Cultures Literature

It’s Lit: The Rise of BookTok

Illustration by Nina Skrzypczak​

Like many young people across the UK and further afield, I have fallen into a TikTok rabbit hole. Initially I thought it superficial and uninteresting, rolled my eyes when I saw my sister using it, and yet, as it became more widespread, I found myself tapping that tantalising button on the App Store. That’s where it began, and now I’m hooked. There’s something strangely addictive about watching short videos about topics ranging from dance, to comedy, to music (surely everyone has heard the sea shanty revival that took the platform by storm earlier this year), and of course, books.

Evidently, I am not alone in my interest. The video-sharing app, owned by Chinese company ByteDance, racked up an impressive 689 million active users by January 2021, and a total of 1.29 billion users including its Chinese counterpart, Douyin. With its huge variety of topics for entertainment and educational purposes, TikTok is rapidly becoming the next big thing of our generation. An avid reader myself, I was pleased to see literature emerging on my ‘For You’ page, alerting me to the rise of the snappily named ‘BookTok’, a dedicated community producing reviews, recommendations and fan videos based on a range of books. Already, the titular hashtag has 7.9 billion views. What is this trend, why has it become popular, and what does this mean for the future of book reviews and publishing?

BookTok, the side of TikTok dedicated to literature, explores a vast range of topics revolving mostly around young adult fiction (there is, of course, a dedicated Harry Potter fanbase, sharing fan theories and Hogwarts ‘aesthetic’ videos), non-fiction and the classics. I’ve seen videos that range from ‘Books that made me SOB’ to ‘what I’d feed you based on your favourite poet’, even to bow-wielding women in medieval dress on horseback, à la fantasy novels. These are all enhanced by the layout of the app itself: short videos from 15 to 60 seconds, paired with your favourite music or sound effects. With plenty of customisable options and trends that can be tailored to fit your desires, it is quick to find something that piques your interest. Thanks to TikTok’s algorithm, it only takes one video to be initiated into the world of BookTok.

One can see where the appeal lies: an enormous variety of aesthetically pleasing and amusing videos, the short length perfect to capture interest without becoming tiresome, and a set up that lets you see more. Watching one video is almost like an appetiser, a spoonful of a book that fuels your hunger enough to research further. Be it review, fan trailer or meme, it captures attention – a fact clearly evident from the large number of views. And with such a large viewer base comes an unprecedented opportunity for publishers and those looking to promote their own writing. Even bookshops have been joining the craze to encourage customers. Their desire for attention is not misplaced, when one considers the power of BookTok to sway book sales. Such is the case with Madeleine Miller’s 2011 novel The Song of Achilles, commonly cited as a tear-jerker in TikTok recommendations: it reached 3rd in the New York Times Bestsellers list in March 2021, and according to NPD BookScan, was selling roughly 9 times more copies in the US than it did following its initial publishing. TikTok has become a valuable resource for the world of reviewing and publishing, with publishers even backing TikTokers to promote books and attract attention. So far, it seems to be working.

Even without advertising, BookTok has the potential to encourage new readers and to draw attention to issues in the literary canon. Many creators dedicate videos to books specifically on race, gender, disability and LGBTQ+ representation, bringing contemporary issues to the foreground in literature, and even challenging authors on underlying issues in their texts. It is a great way to encourage wider reading, particularly with formats such as ‘If you like x, try…’. And this does not only apply to young adult and adult fiction, but to the classics, encouraging readers to pick up books that are not as dry and old as they seem. With a predominantly young demographic, the power of BookTok may be inspiring a new generation of keen readers in the digital age. To add to its appeal, it rarely seems forced, but shows enthusiastic individuals who want to share their passion for books coming together to create a thriving and nourishing literary community.

This is a new medium, and one that I consider valuable in the modern age. The rise of BookTok is an excellent chance for authors, publishers, and bookworms to share content and discuss literary ideas, with the goal of encouraging fellow readers. It shows reviews and recommendations that are ideal for our fast-paced world and promotes content from all corners of life. However, I don’t think that this spells death for traditional forms of book reviews, which are bound to live on as a meatier, in-depth source of information for interested readers. Nevertheless, BookTok is a fantastic way for publishers and reviewers to keep up with the new generation and introduce a new audience to the joys of reading.

Illustration by Nina Skrzypczak