IOWA, USA — Don’t believe everything you hear about TikTok: the app isn’t just a place for teens to do trendy dances or participate in ill-advised trends.
In fact, many young people are turning to the platform to share a love of reading. As they do so, local booksellers around Des Moines are reaping the benefits.
A community on TikTok, known among users as BookTok, focuses almost exclusively on reacting to books and recommending them to others.
The phenomenon has changed the modern publishing industry, as a simple video on TikTok can catapult certain books to the top of the bestseller lists.
“People love getting personal recommendations from people that they know,” said Abbey Paxton, owner of Storyhouse Bookpub in Des Moines. “It feels like, what social media and particularly BookTok has done, [is capture] that feeling.”
The BookTok phenomenon has been widely documented, including by major news outlets such as The New York Times and NPR.
Book retailers like Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million also have dedicated sections for #BookTok lovers.
According to The NPD Group, combined book sales for authors featured prominently on BookTok more than doubled in 2021. Bestselling authors on BookTok include Colleen Hover, Leigh Bardugo, Taylor Jenkins Reid, Madeline Miller and Emily Henry.
The most voracious readers on BookTok tend to skew on the younger side. Jena Best, owner of Raccoon River Press, said this is the exact opposite of what people might expect.
“I’ve had people come in and say, ‘Oh, nobody reads anymore,’” Best said. “And then I have like, 15 younger people come in and want some of these titles.”
As of October 2022, the hashtag #BookTok has more than 82.4 billion views on TikTok. Both Paxton and Best have felt the effects of the phenomenon: books popular on the app, such as “The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo”, “The Love Hypothesis”, “Verity” and “The Song of Achilles” are flying off the shelves.
“My experience has come from people coming to my events or contacting me online about things they’ve seen on BookTok, or things they’ve seen that have bad reviews on BookTok, and they want to talk about it,” Best said.
Paxton notes that while social media has always been a driving factor behind book sales, the concentration of books is different: there are fewer popular titles that more people have heard about.
Popular genres on BookTok include romance, young adult fiction and science fiction or fantasy. Beyond genre, though, many of the books have one thing in common: they’re written by white, straight women.
“It’s good that books are getting in front of people and people are getting excited about that, but also, what books are getting the most attention?” Paxton said.
That’s where local bookstores can really make a difference, Paxton believes.
With an influx of new readers coming in from BookTok, booksellers can benefit from the momentum.
“The position that I see independent bookstores in is helping the newly excited reader now find the just rich and deep rivers of books that actually do exist, that maybe aren’t getting the amount of marketing and amount of attention that these very few that have risen to the top have,” she said.
Even with BookTok’s flaws, these independent bookstores still see the community as an opportunity.
“Say what you will about social media maybe being bad, but I think there’s a lot of good that can come out of BookTok,” Best said.
Paxton agrees with this sentiment.
“It’s getting people excited about reading, who might not have been excited about reading in a while,” she said.
As BookTok continues to grow and young people are hungry for new books to read, Paxton urges them to look local first.
“Take that energy and bring it into your local community ... Take it to your independent bookstore, take it to a local library, get connected.”