BookTok is Good, Actually: On the Undersung Joys of a Vast and Multifarious Platform
Leigh Stein Wonders Why More Book People Don’t Embrace the Publishing Juggernaut
Shallow, fake, showy, and performative—these are a few of the adjectives used to describe BookTok, the corner of TikTok where young women share and discuss books on camera, by drive-by tourists to a culture they don’t understand.
I’m no BookTok tourist. I’ve lived here for nine months. As a chronically online millennial, I’ve become a translator between the readers on BookTok and the literary community that looks down upon them. On TikTok, I post a video about Mary Ruefle that gets forty thousand views and yields comments like: “this just gave a whole new perspective on my entire existence.”
In a banquet room in South Carolina, I’m giving the keynote speech at a writing conference. To inspire the audience, I tell the Cinderella story of Colleen Hoover, the bestselling author in America. Three days before my speech, her novel It Starts with Us sold 800,000 copies on release day. There are 120 writers in the room; only one has heard of Hoover.
It’s a little lonely over here. I’ve been baffled by why my esteemed colleagues, who gather in the thousands at AWP to kvetch about how hard it is to make a living as a writer, are so incurious about the place on the internet where readers are buying a metric fuckton of books.
Because it’s the “same 20 books over and over,” bestselling novelist Stephanie Danler sighs in Bustle, in a piece about her failed attempt to become a popular girl on BookTok.
“There was just something about watching the same twenty books being flaunted again and again,” former BookTuber Barry Pierce moans in GQ.
When I ask Satoria Ray, a 26-year-old creator, how she would respond to the claim that BookTok only flaunts the same twenty books, she says, “I would say that’s someone who has probably been on BookTok for a day.”
We’re on the fourth floor of the Union Square Barnes & Noble in Manhattan for their first-ever BookTok Festival. Tickets to the event sold out in two days. Ray is waiting patiently in line with at least fifty other women, who queued up before 10 AM to get first access to the tables where publishers including Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Hachette, and Sourcebooks are giving away swag and coveted advance reader copies. Some fans have brought rolling suitcases for the haul.
“I don’t think that any of us in this room are on the same BookTok,” Ray tells me.
Although the Barnes & Noble event caters to fans of romance and fantasy, BookTok is vast and multifarious. The community is a constellation of fandoms. There are fandoms around authors (Ottessa Moshfegh, Sally Rooney, Elif Batuman); identity tags (Sapphic lit; Black romance); feelings (saddest books I’ve ever read); vibes (dark academia; dark romance). For every bestselling BookTok title, you can find a hundred videos from creators telling you it’s overhyped—and recommending something else to read instead.
The hype, and the backlash to that hype, have helped to make BookTok into the most powerful word-of-mouth engine the book publishing industry has ever seen. According to Publishers Lunch, the top 90 BookTok authors saw their cumulative sales go from nine million units in 2020 to 20 million in 2021. Overall, 2022 print book sales were slightly down from 2021, but are still ahead of 2019; adult fiction sales in 2022 outperformed every other category.
By 10:30 AM, twenty-two-year-old Molly Mathes is sitting on the floor, inside a walled garden she’s built of tote bags stuffed with ARCs.
“I didn’t even realize we got free books,” she confesses. “I just came to see the panel.”
“What’s the best ARC you got?”
“Yellowface by R.F. Kuang.” This satirical thriller, about diversity and cultural appropriation in the publishing industry, doesn’t come out until May 16.
Mathes lives in Albany, three hours away. In between graduating college and starting her first full-time job, BookTok made her a voracious reader. This is the first book event she’s ever attended.
“So what time did you get on the train this morning?”
While outsiders perceive BookTok as a contraction or reduction of books and ideas to what “performs” best in a visual medium engineered by Chinese geniuses to destroy our attention spans, fans tell me that being on BookTok has expanded their horizons as readers.
Elvir Belardi, a college senior with 30,000 followers on TikTok, describes the BookTok community as “a place to learn new things and expand your reading tastes.” The audio and visual trends, or memes, that may appear derivative and repetitive to newcomers to the platform actually “introduce you to a lot of new books and ideas.”
Belardi has spent the past two-and-a-half years creating content around books; when he graduates from college this spring, he plans to leverage his fluency in TikTok into a career in book publishing. Multiple literary agents have already shown interest in his work. Describing his success on TikTok, he sounds like a stunned lottery winner who can’t believe he picked the lucky number.
Madison Fairbanks, a sixty-something professional from Chicago, also credits BookTok with exposing her to a subgenre (dark romance) she wouldn’t have otherwise picked up. Because she reads between 250 and 350 romance novels each year, and travels to book events once a month, the appeal of the Barnes & Noble event was not the authors but the ARCs.
I arrive forty-five minutes early to the 2 PM romance panel with Tessa Bailey, Ana Huang, Kennedy Ryan, and Melissa Blair, moderated by the charismatic YA author Ryan La Sala (he has 25,000 followers on TikTok). Blair, an Anishinaabe-kwe of mixed ancestry, originally started creating content on BookTok to showcase indigenous authors. In December 2021, she self-published her first novel A Broken Blade anonymously and created a campaign around the launch that invited BookTok creators to solve the mystery: “Unmask me if you can.” The campaign went viral; Union Square picked up the series; the second title, A Shadow Crown, comes out in May.
Tessa Bailey, the author of 49 novels and five novellas (you can download a book checklist from her website to keep track), has been dubbed “the Michelangelo of dirty talk” by Entertainment Weekly.
La Sala asks her about the secret to writing steamy dialogue.
“When you’re in those moments, all the things that you are can be stripped away: your profession and what you are to your family…” Bailey explains. “And all you are in that moment is a vessel seeking pleasure. And I think that’s so sexy.”
A vessel seeking pleasure: as Bailey is speaking, I realize she could be describing every reader in this bookstore. She could be describing me. When we read fiction, we’re no longer our workplace nametags, our email addresses, the emergency contact number on the school form. Our lives are hard enough. Readers are vessels seeking pleasure.When I scroll TikTok, I see creativity, joy, pleasure, energy, and a contagious enthusiasm for books.
“I love the comfort of having a happily ever after in the end,” Ana Huang, who writes steamy New Adult, says. “No matter how much angst, or how many dark times these characters go through, it always ends on a note of hope.”
It should come as no surprise that sales of romance novels exploded during the pandemic and show no sign of slowing down: romance was the bestselling genre of 2022, according to NPD BookScan, and print sales of romance were up 52.4% over 2021 (as reported in the 2/1/23 edition of Jane Friedman’s newsletter).
“Romance is the only genre where we as women are the absolute authority,” Kennedy Ryan, a former journalist who now writes romance novels threaded with social justice themes, says to a round of applause.
BookTok has become the gathering place for readers who know what they want. They aren’t seeking the approval of New Yorker subscribers—they have the same tote bag you do—and they aren’t apologizing for what they like.
In her book Everything I Need I Get from You: How Fangirls Created the Internet as We Know It, Kaitlyn Tiffany shines a light on the role young women have played through internet fandoms over the last 30 years. “Though early internet fandom was invite-only and near exclusive to well-paid white men,” she writes, “it was also the first evidence of a pattern. Fans became, almost as a rule, the first to adopt new platforms and to invent new features of the internet—a habit molded by the fact that they were the people with the most obvious incentive to do so.”
Referencing Nancy Kaplan and Eva Farrell’s 1994 ethnography of “young women on the net,” Tiffany writes that they found that teenage girls “had no professional reason to be online, and so it was only their ‘desires’ that brought them there.” In contrast to the men who were early adopters, girls were there to make connections, rather than share information.
I spent last summer studying abroad on BookTok, after I found out that My Year of Rest and Relaxation was one of the novels that became a viral sensation on the platform. I’d used this book as a comp for selling my own satire of girlboss excess and narcissism, Self Care, and I set to find the MYORAR fans and send them copies of my book. Then I started creating my own content. My first video to go viral was about the MYORAR fandom.
When I scroll TikTok, I see creativity, joy, pleasure, energy, and a contagious enthusiasm for books.
When I scroll past millennial and gen X writers on Twitter or Instagram, I see the symptoms of major depressive disorder: fatigue and feelings of worthlessness, irritability, lack of pleasure. More than see it—I feel it. I’m there.
Our careers have not turned out as expected. We thought we could model our paths to success after our idols—Joan Didion and Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison and Nora Ephron—by persevering, saying the thing others were unwilling to say, publishing books that mattered, hitting the Hollywood jackpot at least once. We thought if we stayed in the game long enough, we could have both prestige and an apartment big enough to throw dinner parties.
But the last twenty years of tech have fundamentally changed how authors (and other artists) make names for themselves and earn their livings. I’m thirty-eight years old and the secret to my success is that I don’t have any children: I can work seven days a week whenever I want to!
And now I’m telling you that you have to pay attention to TikTok?
For the writers who still haven’t received the life-changing book advance, or the TV series adaptation, or the tenure-track teaching job, or the award that comes with prize money, or the other forms of prestige and influence that could offer some compensation for feeling broke and unappreciated, maybe you can sleep at night because you tell yourself at least you have good taste. Standards. You know what literature is. Giving pleasure to readers is not on your to-do list. No happy endings. Your work is much more important. And that’s fine.
If you need me, I’ll be over here, playing in the fangirl kingdom.