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26 July 2023

A TikTok publishing house is bad news for books

Do we really want our literary landscape to be overrun with romance novels, trashy thrillers and scientifically dubious self-help?

By Sarah Manavis

If you care about books, read more than just a handful on holiday, or have been in a bookshop recently, you will be aware of BookTok: a book community on TikTok. The videos shared on BookTok include fiction recommendations, summaries of the lessons of non-fiction releases, tips on how to become a better reader, and personality quizzes (what popular novel fits your star sign?). On TikTok the hashtag #BookTok has more than 160 billion views, and drives millions upon millions of book sales.

This certainly seems like a good thing – we should be glad more young people are reading. But while BookTok has caused a surge in reading (or at least in book-buying), it tends to promote a particular type of book: conventional romance novels, trashy thrillers, self-help and the kind of scientifically dubious non-fiction you’d be be recommended by an account manager on LinkedIn. Within this already narrow field, an even smaller number of books and authors appear repeatedly: Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus, They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera, or anything by the “queen of BookTok” Colleen Hoover.

The rise of BookTok and the new popularity of these types of books has sparked the growth of a specific, lucrative publishing market. Last week the Bookseller reported that ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, had begun approaching potential authors in the UK to become the first to work with its new publishing house, 8th Note Press. It had been rumoured since May that the company would move in that direction, and the Bookseller reports that one author the company approached (seemingly a BookToker) received a low advance offer (just £2,675) and digital-only publication in the first instance. A story from the New York Times earlier this month found American authors were being courted in a similarly haphazard fashion – and that ByteDance had hired Katherine Pelz, a former Penguin Random House editor specialising in romance, as its new acquisitions editor.

The creation of a TikTok-specific press feels almost inevitable. It comes alongside the rise of not just BookTok but influencer publishing generally, when people with large online fanbases become the authors of memoirs and unoriginal novels that top best-seller lists. In recent years, dedicated literary agencies have been founded to sell books by YouTubers and TikTok stars, and it has become commonplace to see Instagram entrepreneurs pick up six-figure book deals. ByteDance’s 8th Note Press, however, could be the first sign of a new shift: instead of allowing the publishing industry to capitalise on those with big social media presences, social media platforms are attempting to keep the profits for themselves.

[See also: How #BookTok is changing literature]

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This isn’t necessarily bad for books – but it’s unlikely to be a good thing. Publishing – like most creative industries – already, overwhelmingly, produces formulaic, mundane works that appeal to trends to make a quick buck. It’s an industry that knows most people barely read (the median person reads three to five books a year in the UK) and that, when they do, they tend to want something popular, straightforward and breezy. This doesn’t leave a lot of commercial space for challenging or innovative stories, or for taking a risk on lesser-known authors.

The problem isn’t that the books published by 8th Note will be cheap and poor quality (though most probably will be). The problem is that this signals a culture-wide shift in which social media trends dictate how art is produced. This isn’t just happening in books – in film, TV, music, artists are being lifted directly from social media. Today, one of the quickest ways to find creative success is to go viral first.

The result is that every creative industry is saturated with the same smooth, unchallenging content – we see things we’ve seen a million times before, with slightly different characters, in a slightly different setting, confronting a slightly different twist after their slightly different meet-cute. What does anyone gain from consuming near-identical stories over and over? While they may be easy to sell and appeal to a large demographic of readers, they are also part of a self-fulfilling prophecy: when only certain stories are promoted, and readers are given so few options, these will inevitably remain popular. (I’d guess most readers would be interested in perspectives that offered them something new.)

BookTok success is not a science. As one friend in publishing told me, BookTok campaigns yield inconsistent results and you can’t guarantee, even with the best marketing team in the world, that your new release will be embraced by the community. But it feels inevitable that a press like 8th Note will become a major player in the publishing landscape. While plumbing the depths of BookTok may yield a handful of good books, we shouldn’t expect it to unearth stories or voices that are new. It will elevate more of the same, drowning out the unusual or the unexpected – even if they don’t make it on to the average bookshop window display.

[See also: Social media is taking a dangerous toll on teenage girls]

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