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What is BookTok: the TikTok trend sending decades-old books up bestseller lists

Evening Standard logo Evening Standard 3/31/2021 Jake Helm

TikTok has created almost every bizarre trend imaginable. The platform is credited with popularising everything from reciting sea shanties to cottagecore, and who can forget chanting along to a musical version of the Pixar film Ratatouille.

Now, another trend has emerged but this time with an educational twist. Introducing: BookTok. Novels - old and new - have been going viral thanks to a new wave of book-loving influencers discussing their young adult literary picks.

TikTok doesn’t seem like an obvious destination for book buzz but that hasn’t stopped it from booming. The #BookTok hashtag has racked up over 5.8 billion views, and some authors have seen a tenfold increase in book sales for works that are often decades old.

Even bookstores are jumping on the trend. The Barnes & Noble website now has a “BookTok” page dedicated to the most popular books on TikTok and its American stores have introduced allocated sections displaying titles that have gone viral on the platform.

From teens sobbing over their literary reads to the publishers jumping on the craze, here is everything you need to know about TikTok’s latest trend.

What is BookTok?

BookTok is the fastest book club you will ever visit. In under a minute, users film books they recommend, record time-lapses of themselves reading or show their reactions to the final nail-biting or tear-jerking moment of a novel. It’s all very emotional.

Scroll through #BookTok and you will see in-depth spoiler-filled reviews, colour coordinated bookcases and even a user acting out a literary battle scene, complete with a sorceress dress, horse and bow and arrow.

In the world of BookTok, fantasy reigns supreme with users often donning their wizarding outfits, elf suits and medieval corsets. Specifically, the dystopian sub-genre seems to have a certain pull with its tales of undesirable worlds characterised by global disasters. Sound familiar?

Books with teenage, star-crossed lovers are popular too with users obsessing over what fictional characters make the best boyfriends or fantasising about their dream date with Romeo.

Ashleigh Ross holding a book: @julia.books/TikTok © Provided by Evening Standard @julia.books/TikTok

What’s all the crying about?

Ever felt distraught after a dramatic book ending or when your favourite character has died? Members of the BookTok community are capturing those moments, filming themselves as they read the final lines of a novel.

Madeline Miller’s 2012 book, The Song of Achilles, has found renewed success thanks to the tearful trend. In one video, a red-faced, weeping user records herself rocking back and forth while clutching the novel. In another, a user recorded a time-lapse video of her reading the novel in one sitting (it took 3.5 hours) with the caption: “I’m broken”. 

The hashtag #thesongofachilles has clocked up almost 22 million views to date and the novel sold 1,500 copies in the UK last week, up 240 per cent compared with the same week last year. It now sits third on the New York Times bestseller list for paperback fiction and in the U.S is selling about 10,000 copies a week.

How are publishers reacting?

Of course, it didn’t take long for publishers to realise the trend was driving sales up, and that they needed to join the hype.

In an interview with the New York Times, Shannon DeVito, director of books at Barnes & Noble, said: “We haven’t seen these types of crazy sales – I mean tens of thousands of copies a month – with other social media formats.” 

Publishers have started joining the platform to promote books, and some have started sending early copies, free books, or payment to popular influencers in exchange for endorsing their titles.

One 18-year-old BookTok influencer, Selene Velez (aka @moongirlreads_), admitted to the New York Times that she was receiving fees, ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, to push certain novels to her 139,000 followers. 

a woman holding a book: TikTok © Provided by Evening Standard TikTok

So it’s all about money now?

In response to Selene’s interview, a wave of Booktok users piled in to claim there’s more to the trend than sponsored content. One user tweeted: “BookTok is more than just the money. It’s a literal community.”

While some of the content is promotional, most BookTok videos happen organically, posted by young book-lovers.

Some of the content deals with timely issues such as race, sexuality, and mental health. In one video, a user made a compilation of mental health books that helped her “find the light”. Another user analysed Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking About Race

Others have said how the trend has been a relaxing pastime during the pandemic. One user tweeted: “BookTok saved me from going insane during lockdown”.

Panna Sipos sitting on a rug: @abbysbooks/TikTok © Provided by Evening Standard @abbysbooks/TikTok

The most popular books on BookTok

Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo: 146.1m views

Loosely inspired by Dutch Republic-era Amsterdam, this novel takes place in a dangerous universe called the Grishaverse, where monsters, robbers and smugglers jostle for power. Six outcasts have to pull off a heist to survive. It’s coming to Netflix soon. Buy it here.

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart: 29.6m views

After an accident on a private island caused Cadence to lose her memory, the 17-year-old must piece together what happened by talking to her deceitful cousins. Buy it here.

A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas: 28.5m views

After killing a wolf in the woods, Feyre Archeron, a 19-year-old huntress, is taken hostage by a beast-like creature who teaches her about the world. It’s beauty and the beast with a twist. Buy it here.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller: 21.8m views

Madeline Miller retells Homer’s Iliad from the perspective of Achilles’ doting lover, Patroclus. It’s a same-sex romance set in Ancient Greece that won the 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction. Buy it here.

They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera: 11.4m views

Through an app, two teenagers meet up on the last day of their lives to embark on an adventure. In Silvera’s third novel, the pair must learn to trust each other and make things right for the people they’re leaving behind. Buy it here.

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