Meet the BookTokers giving backlist titles a shot in the arm through the pandemic

Meet the BookTokers giving backlist titles a shot in the arm through the pandemic

Have you heard of Why Men Love Bitches?” a colleague of mine asked a couple of months ago over WhatsApp. “It’s back in the bestseller charts,” she added, followed by confused emojis. It had been 17 years since Sherry Argov’s guide to relationships was first published in the UK by F+W—so why had it reappeared, hitting a high of fifth place in The Bookseller’s Paperback Non-fiction chart in February 2021? The answer is TikTok. 

While the content of the title, which says it will take you from “doormat” to “dreamgirl”, might not be for all tastes, its resurgence this year is almost certainly down to the hashtag #whymenlovebitches, which has now been viewed over 11 million times on TikTok, the social media platform tailored for sharing short video content. 

BookTok is seemingly taking over from Bookstagram as the social-media driver of sales. #BookTok now has more than 5.8 billion views and the platform is giving a new lease of life to hundreds of books. One is E Lockhart’s 2014 YA novel We Were Liars. The book has 30.2 million views on its respective hashtag on the platform—and it re-entered the bestseller charts in summer 2020. The origin of this book’s popularity can possibly be attributed to one influencer, @moongirlreads_—run by 18-year-old Californian Selene Velez—who posted a video tagged “books that will make you sob”, in which she included We Were Liars. The video, just shy of half a minute long, enticing viewers with sombre music and slow transitions, now has 5.8 million views. 

Other backlist titles such as Adam Silvera’s They Both Die at the End, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, Taylor Jenkins Reid’s The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo and Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns have experienced the TikTok lift. Publishers themselves are only just now really harnessing BookTok’s power, but it is in many ways a more difficult platform to tap into audiences than other social media platforms. El Slater, marketing communications executive at Avon Books, says: “It’s an amazing opportunity for backlist. Trade publishing tends to be more frontlist-focused, but TikTok is a very organic way of getting your backlist out into a big sphere of book lovers in a way that other social media doesn’t seem able to do. I think there’s an authenticity to TikTok that you don’t always get with other social media apps. You can’t just populate a feed with sponsored posts, you have to really embrace and engage with your audience. You have to be real and authentic—not corporate.” 

 It’s easy to see why publishers would jump to create TikTok accounts, pay influencers for sponsored posts and churn out proof copies to more Gen Z book lovers online. However, it is early days and publishers are still experimenting. @Penguinteen is currently one of the biggest publishers on TikTok, amassing 242,000 followers since first posting from the account in October 2019. Others, such as Bonnier’s YA imprint Hot Key (@Hotkeybooks, currently on 32,000 followers), are also joining the wave. 

Portia Chauhan, marketing assistant at Hay House, believes that there was initial reluctance from the industry because “it took a while before publishers realised that TikTok isn’t just for young kids—there’s a whole subculture of users who are passionate about every kind of book imaginable. Too many people still think that TikTok is just an app for trending dances, when there is a whole world of creative book content on the app. The only way to tackle this confusion is to make the leap and actually try creating some content.” 

Alongside Hay House’s senior digital marketing manager Lizzi Marshall, Chauhan has been working on how to include authors on TikTok more, and what their content should look like. Although it initially began as a experiment, TikTok is now a serious consideration for part of their future campaigns. She says: “It’s started to become part of campaign plans that we pull together for authors and we’re able to identify which authors we think would work well on the app. We haven’t started working directly with creators already on the app, but my research is ongoing, and I hope in the future we can collaborate with BookTok users to create some really innovative content.” 

How to connect? 
Where does this leave publishers in the eyes of BookTokkers themselves? Bethan Richards, a 19-year-old student from Hampshire, has more than 122,000 followers and 3.5 million likes on @doriansbooks and has been contacted by a handful of publishers, including PRH, Hodder and the US romance specialist Entangled Publishing. She says: “During the first lockdown I was looking for a new hobby to take up in order to pass the time. I became addicted to creating videos. BookTok became a form of escape for me to go to whenever I wanted to express myself and the things that I loved.” 

She does think publishers could be doing more, though. “It is so easy for a TikTok to blow up on the app and I think that element could really work to publishers’ advantage, especially surrounding new book releases, as it is so easy for a TikTok to reach a wide range of different people and audiences.” 

One barrier that publishers seem to face with TikTok is the generation gap. Knowing all too well about the age assumptions are Kayla Stitt, 22, and Paige Smith, 23, teachers from Alberta, Canada, who run a joint BookTok (@kay.turnthe.paige) account, where they share reviews and videos, mostly focusing on crime and thriller titles. 

Their account now has 15,000 followers after starting in January 2021—with their introduction to BookTok sitting at 145,000 views. Stitt says: “When we began posting our content about books that do not fall into the YA genre, people reacted positively. We received a flood of DMs and comments like, ‘Yes! I have been waiting for this’. It almost felt like we were one of the first accounts to post about more sophisticated, adult books.” 

Avon marketing manager Ellie Pilcher (also the author of the Hodder-published romcom What Planet Can I Blame This On?) explains that the platform continues to excite publishers as new data and trends emerge. She says: “TikTok is so surprising. [We] initially thought it was going to showcase YA novels across the board, but I was shocked to see how much is weepy Regency romances… it has opened itself up to books that struggle on other platforms as a new place to thrive. Even some of our newly contracted authors have asked immediately about TikTok, and we will encourage them to get involved and grow an audience there.” 

Speaking about the future relationship of the app and publishing, Pilcher adds: “TikTok will become a norm in marketing campaign discussions, but for now it’s very exciting to see a new platform that publishing can use organically.”

The influence of TikTok on the Young Adult market was covered in the LBF seminar, "YA Spotlight: How to Get Noticed in a Crowded Market", now available on demand.