The social media platform of the moment is TikTok, where generation Z is now spending an extraordinary amount of time. The app has become really popular amongst the young and the old alike, especially during lockdown, when it reached every generation simultaneously, from bored teens to working adults. Because of this reason, a lot of brands have started to incorporate TikTok into their social media strategies. And rightfully so.
The TikTok algorithm is smarter than any other algorithm to date. The For You page of the app is built according to the user’s past interactions with content, making it extremely personalised for each person. The feed is powered by a recommendation system that delivers content that will likely be of interest for that particular user. This makes it a very democratic platform, meaning that the follower count isn’t as important because videos can reach hundreds of thousands of views, without necessarily having to have a big following. No content is ever wasted: some videos might gain traction months after their publication, making it more stimulating for creators to upload their TikToks on the spur of the moment.
So what does this mean for the publishing industry?
In an effort to reach a younger audience, some publishers have already created TikTok accounts, one of the most successful being the Penguin Teen profile. The account became popular after their book domino TikTok went viral: 600 books were used to create a book domino that looped through the Penguin offices in New York. The video felt like it had been created by an individual, rather than a corporation. Social media channels work best when they are personality driven, because it makes the audience feel more comfortable and, as a result, more loyal.
The section of the platform that represents the literary community has been appointed as BookTok. As well as creating content on the latest books they are reading, TikTok also allows BookTokers to use its wide range of music and sounds in order to hop on trends that are going viral at the moment. They can promote books in a way that is less reflective and more ironic, quick to consume and that doesn’t require the same careful aesthetic approach as Instagram, a must in a world of drastically shortening attention spans.
As a consequence, TikTok has become a new way to get young people closer to the act of reading, and can even help revitalise a publisher’s backlist. Some creators have even made the classics one of their focal points, by re-creating conversations between the characters of the book and telling the plot of the novel in a funny and creative way. One of these people is Molly Samuel (molly.samuel on TikTok), who answers questions from her followers asking for advice on classics to read based on their personal preferences. Another classic-creator is 20-year-old Caity (caityreads on TikTok). One of her most popular TikToks was called “Classics I would write entire essays on”, which spurred a whole debate in the comment section on the classic novels users could talk about forever.
But as always, with the emergence of a new platform, there are issues, too. Most recently, highlighted by the Black Lives Matter protests, several TikTok creators flagged that their views dropped noticeably after they posted BLM-related content, to the point that some videos were even removed from the platform. In addition, several creators realised that TikTok was seemingly hiding general content from black creators. TikTok took immediate action on the matter, stating they do not engage in shadow-banning and that the videos were not removed on purpose. They also released a series of actions they plan to take in order to re-establish an inclusive environment on the platform, by uplifting voices from different communities and building a more user-friendly algorithm.
From a publishing perspective, the biggest complaint is that, compared to platforms like Instagram that have a more cultural approach to reading, TikTok lacks depth and it is not fit for book-related content. However, similar comments were previously made about Bookstagram, often referring to the phenomenon as frivolous because it is mostly visually-based. Perhaps this is why, despite the incredible progress that the publishing industry has made, it still stands slightly behind the rest of the creative industries when it comes to TikTok promotion. But new platforms should be seen as a resource for growth, instead of a threat to culture. The industry should be able to learn how to take advantage of these new opportunities and use them to lead the way, instead of waiting for the other industries to take the first step into the unknown.
Is TikTok really the next frontier of book promotion? Based on the effort invested by creators, the number of views BookTokers are making and the social awareness there is of the platform, the answer's a resounding yes.
Camilla Riccadonna is a 24-year-old publishing graduate from Milan, Italy. She just completed a Master of Arts in International Publishing at City University of London.