many Barnes and Noble, there are whole sections dedicated to books that are being recommended through the hashtag. Several of the books my friends and I have read this year and last year were due in large part to seeing them on our For You Pages.
What Makes BookTok Successful?
It seems ironic that the print and publishing industry has been able to make such impactful use of its competing medium, but that is why analyzing the massive success BookTok has had is so fascinating. BookTok and its creators have been able to utilize and capitalize on what makes digital platforms like TikTok so great; namely, accessibility.
One of the biggest reasons people have cited as to why they do not read books is that they cannot find anything that interests them. The time, energy, and effort one have to put into searching for a book, acquiring it, and then reading it, is precious, especially in an age as fast-paced as this one. All that work to potentially not like a book is seen as a waste of money and time; a risk not worth taking when Netflix is right there. BookTok streamlines the process of finding a book. Instead of asking a librarian or relying on the people around you to have the same tastes in literature, you can search for recommendations and reviews through the hashtag or scroll through the feed of your favorite BookToker to find your next read. Moreover, the power of the TikTok algorithm ensures that if you like and watch videos pertaining to a certain genre or author, you will be recommended similar books and authors, streamlining the process even further.
Courtesy of WHNT
Because of BookTok’s online origins, anyone and everyone can make recommendations and review videos, making the discussion and community accessible to everyone. It also allows for a more diverse selection of books and authors to reach a wider demographic. BookTok is so effective because it replicates “word-of-mouth” marketing. The passion with which many creators talk about their favorite reads and their “you must read this!” calls to action replicate the way many of us would talk about a book we loved reading in real life. Moreover, functions like comments, stitches, or duets, allow for a colorful and vibrant discussion on recent reads and even drama to take place. This creates a strong community and interesting discourse that once you become a part of, you will not want to miss out on, pushing people to purchase new books to keep up with the latest trends.
How Brands Utilize BookTok
Though BookTok creators and influencers have already done a massively successful job at driving book sales, publicists and publishing companies have also learned to generate hype through giveaways and participating in trends. For example, in the spring of 2022, Penguin Random House hosted a giveaway of Lapvona by Ottessa Moshfegh by having users create TikToks on why they should receive the book. Other companies like Barnes and Noble have used TikTok to promote new releases by using trending sounds.
BookTok is so successful because it feels like an organic and authentic discussion. It allows people to discuss their personal life experiences and artistic tastes through the mediation of literature. However, that does not mean BookTok is without its own problems. Recent controversies include Penguin Random House partnering with TikTok to allow users to add links to videos to streamline the purchasing process, which hurts indie publishers. In order to retain what makes BookTok special, companies and authors aiming to capitalize on its potential should keep in mind that what makes BookTok so special are the users and the personal nature of the community.
Grace Tan is a Sophomore studying Media, Culture, and Communications at NYU Steinhardt and is on the Content Committee for the Fall 2022 semester. Keep an eye out for more exciting content from Grace!