- In 2020 and 2021, book sales surged, reaching a near 20-year peak, according to industry data.
- Industry insiders say one of the driving factors of the surge was BookTok, the book niche on TikTok.
- We spoke to industry insiders about how the book world riding the wave of the BookTok phenomenon.
When Colleen Hoover’s romance novel “It Ends with Us” debuted in 2016, it received positive reviews from readers and, like several of her previous books, hit the New York Times best seller list, where it stayed for two weeks.
Five years later, in 2021, it surged to the Times’ list again, and it’s stayed there for 29 weeks. 2021 sales of Hoover’s books were up 650% over 2020 sales, with 1.9 million copies sold, according to data from NPD BookScan, the largest book sales tracker in the US.
Hoover has a surprising phenomenon to thank for that: BookTok, a thriving genre of TikTok videos that feature everything people showing off bookshelves, recommending books, and reacting to popular titles.
In Hoover’s case, the videos typically feature frustrated or desperate readers commenting on the character’s behavior in the book, often with emotional songs in the background, like Taylor Swift’s “All Too Well.”
Videos about “It Ends with Us” have been watched millions of times as part of #BookTok, the category of TikToks about books that has amassed more than 41 billion views — that’s 10 billion more views than #unboxing and nearly five times more than #recipe.
Since mid-2020, TikTok has been the driving force of an unprecedented surge in book sales, industry insiders say. In 2021, 825 million book copies were sold in the US, according to data from NPD BookScan. That's the highest number since 2004, when NPD began collecting information, and up 9% from 2020.
While the sales tracked by NPD are not all attributable to the social platform — there is no way to track if TikTok videos are directly responsible for sales — industry professionals say the connection between the two is indisputable.
Just look at any 2021 best sellers list: Hoover's novels, titles like Taylor Jenkins Reid's "The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo," Emily Henry's "People We Meet on Vacation," and Madeline Miller's "The Song of Achilles" — all of which have made waves on TikTok — are among the most-purchased books of the year.
What makes a BookTok sensation?
Publishing industry professionals were first thrown off when they noticed an unexpected growth in sales of "backlisted" books, or older titles, like E. Lockhart's "We Were Liars," starting in mid 2020.
The strategy of marketers has always been to push and advertise newer books, industry experts said, and those usually sell better.
"We started analyzing our social media and realized, nothing is cooking on Instagram, really, so where is this coming from?" Chief Marketing Officer of Simon & Schuster Liz Perl told Insider.
Perl and her team were quickly able to trace a direct relationship between what was being discussed on TikTok — or, more specifically, BookTok — and what was selling.
Genres like young adult fiction, romance, and fantasy novels tend to excel on the app, and when discussing BookTok, the media tends to focus on the "criers," or readers of emotional works of fiction.
But BookTok communities have grown and developed for a number of other genres, and sometimes, entirely unexpected books find success through it.
The Argentinian fiction work "Tender is the Flesh," for example, recently saw a surge in sales. The dystopian horror novel about a world where cannibalism is legalized was first published in English in 2020, and it had been selling around 150 copies a week for a year, Perl said. Then, around Halloween 2021, sales rose steadily to about 2,000 copies a week. After some research, her team discovered an array of TikTok videos reviewing the book.
"I would say this is a case where sales are just 100% attributed to TikTok," Perl said. "And it doesn't fall into a category like Hoover's books, that one surprised us."
From swag bags to TikTok-savvy hires, publishers are taking note
Almost two years in, publishers and authors across the country have acknowledged the phenomenon and are refining their digital marketing strategies to cater to TikTok audiences.
At St. Martin's Press, an imprint of Macmillan Publishing, BookTok has garnered the attention of sales teams, who have started to regularly tracking TikTok metrics.
The company's marketing team has hired TikTok-savvy marketers to help the publisher create authentic campaigns, so it doesn't feel like "a bunch of out-of-touch people in an ivory tower who don't really know what's right," said Jeff Dodes, an executive vice president for marketing at the company.
The company's TikTok account, which launched in 2021, features not only promotional videos, but also bookstore tours and book recommendations from an assistant marketing manager.
Other publishers have gone directly to the source of the content to improve their strategies. British independent publisher Joffe Books, for example, hired a TikTok creator as its social media manager.
Simon & Schuster has also been ramping up marketing strategies around TikTok, including regularly sending TikTok creators swag boxes with the books and small gifts matching the book's tone or themes.
"The unboxing really blew up, and BookTokers are having a lot of fun with it," said Perl, who thinks the short video format on TikTok is ideal for unboxing content.
But while marketers attempt — and sometimes succeed — to promote their books on TikTok, there's no magic formula to make a book take off, industry experts say, and some in the field are falling prey to the idea that TikTok success comes automatically if a book meets certain criteria.
"Some folks have looked at TikTok like, put a quarter in, pull the TikTok lever, and three cherries are going to come up, and you're gonna get a million sales," Dodes said.
The reality is different, he adds. Campaigns need to be carefully thought out and as authentic as possible to avoid alienating the audience.
For authors themselves, TikTok has been incredibly helpful for self-promotion. Dana Schwartz, whose newly published novel is already a bestseller, said she did everything she could to advertise her work, even if that meant embarrassing herself as a 29-year-old lip-syncing in videos.
"It's been incredibly exciting," she said. "I'm just so grateful to all readers for buying the book, reading the book and spreading the word on TikTok."
'We may find that we have a generation who read more'
One undisputed winner of the BookTok phenomenon is bookstores.
James Daunt, CEO of Barnes & Noble and of British bookstore chain Waterstones, said that the BookTok phenomenon is unlike any he's seen in his 35 years as a bookseller.
"It's huge, beyond anything in my career," he said, adding that it's helping the retailer gain momentum outside of the younger TikTok demographic.
"It's bringing energy into the bookstores," he said. "It's just more fun being in a bookstore where there are people having fun, where there's a bunch of kids talking."
Many bookstores now have their own BookTok tables, filled with the new hits, as well as the older titles that have gone viral.
While it seems that the pandemic played a role in shifting reading habits, with people spending time at home like never before, industry professionals are optimistic about the prospects for book sales in 2022, even as restrictions ease.
Ariele Fredman, Colleen Hoover's publicist at Simon & Schuster's Atria, thinks that the pandemic may have reignited people's love for a type of entertainment that they had relegated in a corner. And Daunt believes TikTok is changing a whole generation.
"Once you discover books, I think that endures through," he said. "We may find that we have a generation who read more because they found books."