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How #BookTok is changing literature

TikTok is having an “unprecedented” impact on publishing, but is it shaping a new wave of fiction?

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

In September 2021, a marketing assistant at Sphere, an imprint of the publisher Little, Brown, was browsing TikTok. She noticed that a lot of users were posting videos about The Love Hypothesis by Ali Hazelwood, a romance novel about a PhD student who embarks on a fake relationship with a “hot young professor”. The novel was due to be published in the United States the following week, and some TikTok users on the corner of the video app known as “BookTok” had been sent early copies. They had read the book, loved it, and posted videos about it. And their enthusiasm was catching. 

The Sphere marketing assistant saw that #TheLoveHypothesis hashtag was getting a lot of views. The response of readers was “pretty intense”, said Darcy Nicholson, Sphere’s editorial director. Nicholson quickly learned that the book did not yet have a UK publisher. “I was in touch with the States and got hold of the manuscript on the Friday afternoon. We made our first offer on the Monday and we bought the book on the Tuesday,” which was the US publication date. Sphere published The Love Hypothesis in Britain the following month, in October 2021. Since then, Sphere’s edition of the book has sold more than a million copies around the world. 

Such rapid-fire, TikTok-driven sales success is becoming more and more common. When Caley Routledge, Tiktok’s editorial manager, began his role at the app in September 2020, the hashtag #BookTok had around 30 billion views. This month that figure is more than 82 billion. “The growth has been astronomical,” Routledge said – and that translates into sales. In the UK, books that used “TikTok” or “BookTok” in their sales keywords collectively sold 2.2 million copies in the first four months of 2022.  

While the BookTok phenomenon – and the platform as a whole – grew significantly during the first months of the Covid-19 pandemic, the impact of the trend on the industry is still being felt more than two years later. Its influence is evident even offline: lots of bookshops now curate display tables according to what’s most popular on the app, usually commercial romance, thriller and young adult (YA) novels. “The scale of TikTok’s influence has been unprecedented,” said Gaby Lee, a genre fiction buyer at Waterstones. BookTok, they said, “has fostered an exciting and dynamic bookselling landscape akin to the heyday of Harry Potter.” 

The fact that reading – a solitary, introspective pastime that typically requires a significant attention span – has taken off on a platform known for its short, algorithm-driven videos may be surprising. But for book lovers seeking recommendations of what to read next, BookTok is a gift. “You’ve got a real life person on the other end, and people build up a lot of trust in these users,” said Routledge, who said he particularly enjoys “aesthetic” videos, where a user might show off their colourful, meticulously arranged bookshelf, and “book tags”, where users answer questions such as, “Which book would you love to read again for the first time?” and then “tag” others on the app to answer too.

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Most striking is the crying. A popular form of video is one in which users record their emotional response to finishing a book. In a video posted by Eloise Hamp, she is seen reading the final few pages of It Ends with Us by Colleen Hoover. She sits on her bed, periodically covering her face with her hands as tears roll down her cheeks. “I forced my mum to s[n]uggle with me until I stopped sobbing lol,” is the final caption to the video, which has more than 1.6 million views. A follow-up, labelled “Update: it’s been 40 min and im still sobbing over the last line [sic]” has had more than two million. 

“Of course that’s how you talk about books,” said Molly Crawford, a senior commissioning editor at Simon & Schuster. “That’s how it feels to read a book like that.”

Crawford is Colleen Hoover’s UK editor. It Ends with Us is TikTok’s most popular book, its hashtag counting 1.5 billion views. Hoover, a 42-year-old Texan, self-published her first book, Slammed, in 2012. It gained traction via Amazon reviews and reached number eight on the New York Times bestseller list that year. Since then she has written more than 20 novels – mostly romance and psychological thrillers – and has built a following of devoted fans.

She was already successful, but during the pandemic Hoover’s sales soared. This was largely because of the BookTok community, which was reading and posting about her extensive back catalogue. It Ends with Us, first published in 2016, reappeared on the bestseller list in 2020. Now her books have sold more than 20 million copies globally. In the third week of October she occupies first, seventh and tenth positions on the Sunday Times bestselling fiction paperback list, while in the US her books hold seven of the top ten New York Times paperback trade fiction slots. Her latest novel, It Starts with Us – a follow-up to her smash hit – was published on 18 October, after receiving more UK pre-orders than any book in Simon & Schuster’s history.   

Hoover’s direct, moving style is what has made her such a hit on BookTok, Crawford said. “With her books, it’s like you’re sitting there and listening to your best friend tell a story as it happens. It’s so instantaneous. I don’t think that style is replicable. She’s telling herself the story.”

In a Goodreads interview published in August 2022, Ali Hazelwood described how she found the inspiration to write Love on the Brain, the follow-up to The Love Hypothesis: “My agent guided me a lot. She was like, I would love to read an academic rivals-to-lovers story, and then she was like, I’d love it if maybe these rivals are communicating but they don’t know that they’re communicating. She gave me a bunch of tropes that she wanted me to build the story around, which was really, really helpful because I am very indecisive and had no idea what I was doing.”

The comment struck a nerve online. One Twitter user wrote: “Seeing a debut bestselling author admit that they don’t have a great grasp on storytelling yet and rely on their agent to hand feed them tropes to construct a plot around does inflict me with pain im not going to lie [sic].”

For many, it was the notion of “tropes” that felt uncomfortable. In literary publishing, the idea of a “trope” sounds negative. It suggests a book that is laden with clichés or stereotypes. BookTok has “reclaimed” the term, Routledge said. TikTok users make videos entitled “tropes I love” or “tropes I can’t stand”.

Tropes are “familiar building blocks of familiar stories”, said Nicholson, Hazelwood’s UK editor. “My opinion is that fantastic books do familiar things in fresh and exciting ways. I think that’s true of commercial and literary fiction. These tropes become an invitation. They are a bare skeleton on which an author puts very different flesh every time. Let’s say ‘enemies to lovers’: the whole plot is spoiled in that name of the trope. And yet.” The question for a reader then becomes not what will happen, but how the author will make it happen. Tropes become negative “when you’re only reading or engaging with storytelling that is trope-heavy and it’s not surprising you and it’s not delighting you, frankly. I think it’s really easy to vilify tropes”.

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BookTok has changed the language Molly Crawford at Simon & Schuster uses to talk about books. “Trope,” she said, “is not a word I have used before now.” Instead she might have described a novel that “speaks directly to the market”. It is still not a term she would use with authors when developing their books, however – she does not feel a pressure to guide her authors to write trope-heavy books in order for them to fly on BookTok. “I think you know organically what a romance book should deliver. I don’t think there’s any difference in how I’m editing or approving ideas now.”

Nisha Sharma, a YA and adult romance author and TikTok user, doesn’t feel the pressure to write to such tropes. “Never. I surround myself with a team that understands that I am a bulldozer and I will do what I want,” she said. “I write the book and then I identify the tropes afterwards” – for marketing purposes. Her book Dating Dr Dil is the first in a romantic-comedy trilogy that takes Shakespeare plays as templates and “pushes them through a South Asian perspective”.  

“Every single genre fiction category is made up of tropes: mysteries; horror; romance,” Sharma said. Romance, a genre written primarily by and for women, has been historically derided – many in the BookTok world feel that the same snobbishness is directed at books that are popular on the platform. “This conversation about why tropes are bad is feeding into this oppressive narrative that has existed since the [establishment of the] printing press,” she said. 

Crawford feels similarly. At an event recently, a young woman came up to her and said, “I love Colleen Hoover’s books! I really like Pride and Prejudice and Austen too!”  

“It was strange to watch her process it,” Crawford said. “I think people just hate things that women like.” 

TikTok – like many areas of the internet – has been celebrated for its open and diverse communities. In theory, anyone can take part. Routledge described BookTok’s “diversity of opinion” as “amazing. It astounds me.” Lots of the books TikTok has formally championed – through schemes such as its Book Club, in which a group of “laureates” all read and post about the same book for a month – are by authors who come from marginalised backgrounds.

But TikTok has also been accused of racial bias. Typically, it is white, male computer engineers who develop algorithms, the specific qualifiers of which will be based on their own experiences. These qualifiers then affect how marginalised books and voices appear in users’ feeds. TikTok told the New Statesman that the algorithm is designed to helps users discover a wide range of content, and that they actively promote this range in users’ feeds. They acknowledged the app’s responsibility to not just talk about the importance of diversity on the platform, but to actively protect it – and said that the algorithm is continually being adjusted.

Sharma is sceptical of the extent to which the publishing industry is taking its cue from what’s trending online. She has previously advised publishing companies on diversity, and believes the current focus on TikTok is distracting that issue. “Five years ago, there was a push for diversity, equity and inclusion in the publishing industry. No one is talking about that now. Their main focus right now is chasing the dollars that are coming out of social media platforms and content creators who are pushing big books.” 

Despite this, she still enjoys using TikTok – primarily as a reader rather than an author – because the community offers her such good recommendations. “I don’t think there is good or bad when it comes to TikTok,” she said. “TikTok’s biased algorithm is not different from the oppressive systems that marginalised people operate in on an everyday basis in the world.”  

The sales figures are clear: BookTok has shaken up the publishing industry. But in many ways what the platform offers is just a digital version of what has always sold books. “Word of mouth is so important in bookselling,” said Gaby Lee, the buyer at Waterstones. “BookTok creates an opportunity for that on a grand scale.”

Despite the popularity of certain genres and tropes on BookTok, future hits are still difficult to predict. Publishers monitor the platform closely; some even have their own accounts. But “the minute publishing truly infiltrates BookTok, it ruins it”, Crawford said. If publishers and authors – rather than readers – were to take over the platform, “it would ruin that authenticity and the reason people trust BookTok recommendations”.

“Great publishing involves long backlist sales,” said Nicholson. Her job has always been to ask: what’s going to be popular in a year, two years, three years? “We want something that people are going to read for ten years. BookTok is just a new lens through which to view familiar problems.”

This article was originally published on 22 October 2022.

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