March 23, 2021
TikTok proves it can put books on best-seller lists
by Athena Bryan
A recent New York Times piece opens with author E. Lockhart seeing her 2014 book We Were Liars hitting the best-seller list over the summer of 2020. Baffled but pleased, she quickly learned that it was the teens of TikTok who were responsible.
It’s a nice lede, and one that probably gets publishers a little too excited about the implications for their under-loved backlist, so I feel professionally obligated to reveal what that We Were Liars was not exactly a slouch in the sales department before TikTok got ahold of it.
Nevertheless, let’s explore just how influential these TikTokers are. And how they promote books.
- What are we calling book influencers of TikTok? This is easy: BookTok. It scans even better than bookstagrammers (book+Instagram).
- What sort of content does the short video platform yield for books? Time-lapse videos of them reading, on-camera book recommendations, and the detail that the Times chose to use in their headline, BookTokers “sob[bing] openly into the camera after an emotionally crushing ending.” (The article is titled “How Crying on TikTok Sells Books”.) They are also apparently putting together some videos that play like thematic trailers for the book—a real leap forward in the weird world of book trailers, a marketing tool that has never quite found its platform until now.
- How is the industry responding? Barnes & Noble has already set up tables to feature books that have risen to the top on TikTok. Books featured include notorious lacrimal hits, like A Little Life.
- Just how much does it affect sales? We’re talking “tens of thousands of copies a month,” according to Shannon DeVito, director of books at Barnes & Noble.
- What’s the average age of these BookTokers? Nobody has quantified it, but a 25-year-old, Pauline Juan, feels “a little older” than many. [Pause for a moment of quiet weeping for the unstoppable flow of time and the rising, inevitable tide of “people who are younger than you.”]
- Just how big is the crying thing? Apparently, it’s not a bug but a feature of the phenomenon. One post by Ayman Chaudhary on The Song of Achilles includes “dramatic wailing & yelling” in the caption. And apparently, Madeleine Miller’s 2012 best-seller first caught its second TikTok wind in a video called “books that will make you sob.”
- Are publishers in on the action? Yes, they are. Pre-pub galleys are flying out, and sums from a couple hundred dollars to thousands of dollars per post are starting to be offered to BookTokers. This raises the question if publishers will approach the platform as an aspect of publicity (no fee, just early books) or marketing (pay per post). For my part, on the editorial side, it’s time to start fitting “dramatic wailing” into some Amazon copy. Be right back.
Athena Bryan is an editor at Melville House.