In August 2020, Kate Wilson, a 16-year-old from Shrewsbury, posted on the social media video platform TikTok a series of quotes from books she had read, “that say I love you, without actually saying I love you”. Set to a melancholy soundtrack, the short video plays out as Wilson, an A-level student, holds up copies of the books with the quotes superimposed over them. “You have been the last dream of my soul,” from A Tale of Two Cities. “Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same,” from Wuthering Heights. “Every atom of your flesh is as dear to me as my own,” from Jane Eyre. It has been viewed more than 1.2m times.
Wilson’s TikTok handle, @kateslibrary, is among the increasingly popular accounts posting on #BookTok, a corner of TikTok devoted to reading, which has clocked up 9.6bn views and counting, and has been described as the last wholesome place on the internet. Here, users – predominantly young women – post short videos inspired by the books they love. Those that do best are fun, snappy takes on literature and the experience of reading. “Books where the main character was sent to kill someone but they end up falling in love,” from @kateslibrary. “Things that bookworms do,” from @abbysbooks. “When you were 12 and your parents caught you crying over a book,” from @emilymiahreads.
The way users are creating imagery inspired by what they are reading is so simple, and so clever
Kat McKenna, marketing and brand consultant
These posts can attract millions of views, and rekindle an appreciation of books in young readers. “I started reading again after six years when I came across BookTok for the first time last October,” says Mireille Lee, 15, who, with her 13-year-old sister Elodie, now runs the high-profile @alifeofliterature account on TikTok.
The idea started after Mireille convinced her sister to try the young adult novel The Selection by Kiera Cass; “I didn’t want to read. I was into gaming,” Elodie says. But once she started, she couldn’t put it down, and set up her own TikTok account, through which she shared videos inspired by the mood, or “aesthetic”, of The Selection. When one of Elodie’s videos received 1,000 likes in a day, Mireille decided to join her, and the sisters now have some 284,000 followers and 6m likes; one of their biggest hits was about E Lockhart’s We Were Liars, which flashes photos of dramatic and glamorous scenes on a beautiful coastline, summing up the book’s contents to thrilling music. As the sisters put it, it’s about “convincing you to read books based on their aesthetics”.
While this might sound like a reductive way to talk about books, the sisters know that these memes are an effective ruse to entice readers. “I think it all comes down to the fact that when you see a book, you’re like: ‘no more homework thank you very much.’” Mireille says. “I tried influencing my friends to pick up The Selection, or Red Queen [by Victoria Aveyard], and they were just not having it.” Instead, “we showed them loads of images with some really popular music, and that was a huge success. People loved it, and we’ve continued doing it.”
Adam Silvera’s 2017 novel They Both Die at the End is one of the books to have benefited from the BookTok effect. Users recently started filming themselves before and after reading the book, sobbing as they reached the finish line. In March, it shot to the top of the teen fiction charts, selling more than 4,000 copies a week. The book has sold more than 200,000 copies in the UK, with well over half of those coming belatedly in 2021, after thousands of posts about it (#adamsilvera has been viewed 10.8m times).
Publishers are watching with interest. “The pool of people who are guaranteed to buy young adult books is limited to a few thousand dedicated lovers of the genre, but BookTok is exciting, with its short, entertaining videos bringing a new, powerful opportunity to reach and engage non-readers, to create more book lovers,” says Kat McKenna, a marketing and brand consultant specialising in children’s and young adult books. “These ‘snapshot’ visual trailers are making books cinematic in a way that publishers have been trying to do with marketing book trailers for a really long time. But the way TikTok users are creating imagery inspired by what they are reading is so simple, and so clever. It’s that thing of bringing the pages to life, showing what you get from a book beyond words.”
At Simon & Schuster, marketing and publicity manager Olivia Horrox, who worked on Silvera’s novel, is now watching another of her titles, Tracy Deonn’s Legendborn, taking on a new life on BookTok. “It has become a trend that other users want to jump on and start creating their own content,” she says. “Like the ice-bucket challenge that used to be around on Facebook, these TikTok trends become a challenge in the same way, and you don’t want to miss out on the zeitgeist, so you get the book that everyone’s talking about.”
BookTokers capture the “visceral reaction” to a book, which doesn’t come across in a written review, Horrox says. “There’s something about the fact that it is under a minute. People who are consuming this content want stuff that’s quicker and snappier all the time – you watch a 32-second video and someone’s like: ‘This book has LGBTQ romance, it’s really heartbreaking, it’s speculative fiction.’ And then the viewers think: ‘Oh, OK, those are all things that I’m interested in. I’ll go buy it.’”
A teenager’s emotional life can be rocky, soaring from intense highs to crashing lows, and books that offer a cathartic cry prove most popular. “Romantic books and sad books seem to be really big,” McKenna says. “If it tugs at a heartstring, it’s likely to retain the user’s attention.”
Ayman Chaudhary, who is 20 and at university in Chicago, found her likes soared when she posted a video of her response – loud (and hilarious) wailing – to finishing Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles. “There’s this trend going around in which you talk about a book and maybe you even add a clip of you crying while reading the book,” Chaudhary says. “It makes people curious – like, what could make this book so good, or so sad that it can make you show your emotions and be so vulnerable to the public? Books that can make me cry instantly have my money.”
It’s not all romance and tears, however. American teenager “ccolinnnn” has 21.7m likes for his humorous posts, which are often teasers for live streams in which he reads children’s bedtime stories. Emily Russell, who has 1.2m likes for her @emilymiahreads account, found it took off in earnest after a post about a bookshop that she loves going to. And some of the funniest videos mock literary tropes – “How white people write east asian women”, or “which dress are you wearing to run romantically through a castle to your lover?”, or “what I think I look like when I’m reading, versus what I actually look like”.
Chaudhary says it was during lockdown that she started posting BookTok videos, spurred on by “quarantine boredom. I never planned to make content. I didn’t think I had anything special or new to say.” Today, she has 258,000 followers and 16.2m likes for her @aymansbooks account.
Wilson, too, got into BookTok during lockdown. “I just love finding even more people who I can talk with about my favourite books,” she says. “I’ve actually had a few people at my school who I’d never spoken to before come up to me just to talk about books and my TikTok account because they’d found it.” By December 2020, she was being contacted regularly by publishers, who had realised that TikTok “really does sell books”.
Russell, a 21-year-old science student, first started to get sent books by publishers and authors at the end of September. “I still can’t believe that I get to work with these publishing houses. It’s always been a dream of mine,” she says.
BookTok content tends to focus around the five or so “hot” books, which currently include the fantasy novels Caraval by Stephanie Garber, Heartless by Marissa Mayer and Sarah J Maas’s A Court of Thorns and Roses series. “What people really love on Booktok is fantasy romance. If you tell someone that there’s a romance when they try to kill each other, that’s it, sold,” says Faith Young, who posts as @hellyeahbooks.
“At the beginning, when you first join, there are definitely six to 10 books that everyone speaks about,” she says. “The more popular books tend to be quite straight and quite white. And so I think the biggest movement within the community is being like: ‘Hey, have you never seen yourself represented? Here are books that are going to represent you.’ I’m bisexual, and when I first joined, I only ever read books about straight couples. So finding these books that I saw myself reflected in was life-changing.” She cites in particular Claire Legrand’s Empirium trilogy, some of the first books she read with a bisexual protagonist.
Young is 22, and says: “I thought TikTok was ridiculous, last year before the first lockdown. I really did think it was just for 14-year-olds, but BookTok is such a lovely community. These are people who like the same books as me, and I can talk about the books that I like. It just seems a little bit magical.”