Open Book and Word on the Street have partnered this year to bring new and innovative content to our readers and patrons. In an effort to share the ideas and experiences of a wider range of people in the literary community, we are embarking on a three-part series to publish columns by book bloggers who have already built a robust audience on social media and elsewhere, and who routinely share new and exciting books with their fans and followers. Join us as we discover new works, and new ways of exploring literature.
The first time I was sent a Tiktok, I distinctly remember thinking: I’m too old for this.
Over time, boredom won and intrigue grew. I quickly went from rejecting the idea of ever downloading the app to my phone, to spending almost all of my screen time on Tiktok. An unexpected blackhole I did not anticipate falling into led me to new projects and hobbies, but most importantly, it led me to new books.
Tiktok is commonly misconstrued as being a mobile app dedicated to juvenile music videos, but regular users can attest to its ability to sell out clothing brands, put songs at the top of the charts, and bring back any trend seemingly overnight. Compared to other social networking platforms where users must post consistently, tag accordingly and build a following over time, Tiktok users can jump from zero followers to several thousand in just a few hours. In fact, this is the most common way Tiktok users become famous: instantly.
In recent years I’ve seen a push away from conventional celebrity culture. Pivoting hard from the highbrow crowd, today’s consumers, including myself, are all about transparency and relatability. Social media has become a prominent way of marketing and advertising everything, including books. Thus, an online book community was formed.
If you’re like me, you might know the book community as one that flourished in online spaces like Goodreads and YouTube, with but as new platforms emerge over time, we’ve seen a shift to Instagram and more recently, Tiktok. BookTok is a relatively new revelation. As opposed to the ten-to-fifteen minute haul videos with full reviews, BookTok is centered around quick videos spanning 30 seconds to 1-minute each. In these, you’ll see a handful of books sorted by category from genre, cover colour to even a general ‘aesthetic’ of the book’s plot and characters. Users are able to ‘like’ and ‘save’ these videos for later, making adding recommended books to their list as easy as tapping and holding their phone screen.
Videos with themes like “books that made me cry at 3am” and “favourite dark academia books” or even “books with enemies to lovers arcs” are all ways younger readers are getting their recommendations. It’s simple and to-the-point, but most importantly, BookTok relies on an element of trust. Not yet infiltrated by corporations as heavily as platforms such as Instagram, Tiktok users develop a sense of understanding between user and poster. I found a sense of relief in finding new reads from a 16-year-old girl on Tiktok, as opposed to the posed and curated sponsored posts on YouTube and Instagram.
I think of Instagram as the picture perfect feed-envy, filled with models, jetsetters, and glorified abundance. While none of those relate to books in particular, the audience an app like Instagram generates doesn’t rely on it for honest and fruitful product recommendations. As a down-to-earth reader, I found myself instantly clicking with what Tiktok represents as a whole: the embarrassing, the niche, and the relatable. I’m attracted to the idea of people connecting over the gross predicament that is the human experience. Most Tiktok users who regularly use and enjoy the app follow a similar line of thinking. It attracts humour and transparency, leaving the tantalizing nature of other social media platforms behind. Where people find common ground, they also find trust, and so Tiktok’s ability to send sales on products through the roof overnight has become something of a phenomenon. The hitch is that it’s presented to users in a way that lets them in on a secret or a hidden gem, and since Tiktok is where people go to get a transparent opinion, sales skyrocket quickly.
The same can be said for the book lovers on Tiktok. Dubbed “BookTok” as a similar ode to “BookTube” and “Bookstagram,” this younger generation of readers have found a new way of connecting with each other and sharing stories they hold near and dear. Tiktok’s ability to generate buzz is quick and hard compared to any other online audience, and so a resurgence of backlist titles due to BookTok recommendations is a common occurrence. While the general users of the application are a generation down from those who grew up on exclusively YouTube and Goodreads, I think something like BookTok is current and likely to grow, especially as it allows for BookTok content creators to post videos consistently and often. Books are about engagement, and engagement is far easier to achieve on Tiktok than any of the book-related platforms we’ve seen to date.
For those my age and above, I think BookTok could leave much to be desired. Plenty of its content focuses on YA and similar genres, but it is undoubtedly what is influencing readership in newer generations. What’s left to see is how corporations will try to insert themselves into the audiences growing on Tiktok, and if so, what that will look like. Will it lose its appeal once major companies find a way to make their mark? If so, what will it come to look like and how will it alter what young readers decide to pick up? While I’m curious to see how time will answer these questions, for now I think more than anything, the best thing is to avoid resistance. BookTok is here to grow and stay, and as a book lover, I’ll be leaning into any positive online community that encourages young readers to open a book.
Ayesha Mumal is a Windsor-based publishing professional currently working in publicity at Penguin Random House Canada. She is also the Marketing & PR Manager for Augur Magazine, where she unites with her fellow speculative fiction fans. When she’s not reading she enjoys live music, travel, and now from the safety of her home, baking, specifically naming profiteroles as a personal specialty.