Viral books: BookTok’s impact on the business of books

Features

TikTok is changing the way authors, readers, and sellers interact with books

"TikTok made my buy it" table at Bolen Books. Photo by Maya Linsley.
“TikTok made me buy it” display table at Bolen Books. Photo by Maya Linsley.

In October 2020, young adult novelist Gabrielle Prendergast made a TikTok account. 

Its initial purpose was to celebrate an unexpected success: her novel, Zero Repeat Forever, was hitting top charts on Amazon. 

“My book went viral!” reads the text of her first post. By the time Christmas rolled around, she was posting about the consequences of that success: her book was sold out at major Canadian retailers, with no hope of a speedy restock.

On Feb. 1, 2021, she posted a TikTok of Zero Repeat Forever with the caption: “TFW I sold out of book 1 in a day.”

It was back in 2017 when Prendergast released her young adult (YA) sci-fi adventure, Zero Repeat Forever. Fast forward to 2020: in the midst of global shutdown, a tiny corner of the internet was growing quickly enough to shake industries. Within mere months, that tiny corner would become colloquially known as BookTok, or Book TikTok.

When BookTok went mainstream, it was easy enough to brush it aside as yet another frivolous, teen-dominated internet niche — but two years in, BookTok has morphed into a social force with tangible economic impacts. It’s a fact that has swayed the trajectory of Prendergast’s career. 

Vancouver-dwelling Prendergast got her start in screenwriting at the turn of the century. Over the next two decades her prolific production of YA fiction novels garnered her a number of awards, including the Monte Miller Award, the Westchester Fiction Award, and the BC Book Prize. Nevertheless, it was a shock to her when Zero Repeat Forever started trending on BookTok.

In October 2020, popular TikTok creator @alysecline, Alyse Cline, posted a video recommending the series to her followers. The video has since garnered over 48 000 likes, 2 000 comments, and 6 000 shares to date.

“People started responding to [the video] and going ‘this book sounds good, I’m going to buy it,’” Prendergast recalled. But three years after its publication, Zero Repeat Forever was harder to come by than new fans expected. Hopping on the momentum, Prendergast wrote to her publisher to ask if there was anything to be done so that new fans could get their hands on the novel, but found herself met with an unexpected lack of enthusiasm.

“They were just not interested at all,” she said. “And this went on for weeks. Amazon would find 10 copies somewhere and they would sell out immediately.” 

She was baffled by the publisher’s reluctance to meet growing demands for the series. Meanwhile, she watched Zero Repeat Forever hit the Amazon charts at Top 100 YA and Top 10 Wishlisted YA. At the time of writing, there are only eight paperback copies of the novel in stock on Amazon.

“They’re so out of it,” she said. “They didn’t see it for what it was.”

Zero Repeat Forever and its sequel, Cold Falling White which came out in November  2020,  were published by Simon Teen, a division of New York publishing giant Simon & Schuster, but many of Prendergast’s other novels have been published by the Victoria-based Orca Book Publishers. Curious about the publisher perspective on BookTok, I arranged a phone call with Kate Patrick, Orca’s social media manager. 

“Industry wide, we have definitely noticed an impact,” she said, after a cheerful exchange about the mingled relief and exhaustion of Friday mornings. “Most people go right to those [BookTok] tables when they walk into a bookstore … I’m sure it will only get bigger.”

Orca deals mostly in elementary and middle-grade literature, a demographic that Patrick sees as being slightly out of the typical BookTok range. Nevertheless, she’s fascinated by its potential to positively impact the business. 

“It’s a really weird and new kind of marketing,” she said. “It’s very different from any social media content we’ve used so far … It’s about making something engaging that doesn’t feel like an advertisement.”

Like Prendergast, Patrick was taken aback when BookTok exploded in popularity. Orca itself isn’t too active on TikTok, but Patrick seems enthusiastic about making the move eventually.

“I think publishers are still trying to figure out how to use it in the best way,” she reflected. 

The magnetic pull of in-store BookTok shelves certainly rings true in Victoria. Zoe Jensen, social media manager at Bolen Books, is the brains behind what she deems was Victoria’s first BookTok table, constructed on a whim when she started picking up on unexpected trends in the early days of the pandemic. 

Jensen’s office is tucked behind stock shelves full of board games, the walls lined with book posters from past sales campaigns. “We were just ahead of the curve,” she told me proudly, recounting the birth of her “little table” of popular BookTok titles. 

“I kept seeing all the same books being repeated over and over again [on TikTok],” she recalled. “So I went to our buyers … [and] they had no clue what [TikTok] was, but they kept noticing these random books kept having these big spikes in sales and they had no idea why.”

Unfortunately, those sales spikes coincided directly with massive global print delays, courtesy of COVID-19. Bolen Books did its best to meet demands for viral titles, but the delays made it hard. “We couldn’t get [some of these books] for months at a time. And it’s still happening, there’s still some we haven’t been able to get,” said Jensen. “The whole industry as a whole just was not ready and still is frantically trying to keep up.”

A full bookshelf, photo by Tina Li.
Photo of Tina Li’s book shelves provided.

She’s also seen TikTok change the expected timeline for a book’s popularity cycle, with previously obscure books gaining traction years after publication. “Typically, for books, [booksellers are] buying months before they’re published,” she said. “So for something like this, where when the book goes viral, it’s likely already published … if BookTok manages to sell out that [initial] print run, they’re not going to be able to get another print run for likely a few months… In this very material way, we can’t keep up.”

Even so, Jensen shares Patrick’s fascination with the phenomenon. “The books that kept being recommended were ones that the publishers weren’t even expecting,” she said. 

“One cool thing is the books that we’re now seeing published because the authors went viral,” she added, citing All of Us Villains, which picked up a publishing deal after its two authors posted viral TikToks about their idea for the novel.

Like Orca, Bolen Books hasn’t bothered to venture too far into TikTok. Jensen sees chasing virality as futile when most of the audience would end up being international anyway. “A lot of time goes into it, for no reward, essentially,” she said. She also hasn’t found a need to post too many BookTok-related things on Bolen Books’ active social media channels, explaining that all she needs to do is let followers know when in-demand books are back in stock.

“TikTok has already sold them the book, so we don’t even have to. We just have to actually manage to have the book, and then it’s sold,” she said.

In-store, she’s observed that the BookTok table is more popular with younger people, and links this to BookTok’s dominant demographic. “It’s that smaller group, from teenage to 20s … it’s a lot of YA type of stuff,” she said.

She’s particularly fascinated by the case of Colleen Hoover, a romance novelist whose books, pre-BookTok, weren’t widely distributed outside of the U.S. When BookTok picked up her 2016 novel It Ends With Us, Hoover’s fame exploded. Bolen Books keeps an entire shelf of her work now. To Jensen, the shift is utterly unprecedented. 

“Influencer culture has a massive say in it too,” she said. “They’re outselling us booksellers, honestly.”

These days, Jensen has colleagues who share the burden of anticipating BookTok hits with her. She spends a lot of time on the app, always keeping one eye open for new releases that might warrant bigger print orders.

At my request, Jensen took me out to the storefront, where her BookTok table commands the entryway. She explained that it was positioned to streamline shoppers into the romance shelves. The decision was made strategically, based on what she perceived to be most popular with buyers coming from TikTok.

In contrast to the ongoing struggles of publishers to catch up, though, Jensen thinks the social hype for BookTok is starting to die down. “There was this big, big swell of it … and then the mainstream [audience] sort of lost interest,” she said. 

“There’s probably about 20 to 30 titles that from the start were the big TikTok titles, and those have stayed the same the whole time.” 

She noted that books which gained traction towards the end of 2020 and throughout 2021, after the initial BookTok boom — like Zero Repeat Forever — haven’t enjoyed the same chart-shattering spotlights as the core titles that continue to reign supreme on Bolen Books’ BookTok table.

In the two years since its inception, BookTok has enjoyed a long run in the mainstream spotlight. In a February 2021 article, Refinery29 described BookTok as “The last wholesome place on the internet” and “A sanctuary for literature lovers of all kinds.” The Guardian chimed in with a piece on the rich reading lives of teen BookTok influencers in June of the same year. A subsequent CBC feature illustrated BookTok’s role in “reigniting interest in young adult fiction,” highlighting success stories from people involved.

I spoke to the central figure of one such success story over Zoom. Tina Li of Calgary is a high school senior and avid BookTokker. Her account has over 14 000 followers, and she leads a Discord book club themed around Taylor Swift. When we chatted, she told me her club had already gained over 500 members. 

Li discovered BookTok in its fledgling weeks, after a long reading slump that had followed her for most of high school. “I fell in love with books again,” she said, adding that this was her motivation to start creating book-themed TikToks. Her videos are clean and minimalistic, featuring everything from her current reads to book recommendations based on the personas of celebrities she likes. 

Since her account “blew up,” Li has been dipping her toes into influencer programs like NetGalley, a site that connects “readers of influence” — librarians, booksellers, bloggers, TikTokkers and more — to publishers. She’s been selected to review advance reader copies of The Atlas Six by Olivie Blake and several other books. 

Li aspires to a career in law. For her, BookTok is a hobby disconnected from the rest of her life. “I have my own life, and then I have my BookTok life … I don’t really merge it that much,” she explained.

“I like the escapism, just falling into a story.”

Ekamjot Pooni, a first year political science student at UVic, discovered BookTok in September 2021. It had such a big impact on her interest in books that she’s also considering a double major in English.

“I was more of a casual reader before,” she said. “Now I need to read a book every single day … I can’t get enough — it’s become an addiction.”

Her favourite thing about BookTok is the sheer volume of compelling book recommendations, created by influencers like Li. “I didn’t know there were so many books out there,” she said. “When people give you a glimpse of what a chapter is like, I’m like, ‘okay, I kind of want to read this.’” Pooni’s preferred genres are romance and mystery.

“I don’t think I ever look for books myself anymore,” she added, laughing. “TikTok already knows what I should read next!”

Since September, Pooni has been getting involved with English student organisations and activities at UVic while she considers declaring the major.

“I love BookTok,” she said. “It’s so awesome.” 

When Zero Repeat Forever picked up BookTok steam, rumours of a third instalment in the series began to circulate. At the time, Prendergast’s publishers had already told her that a third book was off the table. 

Prendergast sees an advantage in working with smaller publishers now that the internet is driving book popularization, and feels that older, more high-profile publishing companies may not yet have the adaptability necessary to tackle a new print era. 

On the flip side, Patrick states that Orca won’t push authors to market themselves unless they already have a significant online presence. She feels that it’s not necessary unless it comes naturally — “The pressure’s off with them,” said Patrick.

With something as fleeting and ever-changing as TikTok trends, Prendergast is skeptical of any long-term benefit to authors. 

“What I like about TikTok is not so much making the videos, but interacting with the readers,” she said. “I genuinely enjoy that part … but I don’t put as much thought into it as some of my colleagues.”

Since her books’ popularity skyrocketed, Prendergast has been active on TikTok, posting videos where she raises issues and shares anecdotes related to her work. But she does it for fun, not fame, and would rather steer clear of shouldering the burden of self-marketing her books on the platform. 

“If that’s what it takes, if I have to dance on TikTok, then I’d just rather not have it … It’s just not me.”

Nevertheless, she’s well aware of the power BookTok holds in the rapidly-changing book business. In a TikTok repost on March 12, she reveals the difference that going viral made on her annual royalty statements. Her 2019 statement shows the sale of 30 copies of Zero Repeat Forever‘s audiobook. In 2020, she sold over 2 000 copies.

“BookTok did that,” she says in the video. “Just a viral video, that’s all it takes. So you should always review the books that you love, because that can really happen to any author, not just me.”