With over 167 billion views on TikTok, it is no understatement that BookTok has taken the world by storm. For those who don’t know, BookTok is a popular online community in which people buy and discuss books.

On the surface, it has been a powerful movement that has increased reading levels and improved author visibility, but is this viral phenomenon just too good to be true?

A Win-Win?

One of the best things about BookTok is its message that anyone can become a reader. Across the world, literature ‘was associated … with the upper classes’ and there is still a sense of snobbery around what people should or shouldn’t read. Some even dismiss contemporary novels altogether. But they can be just as valuable as the classics. BookTok recommendations span a wide variety of genres, from crime thrillers to ‘romantasy,’ which has encouraged more young people (particularly young girls) to take up reading as a pastime. Faith Young was one of them. She’s a 22-year-old BookToker who started posting book content on TikTok during lockdown. In an interview with The Guardian, she reveals that BookTok feels like ‘a lovely community’ because she can chat with ‘people who like the same books as [her].’ It seems then, that one of the appeals of BookTok is its friendly and non-judgemental community that has fostered a sense of inclusivity. Everyone is welocme to read anything they like.

Because TikTok encourages its audience to read more, it also gives authors a platform to promote their books to potential readers. Take 31-year-old Holly Jackson, who has recently become the UK’s top-selling female crime author. Her debut novel (A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder) was published in 2019 and has gone on to sell millions of copies worldwide. Years later, it is one of the most recommended books on TikTok. Other authors to have done particularly well on BookTok are Chloe Gong, Taylor Jenkins Reid, Emily Henry, Sarah J. Maas and the controversial Colleen Hoover, whose books portraying toxic relationships have amassed a billion views on TikTok. The platform has undoubtedly benefitted trending authors by giving them exposure, increasing the sales of their books by 1,047 per cent and presenting them with the opportunity to win a prestigious BookTok award. On a global scale, BookTok has accounted for soaring national book sales in Canada, the U.S. and the UK over the last few years. But it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows.

TikTok ‘Sensations’

Because the same slim group of authors dominates users’ For You pages, other writers struggle to gain exposure. As a reader, why would you choose a book from a little-known author when you could buy one that has amassed raving reviews from all your favourite BookTokers? Unfortunately, the same novels that dominate the online world have also had a profound effect on the variety of books that can be found in-store. Step into any bookshop, whether it’s a large chain like Waterstones or a small independent store, and you will often be greeted by an enormous BookTok table centrepiece, hogging the best space. While there used to be a vast array of time-spanning novels on display, bookstore shelves are now packed with the same few ‘TikTok Sensations.’ Sales play a big part in this. Booksellers know that BookTok novels are in high demand, and so are guaranteed to sell. The trouble is that newcomers struggle to compete for shelf space with household names and readers miss the opportunity to encounter something different. Despite certain positives, BookTok has stifled diversity and creativity within the publishing community. As new talent comes up against a towering iceberg between their work and exposure, great books are becoming increasingly harder to find.

Follow the Herd

Though best known for its friendly community, BookTok is equally notorious for its repetitive and over-hyped recommendations. ‘There are definitely six to 10 books that everyone speaks about,’ admits Faith Young. As well as being monotonous for users, this lack of variety doesn’t encourage readers to challenge themselves or learn about different perspectives and ways of thinking. The few books that do make it to users’ For You pages are then put on a pedestal. Readers feel obliged to buy a copy of the latest BookTok Sensation, not because they genuinely want to read it, but because it’s gone viral on TikTok. And publishers are profiting from this impulsiveness:

‘Like the ice-bucket challenge that used to be around on Facebook, these TikTok trends become a challenge in the same way,’ says Olivia Horrox, a marketing and publicity manager at Simon & Schuster. ‘You don’t want to miss out on the zeitgeist, so you get the book that everyone’s talking about.’

Additionally, the rise of BookTok has meant that the normally solitary act of reading is now being documented online by TikTok influencers. While those unacquainted with the app may assume that influencers use their channels to discuss their favourite stories, BookTok videos are in fact more likely to be based around shopping, hauling and displaying books. Often, these influencers will buy or be sent dozens of books at a time, which they unpack in front of the camera, only for them to never be read. And with the average price of a paperback rising to £12 in the UK, many have criticised BookTokers for their expensive spending habits and wasteful overconsumption. During its rise to popularity, BookTok was a force for good, encouraging more people to become readers. However, its continued commercial success has made it less about reading and more about the aesthetic of being a reader. In short, people have become more focused on acquiring must-have books, rather than actually reading them.

And So …

While BookTok has undeniably had a positive impact on overall reading levels and book sales, when we begin to examine its effects more closely, we can see that it is thwarted by its lack of variety, shallowness and promotion of overconsumption. It has encouraged more people to pick up books, only for them to be used as ornaments on a shelf. It has given authors exposure, but only a select few. For writers in particular, BookTok has had a negative influence, as new talent struggles to flourish in what was already a highly-competitive industry.

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