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BookTok: The Renaissance or the Ruin of the Publishing Industry?

“BookTok”, TikTok’s reading community, has greatly impacted the publishing industry. But could certain aspects of the community also be contributing to the publishing industry’s downfall?

Blurry picture of a girl walking by a wall-length bookshelf, meant to represent the BookTok community.
Credit: Unsplash/Bree Anne

With the help of the phenomenon known as “BookTok”, the reading community that thrives on TikTok, the popularity of reading has skyrocketed, especially amongst young people. However, concerns arise on whether BookTok is also responsible for the ruination of fiction.

Some people love it. Some people, not so much. BookTok has been a blessing to the publishing industry. But has it also been a curse? Read on to find out.

A Faithful Flourish

While a small bookish community likely lingered on TikTok since the app’s creation, the “BookTok” community as we know it today did not come about until 2020 during the Coronavirus Pandemic. Still, BookTok, in its early days, was nothing more than a small community of readers making videos with passionate recommendations of their favorite books. 

Many of these recommendations focused on the young adult fantasy genre. The reason for this? My theory is the escapism and comforting familiarity that comes with the genre, and how it contrasted with the pandemic. What better way to escape the scary, uncertain real world than to dive into a new one where the characters are also facing high stakes, but (usually) always end up okay in the end. 

With quarantines and social distancing, people had nothing but time on their hands. People finally had the time and the patience to read. In fact, many people who loved to read when they were younger stumbled upon these book recommendation videos and fell in love with reading again.

The BookTok community picked up traction, and in turn, so did the publishing industry. As I see it, reading became “cool” again. And with this new demand for books, the publishing industry, an industry previously thought to be failing, began to flourish.

Repetitive Recs

Despite the unquestionable effects BookTok has had on saving the book publishing industry with younger audiences, an issue has become apparent with the books that are often promoted on the app. The issue? It seems BookTok continuously recommends the same handful of books and authors.

Look for yourself. If you type “romance book recs” or “fantasy book recs” into the TikTok search bar, you’re guaranteed to see many of the same books across different videos.

Nowadays, even bookstores are jumping onto the BookTok bandwagon, with entire shelves devoted to selling TikTok’s most popular book recommendations.

TikTok, with its personalized algorithm, is the perfect platform for products to go viral. Especially with the opinions and passionate advocacy promoting books needs, it is quite easy for a book to gain popularity once people begin jumping on the bandwagon.

On TikTok, books can go viral overnight. Take Fourth Wing by Rebecca Yarros. Though Yarros had written many romance books before, she had never before published a fantasy book until Fourth Wing. In 2023, Fourth Wing blew up on TikTok, Yarros has a five book deal for the series, and Amazon has made a deal to adapt it into a TV show. Fourth Wing currently has an exceptional 4.62/5 Goodreads rating. According to Time, the sequel, Iron Flame, that was just released in November 2023, received well over 2000 reviews on Goodreads not even 24 hours after its release.

While this sort of popularity is life-changing for some authors, it can also be a hindrance for others. BookTok harks on exclusive authors and books. It can be difficult for less known authors and books to gain traction.

BookTok’s Trendy Tropes

One of the most popular way of recommending books on BookTok is through the use of literary tropes. Some of BookTok’s favorites include things like “enemies to lovers”, “fake dating”, and “found family”, to name a few. Take user @xcosy.readsx’s video for instance:

Tropes, inherently, are not a bad idea. They give readers a sense of what they are getting into. Simply, people know what they like and don’t like. Recommending books based on the specific tropes they contain allows readers to easily choose what books they would be more interested in reading based on what they know they like.

However, tropes, to me, also pose a bit of an issue. Recommending books solely based on the tropes they contain diminishes those books into nothing but a fit category. It completely disregards other important aspects of the book, such as themes, character development, world-building, and language.

I am not completely against the use of tropes. I think they can act as a useful tool. Personally, I find book recommendations most helpful when they not only include some of the tropes in the book, but also mention the book’s plot and themes that can be expected.

Ambiguous Advertisement

One of the most dangerous things about BookTok is a fact that is synonymous with the entirety of the Internet: anyone can access virtually anything. In the same sense, anyone, at any age, can find themselves on the BookTok community. Even children.

Oftentimes, BookTok book recommendations do not provide the age recommendation for the books. Also, when a book goes viral on TikTok, the actual content of the book is typically quite ambiguous. This makes it exceptionally easy for susceptible young readers to pick up a title that is not suitable for them.

Book Cover of A Little Life by Hanya Yanagirhara. The cover has a black and white photograph of a man with a pained look on his face.
The intense mature contents of the viral A Little Life is dangerous for young readers. Credit: Barnes & Noble.

Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life is a prime example of the danger of the ambiguous advertisement that goes down on TikTok. A Little Life is often included in book recommendation videos marketing “sad books”. However, what many of these recommenders fail to mention is that this book is brimming with very mature, triggering topics and themes. Some reviewers have even gone so far as to call it “trauma porn” in that the book’s only purpose is to get off on the characters’ suffering.

User @livsliteratures, a young adult, voices her regrets about reading A Little Life. Notably, she emphasizes how damaging the book was to her mental health.

Many older readers on BookTok have voiced their regrets about reading this book, as all they knew was that it was extremely sad, and it turned out to be so much more. Many also find fault in the fact that there is no list at the beginning of the book to warn readers about the triggering topics that the book contains.

Additionally, BookTok recently has had an obsession with books with “spicy books”, or books with graphic sexual material. There also has recently been a trend of “dark romance“, which are romance novels built around taboo subjects such as kidnapping, stalking, and abuse.

While this content obviously is fine for older readers to consume, these mature subjects are appropriate for younger readers. Children’s minds are still developing, and they are very susceptible to the media that they consume. With the growing popularity of spicy and dark romance books, young readers may not realize that they are too young for these subjects. Children especially will want to jump on the popularity bandwagon. Therefore, it is imperative that book recommenders on TikTok appropriately advertise mature books.

Low-Quality Literature

Another concern with the viral books on TikTok is the quality of the writing. This goes hand in hand with the speed at which authors produce books nowadays.

Colleen Hoover, one of BookTok’s biggest stars, often falls victim to this concern. Since her writing career began in 2012, Hoover has published 26 books. In 2020 alone, Colleen Hoover has published 6 books. It usually takes authors several years to write one.

While many people love Hoover’s books, there are also many people who are starkly against her and her writing. To many, Hoover’s writing is not only cheap but also repetitive. It is also greatly problematic.

Some people even believe authors are now just writing books for a cash grab. Some have even gone so far to say social media has made the publishing industry into “fast fashion“. The faster authors produce books, the faster money can be made.

Perhaps this is an explanation for why many books today seem low quality. As fun, as a lighthearted read can be from time to time, it is not always what readers need. However, BookTok may be to blame for this.

Books without substantial plot and character development are taking the reins in the literary sphere. It seems that many viral books are books that are easy to read. Books that follow certain tropes are books that authors and publishers know will sell.

Has the era of real stories come to an end? Or does the sensationalization social media causes just prevent them from being recognized?

BookTok has been both a blessing and a curse to readers and the publishing industry alike. I can only hope that it will turn around and prove to be more of a blessing in the future.

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