How TikTok made reading fun again

hand holding smartphone taking photo of books on a shelf
They may seem like strange bedfellows, but TikTok — thanks to the power of #BookTok — is helping books get in vogue for Generation Z. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

“This one right here was a great escape, could not put it down,” wrote Rachel Vogel, a business and psychology student at Northeastern, in a TikTok post featuring the novel “The Midnight Library” by Matt Haig. 

In the video, Vogel flips through the book, showing off her favorite parts, which are highlighted and marked with Post-It notes.

The post has over 400 views. But it’s only a small part of a surprising TikTok trend that has amassed over 68 billion. Thanks to TikTok users posting reviews of their favorite books with the hashtag #BookTok, a crop of books has skyrocketed in popularity, and some Gen Zers are discovering that reading can be fun.

“It’s definitely influencing the titles that are bought. It’s a quick way to get titles out there,” says Katherine Nazzaro, manager of the Porter Square Books’ Boston location, on the #BookTok phenomenon. 

She points out that the independent bestsellers table at its Cambridge location mostly features books that went viral thanks to #BookTok. 

“We’ve seen things blow up on TikTok,” Nazzaro says. 

Some of these books have “blown up” in unexpected ways. Colleen Hoover’s romance novel “It Ends with Us” was published in 2016, but it’s seen a surge in popularity in the past two years thanks to #BookTok, and has been on the New York Times Bestseller list for the past 59 weeks. Now, it stands at number two, and the third, fourth and sixth books on the list are other Hoover books. Books popularized by #BookTok take up the top three spots on the young adult fiction list for August.

For books like “It Ends With Us” to succeed so long after publication, “that’s unheard of,” says Jenn Watson, owner of Social Butterfly PR, which manages marketing and public relations for independent and traditionally published authors. In her role, Watson works with Colleen Hoover along with the small publishing company Blue Box Press. Watson has noticed the revival of older novels thanks to #BookTok, including works that were published as early as 2011. Of the 22 books listed in Business Insider’s top #BookTok books, 11 of them were first published before 2017.

“TikTok is definitely what drove that,” Watson says.

She experienced this firsthand when the 2020 Blue Box Press novel “From Blood and Ash” surged in sales after TikTok users posted about it. “We knew it would be popular,” she says. “It was a great story; [author Jennifer Armentrout] has a really great fanbase. But I don’t think any of us really could foresee how much TikTok pushed this series.” 

Watson notes that the publication of sequels and the release of movie adaptations drive sales as well. The film debut of “Where the Crawdads Sing” caused a surge, and the Madeline Miller book “Song of Achilles” may have risen in popularity because of the publication of Miller’s follow-up, “Circe.” 

headshot of yakov bart
Yakov Bart Associate Professor, D’Amore-McKim School of Business. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

But in some cases, TikTok was clearly the main driver. A book called “Cain’s Jawbone” was first published in the 1930s, and was out of print until “one person made a TikTok about it … and it came back into print. “It’s from a very small press and they had to print so many more copies,” Nazzaro says. 

Other book sellers and marketers have noticed the trend and are using it to their advantage. For example, if you go to a Barnes and Noble store, you might see a #BookTok display table somewhere.

“We do carry a lot of recent titles due to students coming in asking about books,” says Grace Hemmingstad, assistant department manager at the Northeastern University Boston campus bookstore, which is run by Barnes and Noble and features a #BookTok table. “I have noticed that the table has gotten some traction,” she says.

Watson, for her part, sends books to #BookTok influencers to encourage them to review them and calls TikTok a “really powerful tool” for promotion—if a surprising one.
Admittedly, “It’s a bit of a mismatch” to market books on TikTok, says Yakov Bart, associate professor of marketing at Northeastern. He notes that while books take commitment and focus, “TikTok stands for completely the opposite.” Its short, easy-to-digest videos are meant to keep users hooked, and it succeeds thanks to a shockingly good algorithm that shows users content that will keep them watching.

But the short attention span that TikTok encourages might actually be an advantage for marketing. “It’s giving the reader a very clear look at what they’re going to get from that book in a very short amount of time,” Watson says. She says that, as a marketer, she only has three to seven seconds to grab someone’s attention; this makes TikTok a great platform for advertising. It was unexpected, but TikTok “turned out to be a really fantastic medium for promoting a book.”

TikTok tends to attract a younger audience; for Watson, she considers 25-35 as the primary TikTok age group, and 35-60 for Instagram and Facebook. “At the end of the day it’s all about where your customers are,” Bart says. “It’s all about which media channels you can reach your target segment.” 

But the most powerful kind of promotion on TikTok doesn’t involve marketers, and it’s absolutely free. As Watson notes, authors might create videos about their books, but readers are the biggest drivers of #BookTok content. The large response is likely due to consumers’ willingness to trust another user rather than a company, she says. 

“It’s seen as a little bit more legitimate and organic when it’s coming from another reader,” she says. “It’s definitely word of mouth that fuels this because readers trust other readers.” When Hemmingstad, who uses #BookTok to get recommendations for new reads, was asked what accounts she gets them from, she says, “someone I trust.”

In this way, getting book recommendations from TikTok is not that much different from word-of-mouth promotion. “I think it’s just a new way for people to discover a book,” Nazzaro says. There have always been booms, and this is just another one, though it’s “a smaller percentage than you’d think” when it comes to sales.

To what can we attribute the current boom? As it turns out, Vogel’s post about “a great escape” may be a clue. Escapism is certainly one component that is driving TikTok users to books, according to Watson. “The last few years have been not great for a lot of people,” she says. Isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic may have made TikTok’s user numbers rise (though it was already growing), and it may have also caused young people to want to fantasize about other worlds. “It has made readers want to escape into a different reality versus the one that we live in,” she says.

That may explain why book sales are being driven by young users talking about how the books made them feel, more so than the content of the book itself. “TikTok is a platform where we see the communication presented in an emotional way,” Bart says. For Hemmingstad, the most helpful reviews are from “someone going into the plot and what a powerful story something might be.”

Sydney Armini, a high school junior and daughter of Northeastern’s senior vice president for external affairs, says the emotion that drew her to reading is joy. She used to be primarily a TV watcher and found reading to be a chore, something she had to do for school. “I would really only read books when I was required to,” she says. But TikTok has changed that. “Now I’ve ordered like three books over the past three days,” she says. 

Now that nobody’s telling her to read, she gets to do it—and to talk with her friends about it—just for fun. “It’s shifted the way I thought about reading,” she says. 

Thanks to TikTok’s algorithm, it’s easy to find books that fit your interests, Armini says. She’s nearly finished with Hoover’s book, and has already ordered her next one.

“It’s all because of TikTok,” she says.

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