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What Is #Booktok?

Heidi Thorne is a self-publishing advocate and author of nonfiction books, eBooks, and audiobooks. She is a former trade newspaper editor.


I’ve been on TikTok since 2019. And though it may have started out that way, no—it’s not all kids doing lip-sync and dance videos. While the TikTok audience still skews younger, it is not limited to that demographic and subject matter. I am a Baby Boomer and have found many people of my own Baby Boomer age group—and older!

Now it’s a full-fledged short video content sharing social network for all ages, covering every imaginable topic and genre, including a large book hashtag community called #booktok.

What Do People Do on #Booktok?

On #booktok, readers share their short video reviews of books, as well as other discussions about book-related topics. For example, readers may share their views on diversity issues in books.

Why the Publishing Industry Is Paying Attention to #booktok

The publishing industry is now paying attention to #booktok. Bookstores even now feature #booktok displays of books trending in that community. A New York Times article from March 2021 notes that there are no similar bookstore display tables for Twitter or Instagram because those social networks can't seem to make sales of books like TikTok does (How Crying on TikTok Sells Books, March 20, 2021). Contrast this with the director of books at Barnes & Noble, who was quoted as saying TikTok moves tens of thousands of book copies a month.

Case in point: Grammy-winning musician Billie Eilish, who has millions of followers on Instagram and Twitter, has authored a book. Did you even know she had a book? As reported in a New York Times article, the self-titled book sold just 64 thousand copies (Millions of Followers? For Book Sales, 'It's Unreliable,' December 7, 2021). Not a resounding success for the publisher, despite her massive social audience and popularity.

Considering how many followers she has on Instagram and Twitter, that's not even close to my 1 percent rule of thumb for book sales from your engaged fans. But that's the problem. Many of those who follow her may not be engaged fans.

Though not discussed in the Times article about her book, I should note that Eilish has tens of millions of followers on TikTok, but she's barely active on the network. Of course, her posts have millions of views and up to hundreds of thousands of likes. But she has not posted about her book, published in May 2021. As I've talked about, it's all about engagement. One could barely expect Eilish to engage personally with her fans, given her superstar status.

#Booktok doesn't succeed because the author is engaging with the audience. #Booktok succeeds in driving sales because people are engaging in discussions with each other. There's the difference. Publishers have so far mistaken vanity social metrics for engagement.

#Booktok doesn’t succeed because the author is engaging with the audience. #Booktok succeeds in driving sales because people are engaging in discussions with each other.

— Heidi Thorne

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#Bootok Backlist Bump

The surprising thing for both publishers and authors is that #booktok discussions and reviews are not just about the latest best-selling books. #booktok has the power to move backlist titles.

One of the New York Times articles mentioned also highlighted an author who was surprised and confused to see her 2014 book move to best-seller status in the summer of 2020. Her kids had to clue her in that it was because of TikTok. Books even older than that are also seeing surprise bumps in sales.

How Influencers Could Ruin #Booktok

So now that publishers have discovered what is driving these unexpected sales, they’re seeking to capitalize on it. This is both good and bad. Publishers are now reaching out to #booktok influencers, offering them free books to review or even paying them to read and review.

While that can provide a monetary benefit to those TikTok influencers, it also ruins the organic nature of #booktok. Readers have been swayed into buying copies of new and old books because of the genuine #booktok reviews they’ve watched. Will readers now have less trust in these reviews?

I’m going to take a bit of a detour and share why paid influencers could ruin #booktok’s success. In the earlier days of social media, I was very active in multiple Twitter hashtag communities. For one of them called SOBCon, an influential community of thought leaders and authors led by early social media icon Liz Strauss, I served as chat co-moderator and helped with a few live events for the community.

After one of the live events, Liz and I shared a cab ride back to the airport. With her big influence and following in the social world, I had to ask her if and how she monetized it. Her wise and terse answer was, “I don’t monetize my relationships.” End of discussion. I never forgot that.

Sure, we may gain business from people we meet in the social world. But once we start monetizing it, it changes the dynamics of our relationships on social and can decrease the element of trust.

How Does #Booktok Apply to Self-Publishing?

I don’t mean to suggest that authors and publishers shouldn’t give ARC (advanced reader copies) or review copies to potential reviewers on #booktok or elsewhere. This is a common and ethical practice that’s been in place for many, many years with newspaper book columnists and editors of the past. Certainly, reach out to #booktok reviewers who seem like a good fit for your book.

What I’m cautioning against is coercing these reviews. Invite to review, share your new or backlist books with those that accept, then let go.

In your own TikTok posts about your book, definitely use the #booktok hashtag, along with other topic and genre hashtags that apply to your books. But don’t just do “buy my book” posts. Be a good #booktok community member and share your reviews and thoughts about books you read.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2022 Heidi Thorne

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