Thu. Nov 24th, 2022

BookTok, a moniker for TikTok videos where books are discussed, analyzed, cried and turned into “aesthetic” mood boards, started as a small group of app users who wanted a place to talk about books. Since then, it has grown into an extremely influential community that has the power to bring authors out of relative obscurity and propel them onto the bestseller lists.

Earlier this month, she was named FutureBook Person of the Year, an award that recognizes digital innovation and excellence in bookselling. According to James Stafford, head of partnerships and community at TikTok, BookTok is a community of “creative people around the world with a shared passion for literature.” Publishers, creators and writers generally agreed that this corner of the platform had an extremely positive effect, leading to a huge increase in book sales and the discovery of new writers. Bookseller even recently called it “the last safe place on the Internet”.

But BookTok wasn’t always a force for good. Many of the app’s users promoted digital book piracy through Z-Library, a popular “shadow library,” before it was taken down by the FBI earlier this month. And not everyone in the book industry agrees that BookTok is “safe.”

Stephanie Tubbritt, a bookseller based in London, noted at thread on Twitter last week that the way books are recommended on the platform leaves young readers vulnerable to explicit, inappropriate content. “More needs to be done to ensure that minors and their guardians are aware of the content of popular books,” she wrote on Twitter. Tubbritt believes that “no place on the Internet is a safe place” and feels that calling BookTok a “safe place” fails to acknowledge the “inherent problems” it causes.

Meanwhile, as publishers strike deals with both TikTok and its creators, many BookTok users feel their “safe” space is becoming too industry-driven. For example, this summer some of the app’s reviewers were given advance-reading copies of Alex Aster’s Lightlark, a novel accepted by publishers after the success of a homemade book trailer the author posted on TikTok. As BuzzFeed reported at the time, reviews were mixed, with readers accusing Aster of being, among other things, an industrial factory and misrepresenting the book’s content through its videos.

Then in September, TikTok announced a partnership with Penguin Random House. A new feature in the app allows creators to link to books in their videos, automatically creating playlists that highlight other videos about the book. Reactions in the community were mixed. While British content creator and writer Dakota Warren thinks “the way they’ve gone about it is really smart,” as it “provides a simple, accessible way to quickly learn more about the books people want to read,” another anonymous creator described the feature as “free marketing”.

“Where’s the creator commission?” they asked. Stafford claims the feature “rewards creators who make a real-world impact on book sales” and provides “great visibility.” Penguin Random House could not be reached for comment.

BookTok started as a “properly authentic movement,” says Anna Boatman, publisher of Little, Brown. Has the attention – and money pouring into the platform – changed that? Opinions are divided among the creators. Madi Lim, a US-based creator with 59,700 followers, says “the base of it is still the same,” but notes that creators are now aware that they can monetize their content. She says it can “put you in a weird position, where [some creators] promote books they’ve never read.”

Shae’Loren Deering, a creator with fewer followers, disagrees. “I haven’t noticed a shift in BookTok. I hope that if there is a shift, it will result in more authors from marginalized backgrounds getting more attention,” she says.

Paid partnerships are becoming more common among larger creators. “When I started BookTok, I never saw sponsored posts from book authors,” recalls BookToker Kevin T Norman. Another creator, who wished to remain anonymous, said that less than two years ago they were getting £300-£400 per video and now they are charging up to £8,000 for two videos.

Norman is pleased that “book influencers are being compensated and taken seriously.” But Sana Goyal, reviews editor at Wasafiri magazine, is skeptical. “Publishers offering creators [money] it’s like publishers are offering critics the same,” she says. “Reviews backed by monetary power, pressure and influence certainly cannot be authentic.”

At Little, Brown, Boatman says the goal is to be “careful and curated” when engaging in paid partnerships or sending books to creators. “Authenticity is the foundation of what is made [BookTok] so special,” she says. Norman agrees: He says he “mostly” has “a lot of creative freedom” when putting together paid content.

By Alex Aster.
Author Alex Aster, who has been accused by some readers of misrepresenting her book, Lightlark, via a TikTok video. Photo: Jennifer Trahan

The way books are talked about – or marketed – on the platform is both the cause of the community’s success and, according to some, its pitfall. Aster’s viral video followed a typical trend where images meant to connote the novel’s “aesthetics” were flashed on the screen. When the initial reviews came in, this video was criticized as misleading. “I was promised the POC Hunger Games [sic] dark fantasy. I got NOTHING out of it” was one verdict.

Aster denies these accusations. “The early scenes I shared are all in the series in some capacity – either exactly as I posted them or with edited text,” she says. Aster also said she felt it was important to “bring [her] followers together [on her] the way to publishing [the] a book.”

However, her presence on the platform as a creator has divided opinion. Deering says she enjoys seeing creators active on TikTok, but Lim thinks there’s a “weird feeling that the creator has a direct connection to whatever opinion you have of them.”

Boatman says that Little, Brown authors often ask if they should be on TikTok. “I tend to say only if it’s something that you’re completely comfortable with,” she says, noting that there are authors whose books have been “incredibly successful” on the platform without being there themselves.

As for whether the publishers actually “planted” certain authors into the app, Boatman thinks it’s highly unlikely. “We’re pretty busy,” he laughs. An industrial plant “would require serious long-term planning.”

However, despite the controversy surrounding it, BookTok is still, at its core, a place for people who love reading and books. TikTok’s Stafford praises the community’s “unapologetic passion,” and creators like Lim, Norman, and Deering note that BookTok has allowed them to read more while feeling represented.

Boatman sees BookTokers as “astute” critics. “There are always books that as an editor you love, but you don’t have the support you would like,” she says. “It was a pleasure to see the books suddenly ‘zoom’.”

“The more people share and talk, the more individuals can be represented from groups that weren’t—and aren’t—represented,” says Deering. “The younger me would absolutely fall in love.”