If you’ve walked into a book store recently, you’ll notice BookTok branding everywhere. Last weekend, for example, I was at Gatwick Airport waiting for boarding. The WHSmith had two shelves dedicated to BookTok.
For those unfamiliar, BookTok is is a community of people on TikTok who focus all their content on books. They pan their cameras across shelves of beautiful hardcovers, analyse the tropes of their favourite genres, recommend their favourite books, record themselves throwing their favourite books across the room in a fury of emotional overwhelm. The stereotype is that BookTokers lean young and emotional, but as users are quick to point out, the community is huge. Search the #BookTok tag long enough, and you’re bound to find a BookToker who talks about books that appeal to you. The WHSmith shelves, for example, read ‘BookTok: TikTok Made Me Read It”.
From a marketing perspective, BookTok is huge. “It’s one of the strongest drivers that we’ve seen in the US market in the last couple of years. It is the only area of the market right now with very strong growth,” says Kristen McLean, the primary industry analyst for books at the industry tracker Circana BookScan. “When I look at the data, there’s no other area of the US publishing market that we can pin that’s seeing that level of year-over-year growth right now. That’s the third year of growth for these authors.”
The US book market grew at unprecedented rates (haven’t heard that word in a while, huh?) during the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021. Before the pandemic, it was common for the US book market to grow at rates of 3 or 4 percent. From 2019 to 2021, it grew 21 percent. In the first three months of 2023, according to Circana, it has declined 1 percent — except for the authors whose books blew up on BookTok. So far this year, they’re seeing an increase of 43 percent over their 2022 sales figures. That’s the power of BookTok.
The real question is how much of that cash is making its way back to the creators who made the videos that are generating all of these book sales in the first place? And how is it getting to them?
Creators are the exact reason why the format does so well. Short, punchy videos and culture of casual chattiness combine to create an atmosphere of intense intimacy between content creators and their audience. In the book world, that kind of intimacy and emotional connection is rare. All the caps-locked blog posts in the world can’t match the visceral force of a camera on a real person’s tearstained face as they sob over their favourite books — books that could easily become your favourites, too, if you want to buy them. It feels like an intimate book club.
BookTok is such an authentic community and so there are questions raised as to whether paying a creator for a book review of a novel they didn’t authentically love would be a waste of time and perhaps dilute the community. Traditional book media is not set up to operate under this type of model. There, critics and reporters are paid by their outlet. A publisher wouldn’t offer money to a traditional book reporter, and a writer wouldn’t accept it if they did: It would be unethical.
The conversation becomes murkier when you consider these creators not as journalists, but as subcontractors, making and distributing content for a $50 billion company like TikTok. But TikTok, like many social media networks, tends to be miserly when it comes to paying the people who distribute their content on its platform. The current model is the TikTok Creator Fund. Users can join if they get 100,000 video views within a 30-day window, and they get cash based on what TikTok describes as “a combination of factors; including the number of views and the authenticity of those views, the level of engagement on the content, as well as making sure content is in line with our Community Guidelines and Terms of Service.”
Unlike other communities, BookTok seems like one with a very high follower and engagement threshold in order to monetise. For example, where @aymansbooks charges $2,000 per video with a follower count of 938k, Zoe Jackson, a 24-year-old journalist, says that at 55,000 followers, she hasn’t yet reached the level where she could live off TikTok alone.
According to Jackson, publishers have a tendency to ask for too much and offer too little. One book company, she says, offered her $100 for a video whose rights they would control forever. “The contract was like, ‘We will own this forever,’” says Jackson. “Your face, your voice, your likeness, everything.” Essentially, BookTok has been very tricky for marketers to fully co-opt it.