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The tomes are changing – how BookTok is having a huge influence on what we read

The tomes are changing – how BookTok is having a huge influence on what we read

Keen for some romantasy – a genre blending romance and fantasy? Well, the many young women who people TikTok’s reading community are – and publishers are starting to take notice.

If you’ve been in a bookshop recently you may have seen references to BookTok – whether it’s stickers on books or whole tables dedicated to “BookTok favourites”.

BookTok is a community on the social media app TikTok. Creators make short videos recommending, reviewing or just generally chatting about books. This community has become one of the biggest on the platform and its hashtag (#BookTok) has been used for more than 60 billion videos. BookTok’s influence over the publishing industry and what young people are reading is staggering.

Online reading communities have been around for a while. Goodreads – a social cataloguing platform where readers can follow friends and authors, get book recommendations and read user-submitted reviews – was launched in 2007, and there are other communities on sites such as YouTube (BookTube) and Instagram (Bookstagram). However, none of these sites seems to have captured the attention of readers, publishers and retailers quite like BookTok. Caroline Hardman, a literary agent at Hardman & Swainson, corroborates this, telling The Guardian: “It’s having a strong effect on what publishers look for.”

Is the impact positive or negative?

The main demographic of BookTok creators, viewers and authors is young women. Though books popular with young women have gained immense broad popularity before – for example, the Twilight saga (from 2005) by Stephenie Meyer, and the paranormal romance fever that followed – young women have rarely been taken seriously as either critics or readers. But times are changing. The books most popular with BookTok – such as romance, fantasy and the hybrid genre “romantasy” – are being picked up by publishers and displayed more prominently in bookshops.

Book series such as A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J Maas (from 2015) are immensely popular on BookTok – with some videos about the series amassing more than a million views.

Read more in Daily Maverick: How TikTok’s dating story time trend offers a glimpse into the sometimes weird world of modern romance

The series is marketed alongside new releases like The Hurricane Wars by Thea Guanzon or A Touch of Chaos by Scarlett St Clair, with Maas’s series appearing as “similar” or “recommended” on Amazon, Waterstones and Goodreads, as well as often being mentioned in readers’ reviews.

Mythology retellings are also immensely popular on BookTok, sparked by titles such as The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (2011). Such titles now feature heavily on publishers’ lists of new releases and coming-soon books. Though it is fascinating to see that young women and their tastes can have such a big impact on the publishing industry, there’s a risk it may homogenise it. Literary critic Barry Pierce has said that BookTok reads “all sort of have the same cover”. Meanwhile, author Stephanie Danler said of her foray into BookTok: “It seemed impossible to discover different fiction. It was the same 20 books over and over.”

BookTok also has a problem with diversity – in more ways than one. Its recommendations are overwhelmingly by white authors, and it is unclear what the long-term effects of this will be on both the publishing industry and the young readers who flock to the app for recommendations. Furthermore, by catering to this huge audience of young women, publishers are forgoing books by men, especially emerging writers.

Identifying as ‘readers’

BookTok is also proving a powerful tool for renewing interest in past titles. At the inaugural BookTok Awards in August, Dolly Alderton’s memoir, Everything I Know About Love, won in the “best book to end a reading slump” category, despite being published in 2018.

These awards even had a “best BookTok revival” category, with the award going to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813). It’s funny to think that Austen, an author so revered that she is printed on the £10 note, is being “revived”, but the younger demographic of BookTok may mean that new audiences are coming to even such established authors. It also makes startlingly clear how much BookTok and its creators are tastemakers who are shaping what and how young people read. As some creators themselves have said, BookTok favours “convincing you to read books based on their aesthetics”.

Read more in Daily Maverick: TikTok bans: what the evidence says about security and privacy concerns

This might appear to be a shallow way to read, but it is clearly very compelling, especially for a generation for whom countercultures have given way to microtrends and niche aesthetic identities.

Young people are no longer punks, hippies or goths, but instead dress with a “cottagecore” or “dark academia” aesthetic. Identity and aesthetics are potent tools that BookTok uses to drive views, enthusiasm and sales – even if the latter isn’t the creators’ explicit aim. BookTok encourages people to identify as “readers” rather than simply to read – indeed, to identify as specific kinds of reader such as “romance readers” or “fantasy readers”.

The constant supply of new content, book releases and ways to show yourself to be a reader – all displayed in visually compelling snippets – means that BookTok’s impact on what young people are reading is uniquely powerful. DM

First published by The Conversation.

Natalie Wall has a PhD in English literature from the University of Liverpool. This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

DM168 front page 14 October

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