As a millennial who has been living in the BookTok world for nine months, I can confidently say that it is not the shallow, fake, showy, and performative corner of TikTok that many outsiders make it out to be. Instead, it is a vibrant and multifaceted community of readers who are passionate about books and eager to share their love of literature with others.
BookTok has become the most powerful word-of-mouth engine the book publishing industry has ever seen. According to Publishers Lunch, the top 90 BookTok authors saw their cumulative sales go from nine million units in 2020 to 20 million in 2021. Overall, 2022 print book sales were slightly down from 2021, but are still ahead of 2019; adult fiction sales in 2022 outperformed every other category.
I had the privilege of attending the first-ever BookTok Festival at the Union Square Barnes & Noble in Manhattan. Tickets to the event sold out in two days, and fans queued up before 10 AM to get first access to the tables where publishers were giving away swag and coveted advance reader copies. It was inspiring to witness the enthusiasm and passion of the readers in attendance.
BookTok is not just about the same twenty books being flaunted over and over again. It is a constellation of fandoms around authors, identity tags, feelings, and vibes. For every bestselling BookTok title, you can find a hundred videos from creators telling you it’s overhyped—and recommending something else to read instead.
The hype, and the backlash to that hype, have helped to make BookTok into the most powerful word-of-mouth engine the book publishing industry has ever seen. It is no surprise that sales of romance novels exploded during the pandemic and show no sign of slowing down: romance was the bestselling genre of 2022, according to NPD BookScan, and print sales of romance were up 52.4% over 2021.
BookTok is a place where readers can find comfort and pleasure. It is a place where they can find hope and solace in the happily ever afters of romance novels. It is a place where they can find joy in discovering new books and ideas. It is a place where they can be themselves without apology or judgement.
BookTok is also a place where young women have been able to use their creativity and enthusiasm to create content that has earned them recognition and success in the publishing industry. From Colleen Hoover’s 800,000 copies sold on release day to Satoria Ray’s forty thousand views on her Mary Ruefle video to Elvar Belardi’s fluency in TikTok that has attracted multiple literary agents, BookTok has been a platform for success for many young women.
While outsiders may perceive BookTok as a contraction or reduction of books and ideas to what “performs” best in a visual medium engineered by Chinese geniuses to destroy our attention spans, fans tell me that being on BookTok has expanded their horizons as readers. It has given them an opportunity to make connections with like-minded readers and discover new books that they wouldn’t have otherwise picked up.
BookTok has become the gathering place for readers who know what they want. They aren’t seeking the approval of New Yorker subscribers—they have the same tote bag you do—and they aren’t apologizing for what they like. They are vessels seeking pleasure—and that is something we can all relate to.