The BookTok Effect

The BookTok effect: How social media influences book marketing

by Olga Bialasik

Since the rise of social media, industries have taken advantage of its marketing potential and the internationality it affords businesses. The publishing industry is no different. For book publishers and authors, it’s a chance to boost sales through a higher global reach and to connect with enthusiastic audiences. For readers, it’s an opportunity to create communities online based on similar interests and to share favourite books.

While Twitter and Instagram are far from new, TikTok’s huge surge in popularity in 2019 and 2020—reaching over one billion users this year—has caused a shift in how social media affects the book publishing world. Publishers rely more than ever on BookTokers to market their products. These influencers, predominantly young women, are eager to recommend their favourite books, posting content such as “if you like this novel, check out this list” or creating aesthetics, moodboards, and playlists to set the tone for a specific read.

One major promotional tactic is the listing of favourite tropes (often romance-related ones) and which books you might find them in; “enemies to lovers”, “found family”, “fake dating”, and “slow burn” are exceptionally popular, although not new at all, as they gained traction among fanfiction circles many years ago.

Publishers and authors are following suit. Ali Hazelwood’s The Love Hypothesis recently came under scrutiny for being marketed entirely based on the tropes it includes, rather than the plot. Hazelwood herself admitted that when she struggles to come up with new ideas, her agent tells her what she would like to see, so she can string tropes together into a book.

As you can imagine, writers were divided on this—we all suffer from writer’s block now and then, but does this make it even more difficult for unagented and non-mainstream authors to get their work published? “#BookTok Made Me Buy It” tables in bookshops are only curated for the spare few that are lucky enough to go viral.

This substitution of synopses for tropes has readers conflicted as well. On the one hand, older books (or should we say, pre-BookTok books), from Dracula (1897) to The Song of Achilles (2011), have been brought back into the mainstream; bookworms can use the platform’s algorithm to find niche communities and genres, such as Russian literature and surrealism; importantly, marginalised readers’ and authors’ voices are uplifted, exposing the majority to narratives they might not have otherwise considered; and if you look hard enough, you can find some underrated gems.

On the other hand, many of the aforementioned voices are easy to drown out when the books BookTok popularises are already popular outside of the platform, due to a great marketing campaign and a lot of industry backing. In a world where white authors like Ali Hazelwood can be fed tropes to build books like Legos that will fit into a trending formula, how much hope do racialised, LGBTQ+, disabled, and otherwise underrepresented writers who draw their own inspiration from the world around them have, when the industry is still so biased? And what good are tropes when promoting nonfiction and poetry books?

Whichever side you stand on, it’s undeniable that many readers now trust BookTokers and Bookstagrammers more than professional reviewers and book critics. Which do you prefer: Bookstagram, BookTok, or perhaps another option such as BookTube?

Let us know on Twitter or Instagram—and make sure to follow us on TikTok, too!