Inside the world of BookTok

Where social media meets the printing press

Video-based social media app TikTok has contributed hugely to the establishment and spread of viral trends since its inception in 2016.  From Gigi Hadid’s vodka pasta recipe to Doja Cat’s career, the short-form video platform’s coveted algorithm allows trends to skyrocket and spiral as users are encouraged not only to share what’s trending, but contribute their own takes on trends.  While TikTok allows for a new way to start and spread trends, old traditions emerge from this high-tech system.  Lifestyles are romanticised and aestheticized, as they have always been; in TikTok’s case, this includes the cottagecore aesthetic, romantically idealizing nature and rural life, or the ‘That Girl’ persona, glamorizing 5am wake ups and daily journaling.  Once, we romanticized the lives of the It Girls whose lives we only saw in snippets, magazines or heavily-scripted TV shows. Now, regular people can now share 60 second snippets of their lives, and romanticize them just as much, making them seem just as glamorous, and perhaps more powerfully, far more attainable. As certain lifestyles become trendy within the TikTok universe, people begin to adapt their behaviour to fit the trend, so that they too can contribute, and, thus, begins a community of people, with similar, if not feigned, interests.

“This community is largely made up of adolescent girls and young women who attempt to present themselves as aesthetically bookish.”

One of the largest communities to emerge from TikTok’s recent trend cycle is the BookTok community, made up of users and creators who share reading related videos, including book reviews, recommendations, and hauls. Its viral nature is clear; #booktok has garnered over 35 billion views across the app.  From a quick browse of the videos using this hashtag, it seems that this community is largely made up of adolescent girls and young women who attempt to present themselves as aesthetically bookish, bringing to mind the days of Tumblr and early Instagram, where a similar demographic  would share quotes from John Green’s latest teen-angst manifesto.

As well as its overall aesthetic, BookTok harkens back to its Tumblr Girl predecessors through the books they enjoy.  The most frequently revered genres include young adult fiction, romance, and fantasy.  Regardless of genre, or even storyline it seems, the main, and most essential requirement of trending BookTok titles is their emotive value. A book’s ability to make its reader cry seems to correlate directly to its virality amongst BookTok influencers, with many of the most popular videos under #booktok being compilations of the books that ‘made me cry the most’. Washington Post writer Stephanie Merry hypothesizes why this may be the case, pinning the community-wide yearning for emotion on the pandemic, concurrent with the emergence of the community. “Given the timing, maybe it makes sense that [BookTok] became a place to share tumultuous emotions.  Over the past two years, some readers have been drawn to light entertainment to balance out our dark reality, but there’s clearly a market for those who want to embrace the ache”.

This desire for distress seems to trump even traditional publishing structures of popular literature; a book doesn’t necessarily need to be new to the shelves, or a New York Times Bestseller, as long as it makes fans cry. In fact, BookTok seems to have a retroactive effect on the bestseller lists, with these titles re-emerging on the charts once they have ‘blown up’, so to speak, on the social media. Some of the most frequently mentioned on BookTok include Colleen Hoover’s ‘It Ends With Us’, which was published in 2016, and E. Lockhart’s ‘We Were Liars’, which first hit the shelves in 2014.

With a similar troop of books always gaining five stars from each BookTok user, a counter-culture has quickly began to develop within the community itself- that which both redeems and discredits ‘overhyped BookTok books’. Among the most liked and most viewed #booktok videos are those which discuss what they call ‘overhyped’ books.  Many of these videos adorn similar books with similar praises, but it is fascinating to note that a singular community on a singular app can criticise itself and its tastes from the inside. Jack Edwards, a Durham University English Literature graduate discusses this trend in his YouTube video ‘I read TikTok’s most popular books’.  With over a million subscribers across his two YouTube channels, (Jack Edwards and Jack in the Books), the creator rose to popularity from his book-related content, which has been ignited by the BookTok trend.  In his video, he praises BookTok for its ‘wholesome’ nature, allowing users to share their reviews and recommendations, while also capitalizing on BookTok’s habit of ‘overhyping’ or fixating on a certain few books.  By both enthusiastically endorsing the books he deemed deserving of the hype, and openly criticizing titles that fall short.  In his conclusion, he mentioned that while the books were not particularly complex (as many of them were categorized YA, in-line with the BookTok demographic), they were viable options to spark an interest in reading.

“Perhaps one of the benefits to BookTok’s limited listings is the freedom it gives the community to explore other facets of literature independently.”

BookTok seems to be a gateway to a reading hobby for many users.  While the most trending titles are overly-emotional, ephemeral, and somewhat predictable, these characteristics also cause them to be highly addictive.  At the end of each heart-rendering tale, BookTok readers are eager for more, and eventually, this desire leads them to explore a reading realm outside the bounds of BookTok, thus allowing them to diversify their reading choices and culminate a personal taste.  Perhaps one of the benefits to BookTok’s limited listings is the freedom it gives the community to explore other facets of literature independently, once they have cried their way through their For You Page’s limited, escapist offerings.  Many BookTok influencers took to YouTube at the end of 2021 to share what they’d read in the year, with most completing over 50 books, and many hitting triple digits.  Jack Edwards, for example, read a total 164, most of which had not been heavily featured across BookTok.  Most creators had expanded their reading habits outside the bounds of the community, displaying that while BookTok promotes a limited number of titles, the passion for reading it aestheticizes and inspires works beyond that.

BookTokers aestheticise not only the reading lifestyle, but the books themselves, with many members of the community choosing to buy books from-new.  This way, the books look pretty in hand, and on their colour-coordinated shelves.  With this aestheticizing of books has also come a commodification, and there are seldom #booktok videos promoting the purchasing of second-hand books.

However, this somewhat over-aestheticized incentive to buy new may be a saving grace for the publishing industry. Many traditional bookshops have surrendered to the BookTok trend, with many establishing an ‘As Seen on TikTok’ shelf in store, usually at the forefront of the shop.  Dublin’s own Hodges Figgis is one culprit, with its shelf featuring ‘My Year of Rest and Relaxation’, and ‘The Dangers of Smoking in Bed’, both of which have been aestheticized on the app in recent months.  Bookshops’ compliance with online trends not only displays the power and influence of TikTok outside of the cyber-realm, while also hinting at its impact on the publishing industry.  At the end of 2021, Forbes shared statistics published by Scribd, an ebook and audiobook subscription service, that claimed, on the platform ‘books highlighted in TikTok saw an average 75% [sales] spike after promotion on that platform’.  Sales of titles such as ‘It Ends With Us’ and ‘The Song of Achilles’ grew up to 70% after gaining notability on Tiktok.

The explosion of the BookTok community not only on TikTok, but onto other apps and into the real world, has done wonders to promote reading to a new generation of Internet users. By promoting indulgent, escapist titles across the platform, BookTok has provided members of the community with titles that spark a joy for reading.

Lara Mellett

Second Year English Studies student at Trinity