BookTok Is Revitalizing the Publishing Industry, and POC Creators Are Leading the Charge

What was the last book that made you cry? Or, better yet, sob? Back in August 2020, content creator Selene Velez’s 223,000 followers on TikTok asked her that same question. In a 27-second video posted to her account @moongirlreads_, she responded with recommendations that included detailed information on how hard each given title made her cry. They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera (“i stayed up until 2AM to finish it & ended up crying sm i had to change my shirt”) and We Were Liars by E. Lockhart (“i broke down in a parking lot once i finished it left me BROKEN”), to name a few.

But one particular recommendation from that video captured viewers’ attention more than any others: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. The novel, Miller’s debut, is a romantic reimagining of Homer’s The Iliad and was originally published in 2012. Velez’s video went viral—as of today, it’s been viewed over six million times—and last April, The Song of Achilles hit #1 on the New York Times bestseller list for the first time. “Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that this book, which was so close to my heart, would find its way to so many readers,” tweeted Miller. Not bad for a book released a decade ago.

This TikTok-fueled literary resurgence isn’t an anomaly. Over the course of the pandemic, book sales have skyrocketed. According to Forbes and NPD Bookscan, the U.S. print book market is up nine percent compared to 2020. This recent spike in sales has been greatly attributed to TikTok’s reader-centric community BookTok. Last year, when the British publishing house Bloomsbury saw that profit growth was up 220 percent, its CEO Nigel Newton ascribed it to the “phenomenal impact of TikTok.”

“BookTok has definitely made a huge impact on the publishing industry,” says Ayushi Ray (@bookwormbullet), a full-time university student and part-time BookToker from San Francisco. “Watching popular romance books, like The Love Hypothesis by Ali Hazelwood, become instant New York Times bestsellers after gaining popularity on TikTok has been quite surreal.” But the impact doesn’t stop there. Barnes & Noble has now dedicated an entire page on their website to “the most popular BookTok books,” and according to a recent New York Times article, publishing houses have started contacting content creators to offer them advanced copies of books or provide a fee for promoting their titles.

“I received my first ARC [advance reader’s copy] about six or seven months after I had first started making videos,” says Ray. “That has progressed into signing deals and contracts with publishers, as well as receiving copies of their upcoming novels to review and promote on my page. When I first started working with publishers, it was primarily to review and promote South Asian novels, as I am a South Asian-American reviewer myself.” Now, since joining BookTok in August of 2020, Ray is working with several publishing houses to promote their upcoming releases, especially titles featuring characters and writers from diverse backgrounds.

While the app is home to creators from an array of ethnicities, diversity is still TikTok’s Achilles heel. The algorithm, which tends to favor white people over creators of color, is skewed. Try typing “BookTok” into the search engine and you’ll find a slew of mostly white creators reading the same types of books, contemporary fiction written by white women. “The BookTok algorithm loves Sally Rooney, Ottessa Moshfegh, and Colleen Hoover,” says Bernie Julia (@berniejulia), a 26-year-old based in Chicago who began making TikTok videos to promote her love of postmodern, Black, and Afrofuturism literature. “It’s almost like these books have their own aesthetic on the app.” As Lily Herman recently wrote in an article, “[Colleen] Hoover’s success in TikTok’s reader-centric BookTok community—alongside numerous other white writers—has led to bigger conversations about which authors are favored by the app’s content creators and have gotten more attention in the genre.”

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The term “shadowbanning,” which refers to the gradual decrease in visibility of a user’s content, has recently gained traction due to this phenomenon. Often unbeknownst to the creators themselves, this means that their content may not appear in searches or their videos may be hidden from TikTok’s “For You Page.” The same tactic is used on other social media apps, such as Instagram and Pinterest, and often targets people of color. TikTok is aware of its algorithm issue, but not much has changed. Because of this, consumers have to specifically curate their page so that the algorithm reflects their interests, rather than relying on TikTok to do it for them.

“I can easily say that my side of BookTok and my ‘For You Page’ is a diverse space that features a variety of BIPOC, Disabled, and LGBTQ+ creators because I curated it to reflect such things,” says Kendra Keeter-Gray (@kendra.reads), an associate producer at a digital media company with over 121K followers on the app. “Diverse creators are out there and consistently creating content, but it’s up to users to search and engage with this content in order to see it. If you’re seeing the same non-diverse book recommendations over and over, then that’s on you.”

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POC BookTokers are doing the work to highlight authors that reflect themselves in the hopes of finding their intended audience and shifting the paradigm. “My particular niche falls to Muslim stories because my Muslim identity is incredibly important to me,” says Azanta Thakur (@azantareads), a project manager who joined BookTok after two years of using Bookstagram as her primary platform. “Supporting Muslim authors is how I feel like I can best give back to them and everything they’ve done for Muslim readers around the world. Anyone who watches my content and follows me on my socials knows that I’m completely obsessed with Sabaa Tahir’s books and her writing.”

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BookTokers are introducing their audiences to lesser known authors, too. “One of my most-viewed videos is an Afrofuturism book suggestion video where I featured Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber,” says Julia. “I’m pretty sure Nalo mostly writes comic books now, but it felt good to highlight her old work and have so many people comment that they’re going to read it or that they’re planning on reading it.”

Creators are also extending their reach far beyond the app in efforts to diversify reading IRL. Thakur, who began making videos in January 2021, is the founder and CEO of the aptly titled organization BookTalk, an annual virtual book conference that offers author panels, book clubs, and merch for all attendees. “I was an event coordinator back then and was doing similar organizing for virtual conferences and I wanted to see something similar for BookTok audiences, complete with diverse authors, BookTok creators, and fun activities for us to do over the course of three days,” she says. Along with other content creators, she launched BookTalk’s first conference, which featured over 60 authors and 3,000 attendees. “It has since grown into so much more than just event organizing. We’re now a registered 501(c)3 volunteer-based social nonprofit focused on educational initiatives and outreach to the book community with the mission to uplift equitable representation in storytelling. Our flagship event is coming up in July and we have even more planned for our second year!”

Over the past two years, BookTalk has transformed into an undeniably strong community of readers. “I’ve been a huge reader since I was a toddler but rarely did I have anyone to share it with,” says Thakur. “It wasn’t until I joined book social media that I’ve really been able to embrace it as a part of my life that’s incredibly important to me. I’ve been able to share these experiences and my favorite stories with strangers online and the experience has been unlike any other. As crazy as BookTok can be, I’m incredibly grateful for it as a platform and the cornerstone it has become in the publishing industry.”

With over 49.2 billion views and counting, BookTok’s influence is as strong as ever and creators of color are staking their claim. Now if only the algorithm would start showing them more love. “There are a ton of amazing BookTok creators of color on the app,” says Julia. “We may not have 50,000 followers each, but we’re here.”

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