Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 8
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Bibliophiles Unite: Examining the Uses of BookTok

Illustration by Edyn Parsell

Type the word ‘BookTok’ into your internet browser. Go on. I dare you.

If you were like me, you probably weren’t expecting much. Worst case scenario: You stumble into some obscure dark corner of the internet that you were perfectly content not being privy to before you accepted this stupid dare.

But as your fingers warily tap across your keyboard and hit ‘enter,’ you realize that you have crossed the threshold into every bibliophile’s Elysium.

A sub-community of the social media platform TikTok, BookTok is fed by a steady stream of short videos created by readers whose enthusiasm for books rivals only that of Gatsby’s love of opulence. Video content consists of everything from reader reviews and recommendations, reactions to plot twists, ‘tours’ of library collections, book-related products and paraphernalia and unpacking their spoils after their most recent shopping spree at Barnes & Noble.

“I think we’ve seen an increase in a lot of book readers because of BookTok,” Bridget Scoles, Student Success and Instruction Librarian at Penrose Library, said. “Before I was a librarian, I was a bookseller and we definitely had a lot of people coming in over the pandemic because of BookTok. We even had tables [dedicated to viral BookTok recommendations] out for them to shop.”

As a reader-based community, BookTok is not run by dominating figures in the publishing industry. Rather, BookTok is simply a place for avid readers to creatively engage with one another, have a continued conversation about books and share in the emotional journey that books can offer readers.

A leading characteristic of BookTok is the way it highlights certain books, elevating them to new levels and creating sweeping trends. 

For example, Sarah J. Maas is the author of three bestselling series: Throne of Glass (ToG), A Court of Thorns and Roses (ACOTAR) and Crescent City. It is rare to find a BookTok user who has not heard of – if not already having meticulously read and extensively created content about – Maas’s wildly popular book series. Maas’s novels have inspired BookTok users to cosplay, buy and sell elaborate handcrafted costumes and attend exquisite ACOTAR-themed events referred to by those in the know as Starfall Balls. Venues for Starfall Balls are located in multiple countries and expensive tickets are highly coveted by fans, most of them young women. Tickets for the March 2024 Starfall Ball held at the London Natural History Museum range from $232 to $322. 

The content of Maas’s novels doesn’t just appear inked on book pages, but also on skin. Literally. A trend for ACOTAR-inspired tattoos has appeared across not only BookTok, but also Instagram, Facebook, X (formerly known as Twitter) and Pinterest. Artists create and sell art associated with Maas’s books in various mediums including jewelry, paintings, book page overlays, graphic novels, stickers, plaques, t-shirts, figurines, blankets… and the list goes on. 

“People are so creative with it [and] I wouldn’t consider that a bad thing at all,” Senior Elena Schenkenberg said. “I think it’s super cool to see how people engage with this and make meaning out of it. But I do get the mass consumption [vibe], which I don’t think is inherent to reading.”

Schenkenberg and her housemates are reading many of Maas’s novels. When I ask her if BookTok has enhanced her enjoyment of the series as a reader, she specifically cites the artwork inspired by the novels as a feature of BookTok that she appreciates.

“I think especially looking at the creative aspects of BookTok, like the artwork, I think that’s cool,” Schenkenberg said. “And to have this image that someone’s created that I’m like, ‘Oh my god, that’s totally how I picture this character or this place!’ I think that that then can help me visualize things better and know that what I’m thinking about is what other people are thinking about, or the way that I’ve interpreted some scene or some line has resonated with the same people.”

Some fans have written musical scores attributed to the ACOTAR series and BookTok users frequently debate possible cast members for the characters featured in Maas’s series, in hopes that the moguls of the film industry will get the hint. 

While Schenkenberg admires the artwork and music that is shared by BookTok users and the community of vivacious readers it brings together, she is wary of the consumer culture that is promoted on the platform. 

“I’ve also come across people talking about BookTok as being this new wave of kind of hyper-consumption and mass consumption of really glamorizing owning a bunch of books rather than maybe getting loaned out books from the library,” Schenkenberg said. “I think it becomes another avenue of mass consumption.”

Schenkenberg is definitely on to something. BookTok users commonly make videos focused on their monthly ‘book haul’ showing their monthly literary purchases to the camera one-by-one, flashing the glossy covers of brand-new books to allow their audience to read the titles.

Book haul trends suggest that BookTok has been a monumental force in the book selling industry, and a recent article by the New York Times speaks to this. According to the New York Times, BookTok has helped authors sell 20 million printed books in 2021. Midway through 2022, the article reported that book sales had increased by 50 percent from the previous year.

Experts in the field, such as Kristen McLean, the executive director and industry analyst at Circana BookScan, have discussed the role of BookTok and media in book sales. Circana BookScan compiles data on retail sales in the book publishing industry and has noted that, prior to the pandemic, growth in the young adult print market could be largely attributed to the marketing associated with and release of major movie tie-ins and series bestsellers. Through BookTok, the market can deduce which titles will be a hit amongst users and thus which titles should be adapted for the big screen.

While BookTok is a platform by and for readers, publishers pay attention. Kathryn Frank, Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies, spoke about the implications of this in BookTok. 

“One [discussion] is in what ways is using TikTok as a platform for promotion potentially affecting the publishing industry and the kinds of decisions that publishers might make. So for instance, are there certain types of books that will go viral, and so they’re publishing more of those, maybe to the exclusion of other kinds of books, which is a real potential concern,” Frank said.

Frank draws a comparison between the book publishing industry and the music producing industry, highlighting that singer/songwriter artists often feel pressure from their record labels to produce music that is best suited for TikTok, oftentimes at the expense of artistic expression.

“A lot of artists have described being pressured by record labels to release certain kinds of songs that they think will work better or trend better on TikTok, which of course is a concern for these industries that although they do exist to make money, they’re also for the purpose of artistic expression,” Frank said.

Frank further explained the relationship between publishing decisions and algorithms. Producers and publishers make decisions based on the data amassed by media platform analysts, but this data is often at the mercy of algorithmic functions that filter content into users’ feeds. This leaves us to question whether the content that appears in users’ feeds is informed on the perceived interests of the individual user or if it is based on algorithms concerned with fulfilling corporate marketing schemes.

“If you look at the kinds of decision making that get made by people in media industries, it’s like a weird game of telephone,” Frank said. “They see these things are selling or these things are trending. So obviously, it must be that people like this. And often it’s not very connected.”

Publishing companies are most willing to publish books that will sell in large quantities. They prioritize books with massive fanbase communities, such as BookTok, and books with sequels and the promise of more consumer material, including franchise merchandise primed to dominate the mass marketing industry. 

“Anytime you’ve got people trying to make big, big economic decisions based on what they’re seeing on social media, the results are often pretty far field from what it is that people are actually talking about,” Frank said. “The field of choices that are available to us are already being shaped by the publishers and what they’re willing to publish.”

Not only does this limit the field of choices, but the presence of publisher influence and algorithms unfortunately perpetuates a variety of existing inequalities.  

For example, the focus on mass consumption can exacerbate economic inequalities. Scoles addresses rituals like book hauls that are so revered by book-hungry users, noting the economic inequalities that prevent many users from participating in the trend with their fellow bibliophiles.

“I’ve loved seeing that increase in readers, but I think the downside is that it has created this commoditization of books. We often see people do their book haul every single month and it’s $200 worth of books,” Scoles said.

BookTok contributes to a variety of existing inequalities due to the groups that it chooses to represent or exclude, whether it be in books themselves, popular authors or well-known BookTokers.

“I think another potential concern is if we look at BookTok, like a lot of the popular social media spaces, [it does] tend to reproduce existing inequalities,” Frank said. “For instance, I’ve seen some concerns that it’s harder for Black or other people of color BookTokers to get popular. Which is partially algorithmic, right? [But] this is also a space where racism exists. If BookTok is dominated, for instance, by a particular demographic – let’s say young white women – there are publishers focusing on that to the exclusion of maybe a more diverse or inclusive array [of BookTok content and users].”

Scoles has hopes for a more inclusive BookTok and has observed that many BookTok users are seeking to include more diverse content, such as books with protagonists that are LBGTQ+ or people of color.

“I think there is definitely a drive to make BookTok more diverse,” Scoles said. “I think the beauty of BookTok is [that we] have an outpouring of BookTok members being like, ‘Well, here’s a great book I read by a Black author and it’s about a young Black woman and she’s learning to become her own person.’ I think [that] trying to push diverse books is great.”

Scoles celebrates the fact that people who ordinarily wouldn’t have easy access to books can now partake in a community of devoted and enthusiastic readers through BookTok.

“Even as a librarian [and] as someone who reads a lot, I still find books on BookTok that I’ve never heard about before and I’ll put them on my to-read list and try and get a copy,” Scoles said. “I think definitely it’s opening up a world of books to people who maybe haven’t had that experience or that access before.”

So, if you chose to google BookTok and found that you have a hankering to join the online world of literary enthusiasts, feel free to enjoy the content and camaraderie that the BookTok community provides. But, be mindful of the content that is presented to you, and perhaps use the opportunity to motivate yourself to visit your local library or discover a new love for a book that isn’t on the bestseller list.


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    GARRETT H PEARDFeb 25, 2024 at 8:46 am

    Excellent article!!!!