Walk into a Barnes & Noble these days, and you’ll see a peculiar sight. Instead of Barnes & Noble branding everywhere, there’s BookTok branding everywhere.
Tables of books emblazoned with BookTok signs, pushing the books that are popularly recommended on TikTok’s reading community. A little reading journal for sale titled BookTok Made Me Read It. A special display just for Colleen Hoover, who went from indie romance author to queen of the bestseller list after blowing up on BookTok. There’s a little sign over her name that says “BookTok.”
Loosely speaking, BookTok is a community of people on TikTok who focus all their content on books. They pan their cameras across shelves of beautiful hardcovers, analyze the tropes of their favorite genres, recommend their favorite books, record themselves throwing their favorite 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.
What all BookTokers have in common is that they are a hot commodity. Barnes & Noble is leaning so hard into the BookTok angle right now because, simply put, BookTok sells books. It’s one of the only things that does.
“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.”
During lockdown, as Americans with extra time on their hands began picking up books to keep themselves busy, the US book market grew at unprecedented rates. The post-vaccine market appears to have corrected itself. 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.
In a market where it’s notoriously difficult for anyone to make a living, BookTok is helping a select few people make a whole lot of money. That state of affairs raises a surprisingly knotty question: 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?
“I always want to be authentic.”
The main reason BookTok sells so many books, according to most of the BookTokers I talked to, is because it feels authentic and personal.
TikTok’s native format of 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 favorite books — books that could easily become your favorites, too, if you want to buy them.
“We make books seem personal. It’s like talking to a friend,” says Nathan Shuherk, a 30-year-old with 133,000 followers. “I think there might be a bit of a parasocial relationship you develop with some of the creators. I hear quite consistently that people have purchased 20, 30 books that I have talked about, because they know I cover books they’re interested in.”
Accordingly, BookTokers treat their authenticity as a valuable asset.
“I always want to be authentic,” says Caitlin Jacobs, “to myself, my interests, and what my viewers would be interested in.” Jacobs, 25, was one of the earliest TikTokers to start using the #BookTok hashtag in 2019, a level of seniority that’s left her with over 300,000 followers. When she makes sponsored videos, Jacobs says, she makes it a priority to let her followers know that “this isn’t really that different from my regular stuff. This is a video I would make normally.”
“The whole process of choosing books to share on my platform: I take it seriously,” says Ayman, a student who preferred not to use her last name in this article. “At the end of the day, somebody is going to take that recommendation and then attach it to me. And hopefully they like the books that I recommend. So it’s important to me.” Ayman, 22, has close to a million TikTok followers.
Authenticity also features heavily into one of the issues that both Jacobs and Ayman cite as one of their big concerns about the platform: making sure that sponsorships opportunities for books about marginalized communities go to TikTokers from those communities.
“I think that’s really important when it comes to sponsorships,” says Jacobs, “that the community that’s represented in the book is able to be the ones who are paid to promote it.”
“I’d like to see, for example, Muslims promote Muslim books that are coming out, that publishers reached out to them for,” says Ayman. “This is their representation; they deserve it 10 times more. They can make it more authentic.”
This is the business model of the influencer economy: You forge a connection with your followers, and then you can use that to sell them stuff.
But there’s an inherent tension here. Once you monetize your own authenticity, how do you keep it authentic?
“This would be cool, to make money off this.”
BookTok exists within a larger creator economy where it’s normal for influencers to partner with the brands they produce content about. If you make videos reviewing different lipsticks, your go-to business model will be partnering with Revlon to talk about how great their lipstick is.
BookTok also exists within a rising social trend in which young people are encouraged to know their value and stop giving away their work for free. If someone wants to “pick your brain” for your professional expertise, charge them a consultation fee, admonish the advice posts online. If you’re interviewing for a new job, don’t do labor for free as part of the auditioning process. This ethos extends seamlessly into influencing as well: If your content is valuable, then you have a duty to yourself to monetize it.
Satoria Ray is a 26-year-old working at an educational nonprofit. Her books-centric TikTok account has close to 20,000 followers. “People want to get paid for their labor,” she says. “I feel like that’s a valid thing to do.”
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.”
“It’s like pennies,” says Ray.
Ray, however, is reluctant to do formal videos sponsored by a publisher on her TikTok. “I know that if I go to monetize my content, then I’m going to have to do more labor than I’m already doing,” she says. “I am reading the books that I want to read, and I’m promoting the books that I want to promote on BookTok. I would read them anyway if I wasn’t on BookTok. There’s no commitment, there’s no contract for me to even post about the books I’m reading if I don’t want to. As someone who works full time and is in grad school, it’s very difficult for me to think about what monetization would look like.”
For other BookTokers, monetization is a no-brainer. “It was always in the back of my head,” says Ayman. “Like, ‘This would be cool, to make money off this.’” Ayman is typically paid around $2,000 per video. While she works an internship, she says TikTok constitutes the majority of her income.
BookTok pays Jacobs enough to be her day job. She gets paid around $2,000 per video, going up to $4,000 if publishers want usage rights (the option to repost the video on their own platforms or use it as an ad). She’s used her downtime to write a fantasy novel that her agent is currently shopping around with publishers.
#ad @Chloe Gong said #LastViolentCall is domestic fluff and I need it in my life! It’s available for preorder now from @Riveted by Simon Teen and will hit shelves on february 28th #SimonTeenPartner #SecretShanghai #AFoulThing #ThisFoulMurder #booktok #bookishvlog #theseviolentdelights♬ Jazz masterpiece "As time goes by" covered by a Jazz violinist by profession(962408) - ricca
Both Ayman and Jacobs say they share Ray’s concerns about sponsorships pushing them to read books they otherwise wouldn’t. They are careful to only say yes to promoting books they would be interested in reading even if they weren’t getting paid for it. That doesn’t mean they always do end up reading those books.
“The thing for me is to never lie about a book and my opinions about a book. I always want to be authentic,” says Jacobs. “When I’m accepting a sponsorship, they will often give me talking points, and I will always make sure that I’m never being told to lie about it. If I haven’t read a book, then I will say I haven’t read it yet. But maybe I’m looking forward to it, or maybe I just heard about it and it was amazing, based on what I’ve heard.”
“They never ask me, ‘Give me a good review and I’ll pay you.’ It’s never like that,” says Ayman. “It’s more like, ‘Hey, here’s a book that’s coming out. I’m going to recommend it to my audience.’ I always disclose which posts are ads. It’s not like false advertising. I take it seriously.”
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. Still, her videos did make her enough money last year that she had to report it on her taxes.
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.”
Jackson considered signing before savvier friends advised her never to give away her likeness in perpetuity. “You could end up on the side of the bus, and they’d only have paid you $100 for that one video,” she says.
From friends who work as influencers in other fields, she has gathered that other companies pay much more for the same kind of ask. “I think a lot of BookTok folks are devaluing themselves a little bit,” she says.
“It’s been very tricky for marketers to fully co-opt it.”
Everyone I spoke to was hyper-aware of the problem of guarding their authenticity from the corrupting influence of money. Their strategies varied. As Jackson succinctly put it, “No one likes an influencer who takes money for books they don’t actually like.”
Shuherk says he’s been offered $2,000 to review a book on his channel, “but it came with heavy stipulations about what I was allowed to say and how I was allowed to not make criticisms of the book. I just felt uncomfortable,” he says. “I didn’t think it was something ethically I could support, and so I did not take it.”
Everyone I spoke to said they research their endorsements thoroughly, and make sure that even if they don’t have time to read the book in question, it’s at least something they would be interested in reading without a sponsorship. The biggest concern most of them expressed was accidentally endorsing something that might turn out to be problematic — a reasonable concern given that YA is one of TikTok’s most popular genres, and the YA community can sometimes have an expansive definition of what calling a book “problematic” entails.
“I always look at the book to make sure that it’s in line with what I would support,” says Jacobs. “I like to do a good amount of research to make sure that I know the history of the publisher, author, and book before I agree to promote it on my account.”
“I want to promote books that don’t stem from anything problematic, whether it’s all through the publisher or anything like that,” says Ayman. “I do plenty of research to make sure I’m not promoting the wrong thing.”
“I’ve seen some creators talk about not working with different types of places because of ethical concerns,” says Jackson. “I totally get that. I wouldn’t want to work with just anybody.”
Industry analyst McLean agrees that TikTok’s authenticity is part of what makes it so good at selling things. “At least early on, it was a very interactive, authentic exchange of ideas that wasn’t being messed with by marketers,” she says. She thinks that TikTok’s relative opacity as a platform means it’s likely to remain so for a while. “It does not have a native analytics platform built into it. It’s not like Google Trends where you can go and look up what people have been looking at. It is a black box, and that’s one of the keys to its sustained success: it’s been very tricky for marketers to fully co-opt it.”
That doesn’t mean marketers aren’t going to try. Publishing is an old and slow-to-evolve industry, and it has a tendency to clumsily cast every new technological innovation as either a savior or a demon. When I started working in publishing in 2010, the Kindle was going to be the death of the industry, the future of ebooks was popularly held to be book apps, and all the editors were being encouraged to acquire books from people who were popular on YouTube. Thirteen years later, the Kindle did not destroy publishing, the book app market has failed to materialize, and I don’t know of any book by a YouTuber that became a meaningful hit.
Currently, publishers see BookTok as their savior, all the moreso because they don’t really understand it. But publishing trends come and go.
There’s no guarantee that BookTok will stay this effective at selling books forever. Advertisers might finally crack it and make it lose its cool, or maybe Congress will ban TikTok in the US, or maybe TikTok will simply follow the pattern set by every social network before it and see its user base drift slowly and steadily away.
When that day comes, and all that Barnes & Noble BookTok merch gets thrown out and publishers find a new digital unicorn to chase, what will happen to the core community of readers left on TikTok? The ones who are still making videos and the ones still watching them? What will happen to the people who made enormous amounts of money for an industry that never quite knew what to make of them?
“Honestly, one of the main reasons we are good at getting people to buy books is the average person on BookTok isn’t getting paid to give their reviews,” says Ray. “There aren’t these big influencers with huge followings and all these brand deals and sponsorships flying all over the place. It’s usually a person in their car who just got out of work and is like, ‘I was reading this audiobook and I really enjoyed it.’ It’s moms who are cleaning the kitchen and just put the kids to bed and are like, ‘Hey, I just read this really cool book.’
“That’s unique to BookTok.”
Correction, 12 pm ET: This story has been corrected to reflect the full name of the industry tracker Circana BookScan.