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Is TikTok really 'negatively impacting literature'? Experts weigh in on the rising influence of BookTok

Is TikTok really 'negatively impacting literature'? Experts weigh in on the rising influence of BookTok

Since 2020, the book-loving corner of TikTok known as BookTok has driven sales, launched careers and influenced countless people to read more. Despite its power in popular culture, it’s still looked down on by some internet critics.

Though there are book-focused communities on YouTube, Instagram and X, formerly known as Twitter, BookTok is notorious for promoting algorithmically blessed books extensively. It’s the way TikTok works for all sorts of products, from Stanley cups to Amazon leggings. An item goes viral, creators make content about it to capitalize on the trend, and viewers are served those videos repeatedly because they’ve signaled to the algorithm that they’ll engage with that.

People who aren’t part of BookTok are still catching up on its influence, though. One X user declared a bookstore display of TikTok-famous books “the end of the world.” Others complained about books being “reduced” to BookTok shelves.

According to data from Circana BookScan, which tracks sales data for books, print sales of adult fiction books were up 4.2% in the first six months of 2023, and the biggest driver of that increase was books that have gone viral on TikTok. The site’s analyst told Publishers Weekly that BookTok-related sales “couldn’t continue to increase at the rate they had when the platform started to become a major discovery engine in 2020,” due in part, she said, to COVID restrictions being lifted, but she adds that BookTok is still the industry’s “most important platform” for discovering new writers. One literary agent told the Guardian that teenage BookTok influencers have driven the publishing industry’s appetite for certain books, including YA and romance.

BookTok is also sending people to their local bookstores, where owners embrace their internet-inspired patrons.

Michelle Tuplin, owner of Serendipity Books in Chelsea, Mich., told Yahoo News that her store doesn’t have a TikTok display, but the site influences what books they buy and where they put them.

“We are very aware of what’s trending,” she said. “We embrace our customers however and wherever they get their reading suggestions.”

Tuplin noted that many of their customers are young and said that it’s “fantastic” to see them “put older generations to shame” with their passion. TikTok definitely has an impact on reading habits — a May 2023 survey found 48% of TikTok users in the U.S. reported reading significantly more because of TikTok.

The Dog Eared Book in Palmyra, N.Y., has a display that reads “I saw it on TikTok but I can’t remember the title…” The shop’s owner, Carrie Deming, told Yahoo News that it’s one of their most popular displays.

“My customers happily chat with me and each other about what books they’ve been seeing on TikTok and how many videos they saw about a particular title before they decided they have to have it,” she said.

What BookTok is supposedly reading

Even those who have noticed BookTok’s power are still dismissing what books the community collectively reads. GQ wrote in 2023 that BookTok is “shallow” and prioritizes aesthetics over the act of reading. A writer for a student newspaper declared that “BookTok is negatively impacting literature” because, she writes, it can promote “toxic” literary relationships. Even TikTokers have declared the community “horrendous” and “toxic.”

BookTok is not a monolith that only reads Colleen Hoover books and smutty fantasy novels, though users do partake in quite a bit of that — enough for the industry to take note.

Viviana Montez, writer and editor in chief of the publishing house Prismatica Press, told Yahoo News that TikTok in general gets a bad rap because it’s so popular and its core users are often young. She said the platform is much more than young white women with short attention plans reading adult fantasy Iron Flame, but there’s nothing wrong with that either.

Montez said, “People are just hating on what young women are enjoying.”

Jess Maddox, a professor at the University of Alabama who researches BookTok, told Yahoo News that a lot of posts hating on BookTok are “rage bait” designed to generate engagement but some are a genuine attempt to start a “moral panic.” She explained that it often happens when influential communities have popular and outspoken users who are women, members of the LGBTQ community or people of color.

“It’s like you’re saying to these people, ‘You can’t win,’” she said. “If you’re using social media in a way that doesn’t relate to their narratives, people will get mad at you — even if you just say you like reading.”

Seeing mentions of BookTok in real life might be a bit unsettling because we’re not used to admitting how much an internet community can influence an entire industry, Maddox added. We don’t often see TikTok-friendly displays in makeup or clothing stores, though the app influences how we look and dress — but those industries don’t necessarily face extinction at the hands of massive companies the way bookstores do.

Instead of pushing back against all digital influence, booksellers are embracing it, making BookTok work in their favor.