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BookTok Part 1: Book Reviewing In The Age of Social Media

by | Mar 16, 2022 | 1 comment

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By: Nancy K. Herther, writer, consultant and former librarian with the University of Minnesota Libraries.

The internet and now the pandemic itself is creating major changes in the creation, evaluation and consumption of reading materials. Social media’s role is clearly essential today, not only to readers, but, in the identifying and sharing of information that influences reading trends on a global level.

A LARGE AND GROWING MARKET FOR BOOK REVIEWING & SHARING

The organic nature of many book apps and websites have allowed readers to express their opinions and share their good reads. TikTok’s BookTok is perhaps the most popular consumer book review site today; however, other book recommendation communities are worth noting. Instagram’s Bookstagram, now owned by Facebook/Meta,  provides a similar platform for sharing book recommendations, creating short-form videos and developing broad-based communities and key influencers – as well as an option for authors themselves to participate. BookTube is a subset of YouTube and also attracts hundreds of thousands of viewers worldwide. The focus has been on Teen and Young Adult literature, but other genres, authors and interest areas continue to develop. 

When you look over the web, there are other highly influential book sites today as well, including: 

READING IS STILL FUNDAMENTAL – ESPECIALLY DURING A PANDEMIC

Reading is not only a foundation to literacy, but opens doors to insight, learning and growth to individuals of all ages and all types of interests. The numbers of people posting on BookTok and the impact on readership and book sales have been impressive! The COVID restrictions have provided a perfect environment for increased, and enhanced, engagement between readers across the globe.

Momentum is strong and clearly still growing and anyone in the educational, publishing or information industry certainly applauds this increasing interest and the use of social media to reinforce the value of reading, learning and sharing. Better understanding the impact of TikTok and social media in general on the book industry, readers and the rediscovery of incredible works of literature is fundamental today as well. 

According to British publishing house Bloomsbury, sales saw a record 220% rise in profits, partly caused by the phenomenon of BookTok. Special edition TikTok stickers have also been printed onto popular BookTok books as a new-age marketing tool for Gen Z and young millennials to purchase books. E-commerce platform Amazon has also taken to including the phrase “TikTok made me buy it!” under book bios in order to intrigue buyers into purchasing them. 

“The pandemic accelerated changes in how people use their televisions, further reducing the dominance in traditional live viewing of what networks are showing, a new study has found,” reported ABC News in 2021. “Nearly two-thirds of people said in June that they viewed free video on demand content on their televisions once a week, up from 46% in February 2020, according to Hub Entertainment Research

THE PANDEMIC FOSTERS NEW OPPORTUNITIES FOR BOOK SHARING

A new survey by Hub Entertainment Research examined the time spent watching TV and movies, which continues to decline among all consumers and now accounts for less than half (48%) of the time spent with screen-based entertainment. However, apps seem to be taking over as a communications channel today. 

An August 2021 opinion piece in The Guardian, asserted that “TikTok is the new Facebook – and it is shaping the future of tech in its image…the swift rise of the Chinese video-sharing app could have ramifications for all of us and how we live, both online and off.”   British sports retailer JD and Nike are developing a new type of advertising, to give users the “first augmented reality (AR) shoe try-on” while in the app. 

David Arditi

David Arditi isn’t so sure that the pandemic has had a significant effect on the rise of BikTok and similar systems.  “I’m not sure that there is a connection between the pandemic and BookTok.” The Associate Professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Arlington notes that, “yes, some people have relied increasingly on social media to maintain social contact. During the height of the pandemic lockdown, people were developing new ways to connect. As I describe in my book Streaming Culture, people went online to develop new ways to experience culture together, especially around Zoom parties. But I think online communities developing around common interests is something that has occurred alongside the development of the Internet.”  His book, subtitled “Subscription Platforms And The Unending Consumption Of Culture,” provides a good understanding of the expansive impact of streaming services and how streaming platforms are reshaping media culture today.

GRANT BLANK AND THE SOCIOLOGY OF REVIEWING

In the classic study, Critics, Ratings and Society: The Sociology of Reviews, British sociologist Grant Blank explains how economic concerns like price are overshadowed by review-constructed hierarchies. When this happens, culture constructs markets and the messages that are available to readers. He argues that review-constructed hierarchies are widespread as a consequence of inherent structural characteristics of contemporary capitalism and, as a result, reviews will become more important in the future.  However, he couldn’t have guessed at how much things would change in the 16 years since the publication of his book.

The role of reviews, he reminded his readers, is to persuade. “Reviewers must convince. Although they are often members of formal organizations, reviewers have no formal authority and the decision to follow a reviewer’s advice is strictly voluntary. Reviewers must convince readers to follow their recommendations: they rely on persuasion. This fact has far-reaching consequences for almost every aspect of reviews.

In his book, he discusses the “first modern American restaurant review” by NYT food editor Craig Claiborne on May 24, 1963, and the “first large comparative review of software” in PC Magazine in 1984. In each case, “the popularity of reviews surprised publishers and motivated them to make reviews a permanent part of their publications. This underscores two points: the first is that reviews are published because audiences are interested. By buying and reading publications, audiences provide the resources needed to conduct and disseminate reviews. 

Credibility was key, Blank found, and “helps shape the larger social and cultural world.  By publicly evaluating and comparing products and performances, reviews make stratification into a cultural hierarchy explicit and public…since good and bad reviews are such emotionally intense subjects for authors and other product makers, readers may naturally wonder if there is anything here about what produces the good evaluation or the bad.  Sadly, I have nothing to say about the outcome of the evaluation.  But a positive or negative evaluation of a product depends on its idiosyncratic characteristics and no general statements are possible.” 

In his book, Blank makes it clear how credibility used to be based on experience, background and expertise. Today, at least in the arena of popular books, expertise is less important than persuasive comments of fellow readers. In the scholarly world, we aren’t seeing this change as much as in the general public where the impact of ‘the crowd’ has been enormous. 

Today with the internet, this reliance of persuasion still exists, but it is based on very different qualifications and is having enormous impacts on the approaches being taken by booksellers, publishers, libraries, schools and other cultural agencies. Just as the web has upended so many other aspects of information seeking, communication and trend-setting, these newer web-based reviewing venues still have what Blank called “far-reaching consequences for almost every aspect of reviews.”

At least for professional and scholarly works, as Blank noted in his book, “reviews are a research site where credibility and trust are particularly important issues. Most of what we know is not based on personal experience. We all depend on secondary sources of information, but no one has the time or resources to verify it.” Today, we can increasingly see that “in modern society, where much of our information comes from mass media, the credibility of secondary information is central.” 

FROM RE-VIEWERS TO ME-VIEWERS

Maarit Jaakkola

In a 2019 article in Interactions: Studies in Communication & Culture, University of Gothenburg’s Maarit Jaakkola studied the emerging forms of reviewing cultural products. Her study of Bookstagram and other apps postulates that the sharing aspect of these user reviews can be “understood as book-reading accomplishments, where a central objective is to create a public image of oneself as a reading person.” Her most recent book is Reviewing Culture Online: Post-institutional Cultural Critique across Platforms (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022).  ATG interviewed her about her research in this evolving area. 

NH: Due to the pandemic, there is greater reliance on the Internet for work, education, communication and pleasure. The pandemic has changed schooling and working patterns, leaving it to individuals to find information, deal with increased leisure and communicating with others. What factors – e.g., isolation, available technology – do you see impacting the growth of BookTok?

MJ: The pandemic has surely made people discover new dimensions of digital connectivity, and this surely applies for book communities as well. TikTok, or Douyin in its home market in China, is the newest among the popular platforms accommodated by book and literature content creators. The number of TikTok users is constantly growing, as do the revenues that the platform creates. It can be expected that BookTok is one of the communities that will keep growing, and short videos in the form of book talks, recommendations, reviews and memes have a potential of reaching new audiences, compared to written texts on Goodreads and in blogs, or images on Instagram or longer videos on YouTube. At the same time, even booksellers and book educators may discover the format.

NH: For libraries, ‘reader advisories’ have been historically (and professionally) important. In education, teachers have ‘controlled’ selection and consumption. How do you see potential ways for integrating lessons being learned post-COVID into these professions? What types of change do you think might happen longer-term?

MJ: Reader advisories, as well as professional book reviewers, teachers and other adults working with children, have been said to be challenged by the “democratization” of literary gatekeeping. The increased engagement by ordinary people should, however, not be seen as a threat to the professions but rather the other way round. 

I’m currently writing a book on the pedagogical potential of the genre of book review on social platforms, and I believe that once genres and topics that were previously limited to institutional interaction in classrooms and libraries are now becoming part of the everyday and everyday informal learning, the phrase “everybody can be a reviewer” becomes a positive tone: not in the sense of demolishing the role and activities of professionals but in the sense of empowering ordinary cultural consumers to reflect upon books as part of their lifestyle. The same goes for any other products that consumers are using: producing content on them makes people reflect more on their origins, functions, and essence.

NH: If you had your own ‘crystal ball,’ what do you see as the long-term impact that BookTok-types of systems could have on book creation/production? What might be the ‘next step’ in this type of ad hoc collaborative consumption and promotion of literature?

MJ: Let me just correct one thing: the collaborative and productive consumption of literature is not necessarily “ad hoc”, even if it may appear as a spontaneous activity. (This may also be a conscious strategy put forward by the producers to create a sense of authenticity, a relaxed atmosphere and a certain style.) It is typical of many book recommenders on the older platforms where the phenomenon of Booktoks derives from (Instagram, Goodreads) to report on their reading activities systematically and within a longer period of time.

Recommending books merges with one’s own cultural engagement and works as kind of a journaling, as a monitoring and self-tracking activity, and a portfolio of literature read. This way, addressing literature on social media platforms can be a long-term effort by the individuals who are engaged in it, and social structures of shared readings create continuity for it.

When it comes to seeing what the future of BookTok and other forms of online literature talk looks like, I believe that sharing consumption with others will become a more permanent and natural part of the everyday lives of those users who are active online. When a genre evolves, new formats and subgenres emerge, and even social structures develop, which consolidates the identity of those involved and possibly makes them more “professionalized” in their production. The professionalization ensures the continuity of the activity, and also urges producers to develop shared ethics, so it may be a good thing in the long run, and we certainly have to push platforms and producers to develop explicit ethics for increased trustworthiness, transparency and fairness. Perhaps in the future we will see events, prizes and associations dedicated to books in social media, based on the grassroots activities of “ordinary” cultural consumers.

THE RISE OF BOOKSTAGRAMMERS & BOOKTOKKERS

Calling them “Oprah’s Book Club, but in the digital age,” a new category of influencer has arisen, often called bookstagrammers or BookTokkers, individuals whose ideas, opinions and suggestions are highly influential on especially younger readers. Not only are influencers becoming critical sources of information and recommendations, but just like review sources, time investments mimic such traditional sources of influence – from book jackets to ads to reviews.  Consultancy Backlinko’s recent data reveals that “globally, the average time spent on TikTok per day is 52 minutes with 90% of users accessing it on a daily basis.  Its average session time of 10.85 minutes makes it the most engaging social media app available today. In the US, on average TikTok users spend 33 minutes per day using the app.”

A recent article in the Independent called this trend “a massive trend and has grown into a vibrant community.” One such influencer, Elizabeth Cayouette, believes that “short-form videos are the future of advertising. I also think that the publishing industry is just beginning to learn how to value influencer content, and that we will see influencers take on a bigger role in recommending books in the coming months and years.”

“TikTok’s inspiring a reading renaissance — and it’s turning decade-old books into first-time bestsellers,” notes a September Insider article. In the article B&N’s Shannon DeVito was quoted as saying that “the impact has been massive for us in terms of sales,” noting that B&N’s Top 10 titles have been in their Top 50 for the last year, and their Top 10 have sold tens of thousands of copies — The Song of Achilles more than 100,000.”  The article concludes with this affirmation: “From a retailer’s perspective, #BookTok is also the pinnacle of organic marketing. Book sales have shot up because readers are genuinely intrigued by the books pitched to them.”

“There has been a noticeable shift in how young readers approach reading where digital literacy communities serve as much purpose as traditional literacy communities like an ELA classroom,” Sarah Jerasa and Trevor Boffone note in a recent Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy article. “As the sub-community for book lovers and readers, BookTok is connected to a lineage of literacy practices. Despite the newness of TikTok, these democratized spaces provide teen readers with agency, community, and digital literacies for their voices, ideas, and creativity to take shape. By including or acknowledging BookTok literacy practices in ELA classrooms, teachers have the potential to hinge on digital literacies that are ultimately shaping students and their cultural understandings.

SEEDING INTEREST DURING A PANDEMIC

The NY Times reported in March 2021 that “print book sales had their best year in a decade” and e-book sales increased as well, along with audiobook downloads. One of the things I find most exciting about their story, based on a BookScan report, was that juvenile fiction was “leading the way’ in this trend, which is really encouraging to hear. I am also thrilled to see that “our reading tastes were greatly influenced by the news.”  I think one of the most important roles of books and reading should be to help us place what is going on in the world in greater context. One of my fervent wishes for society is that we do better at being intellectually curious and seeking out context and depth of understanding to our current problems, and this seems to show that some of that is happening.” 

We are in a maelstrom of major change. Books and the nature of reviewing is changing very rapidly. In the next part of this coverage, we will look at the evolving field of book promotion, consumption and how discovery is being changed due to the increasingly role of social media.

Nancy K. Herther, writer, consultant and former librarian with the University of Minnesota Libraries

1 Comment

  1. Matthew Ismail

    This is quite interesting. I think that most people, outside of academe, have stopped listening to “expert” reviewers. If you like Zombie Apocalypse movies and the New York Times reviewer thinks that they are a waste of time, then you will no doubt be more interested in what other people who like zombie movies think. With social media and other sites where anyone can post, we are no longer hostage to the whims and tastes of a few media outlets in New York. A zombie movie on Amazon Prime Video with mostly positive reviews is one that the zombie enthusiast will probably enjoy. This doesn’t apply to academic monographs, of course, where subject experts are still the arbiters of what constitutes good work…

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