By: Nancy K. Herther, writer, consultant and former librarian with the University of Minnesota Libraries.
In the new book, In Praise of Good Bookstores, author Jeff Deutsch, a “devoted reader and lifelong bookseller,” used his own experiences as a bookseller to examine the role of bookstores in our world today. “In the 21st century, many readers think the bookstore is obsolete, and many citizens think serious reading is not worth their time. I am energized by the element of advocacy the work now includes. Celebration, whether of publishers, bookstores, or both, is a key element of our work, and, for that, I’m grateful, even though I never imagined it would become necessary,” Deutsch explained in an interview. “We know that browsing is our primary product, and that our community relies on our filtration and arrangements to discover the book they want to read next,” he continued.
In contemporary society, Deutsch laments, there are “few spaces for conversation and meaningful encounter.” Bookstores, though, are one of the only spaces left that provides a forum for “explicit and tacit public conversation in the form of dialogues between the bookseller and store patrons, among customers, or at literary readings.” BookTok is breathing new life into reading and books at a time when the pandemic has limited our physical interactions. It is also changing the very relationship and roles of readers, publishers and authors.
“TikTok is the international twin of China’s mobile short video app, Douyin, and one of the fastest growing short video platforms in the world,” notes a 2020 article in Mobile Media and Communication. “Owned by Chinese tech giant, ByteDance, TikTok and Douyin share many similarities in terms of appearance, functionality, and platform affordances; however, they exist in radically different markets and are governed by radically different forces.”
THE RISE OF TIKTOK & BOOKTOK
By 2021, apps that put photos and videos at the center of the user experience became dominant with some credit to the pandemic for this incredible growth for book sharing social apps. TikTok, owned by China’s ByteDance, quickly became not only a dominant global social app, but the leading book sharing app through their BookTok.
These apps are still small compared to the size and communities of the larger, general social media apps, which have attracted millions of users. However, for book lovers, these book apps have become essential communication channels – and especially for younger book lovers.
Techwire Asia noting that in 2021, “despite concerns on privacy and such, social media apps like TikTok and Instagram, which primarily rely on photos and videos, were the top social apps last year.” “Despite losing over 200 million of its users in India following the ban,” Dashveenjit Kaur wrote in 2021, “TikTok continues to be the highest-grossing app worldwide. It took Facebook and Instagram almost a decade to get a humongous user base size; while it took TikTok barely four years.”
Calling BookTok “the last wholesome place on the internet,” Refinery29’s Alicia Lansom describes BookTok as “a sanctuary for literature lovers of all kinds,” At latest count, the #booktok tag has over 39.2 billion views based on the favorite reads of posters using video reviews, recommendations and book nerd memes.”
BOOK RECOMMENDATIONS ARE NOW BIG MONEY
Ad spending on TikTok in January 2022 alone was over three billion dollars. According to App Annie’s State of Mobile 2022 report, “the average TikTok user spends about 19.6 hours a month in the app globally excluding China. That’s equal to Facebook (the #1 Social app by time spent globally in 2021) and well above WhatsApp and Instagram. The big difference for TikTok is the trajectory of its growth, which is up to 4.7x in four years. In 2018, its average monthly engagement was just 4.2 hours…And the reach is far beyond China, with the average TikTok user spending an average of 19.6 hours a month in the app globally outside of China.”
According to Lexi Sydow, Head of Insights at App Annie “Social and photo and video apps accounted for seven of every ten minutes spent on mobile in 2021. Consumers sought snackable user-generated content, short-form videos, and authentic experiences via live streaming. The tidal wave of TikTok swelled in 2021 with consumers spending 90% more time than in 2020, out-pacing the market growth by 9x, with the average time per user surpassing 27 hours per month in some markets.”
TIKTOK & BOOKTOK TAKING THE BOOK INDUSTRY – AND READERS – BY STORM
TikTok’s mission is to “inspire creativity and bring joy.” This global app has become the “leading destination for short-form mobile video” with major offices across the globe – from Tokyo to Mubai, Jakarta to Paris, New York to Singapore. Citing the “creativity and authenticity of our creators,” the company cites their “global community” for the app’s “ability to reach millions of people, across generations” and the globe. TikTok, called Douyin in China, was established in 2012 as a real estate search engine by ByteDance, Ltd., a Chinese multinational internet technology company.
In January, consultancy Backlinko estimated that in just its first four years of operation, “TikTok amassed over 3 billion downloads and penetrated one-third of all social media users on this planet…In September 2021, TikTok has risen to be the 7th ranked social network worldwide, with 1 billion active users.” Further, their 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.”
At Britain’s Evening Standard noted last year, “TikTok has created almost every bizarre trend imaginable. The platform is credited with popularizing everything from reciting sea shanties to cottagecore, and who can forget chanting along to a musical version of the Pixar film Ratatouille.”
Building off this base, BookTok has established itself as a key player in the book industry and amongst readers across the globe, and of all users, but especially teens and young adults.
AN AMAZING OPPORTUNITY
Sarah Jerasa is a doctoral candidate and teaching fellow in the Department of Curriculum, Instruction and Literacy at the University of Houston where she studies literacy and popular reading trends. “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.”
“I think the timing of COVID-19 pandemic and the global closures is a huge contributing factor towards the rise of TikTok and individuals seeking online communities, like BookTok. From my research, many BookTok users shared that finding this community was one way they did not feel isolated while they were alone, quarantining in their homes. One individual I spoke with shared that before COVID-19 books were just for entertainment but during COVID-19 they became necessary and almost an escapism.”
“There was a true sense of community within these spaces. I think that this phenomenon is not new, however, as people have been flocking to these digital spaces to share content, interact, and seek community. However, the globalization of the pandemic and the sudden shift to digital platforms have reignited how people see and use these online spaces. I think BookTok will maintain its popularity within its committed users but what I see is ways companies or publishers are wanting to capitalize on this community for marketing and to increase their sales.”
Jerasa describes the industry studies and the numbers of young people engaged in BookTokking as “remarkable.”
“As a researcher,” Jerasa explains, “it’s rare to find an online community with the significant number of users, followers, and contributors like BookTok. Companies like Barnes and Noble have caught on and now feature ‘As Seen on BookTok’ tables and local stores contribute with their own BookTok videos. What I see hopefully is for educators to start to take note of the ways these out-of-school literacies are evolving and how many of their students consistently use these spaces.”
“Right now, education tends to be wary of social media and digital tools. TikTok will eventually be replaced by another social media platform, but I think that what has taken shape with TikTok will continue to evolve where multimodality and viral trends are central to pop culture and Gen-Z.”
“My research has really examined the levels of power and censorship that takes place within schools and classrooms for reading,” Jerasa notes. “First, BookTok space is particularly unique because it is run by readers who share the texts that they enjoy, dislike, or want to share. It embodies reader agency and celebrates choice. Another component that is often overlooked is the way that these digital spaces also lift up authors and books telling stories from BIPOC, LGBTQ+, or marginalized communities. This space offers a safe space for allyship that is often not found within most traditional classroom spaces.”
“In this way, educators need to understand how this digital space offers autonomy with the types of content, books, and stories that are celebrated,” she continues. “Right now, there is a significant pressure on teachers, librarians, and schools as book banning and censorship is taking a stronger hold on the types of texts students can access in classrooms, curriculum, and libraries. To be honest, teachers need to start taking a look at the types of books that they privilege and forefront in their classrooms and instruction.”
“Too often teachers think they know what is best when it comes to the texts students read. People I have spoken to shared that school was a big reason why they stopped enjoying reading. Teachers made choices for students, students didn’t have the space, time, or access to books that reflected their own interests, identities, or communities. I think until schools and teachers see the value and importance of reader agency and choice, it will be challenging for them to see the true value and wonder of what is taking place within the BookTok space.”
“Teachers often do a disservice to students by taking great ideas or instructional strategies by attaching criteria, accountability, and grades. The current structure of school is based on compliance and a hierarchical model of banking education (Freire, 1970) where the teacher transfers knowledge to a student. I think until more schools and teachers revise how learning can take place through authentic ways (i.e. creating TikToks), it will be challenging for educators to see the real benefit from using this digital space in their instruction.”
“Honestly,” Jerasa concludes, “based on the conversations I have had and what I have researched, there are some really exciting things happening within TikTok. BookTokers are sharing that they are rediscovering their love of reading in really new ways. The ways users are sharing their reading experiences, favorite books, recreating characters, exemplifies various ways people are reflecting their reading identities. People are finding a reading community that is authentic, supportive, and encouraging by supporting their own reading habits, engagement, and motivation. My crystal ball predicts that there is more work to be done to understand these affinity spaces or online communities but that our lives will become even more entwined in these spaces.”
TIKTOK’S AMAZING RISE IS EXPECTED TO CONTINUE
Trevor Boffone is a professor at the University of Houston, as well as a Spanish teacher at a local high school. Additionally, he is very involved in studying the intersections of popular media and its impact on learning, teaching and entertainment. He recently published the book, Renegades: Digital Dance Cultures from Dubsmash to TikTok.
“TikTok’s explosion in the United States happened right as the US shifted to social distancing in March 2020. TikTok had been growing steam since its debut in the US in August 2018, but it had largely been a Gen Z space,” Boffone reminds readers. “As we went into social distancing practices, most in-person events were canceled and we were all stuck at home. TikTok was able to fill the void by giving people an endless stream of short-form video content specifically tailored to their needs and interests. TikTok provided a way to connect and feel part of a community. As TikTok grew, BookTok grew, providing a valuable reading community to bookworms who all of a sudden couldn’t get their reading fix at school, book clubs, at bookstores, etc. TikTok provided the platform to enable reading identities to continue to flourish.”
TikTok, Boffone believes, “only seems to be growing and gaining credibility in the United States. BookTok has benefited from this, as well. Authors now see TikTok as an essential platform to engage in to do cover reveals, talk about their books, do announcements, engage with fans, etc. It isn’t just another optional platform. Rather, it’s an essential part of the publishing world.”
Libraries and schools have been doing this for this type of promotion and education for years. Do you see these changes being integrated into traditional educational programming post-COVID? “There is more room for reader choice and I think TikTok largely encourages this. Teachers can see how much deeper and more engaged readers are when it’s a book they actually want to read rather than something that is mandated by a curriculum.”
“BookTok is dictating the types of stories being told and published. Take, for instance, Adam Silvera’s 2017 novel They Both Die at the End. The book was already a success, but has been #1 on the NYT YA Best Seller List for 11 straight months, almost exclusively because of it trending on TikTok. If you walk into any bookstore, there are ‘As Seen on #BookTok’ tables.”
For booksellers, it’s the issue of getting folks into their shops to browse again. “I’m not sure how we’d open for browsing” Emma Corfield-Walters, owner of Book-ish in Wales told the Guardian as the pandemic began. “Most independent shops are small. We’re not chains; we don’t have the infrastructure to make major changes in the way we operate. We’re also community hubs. We had a very emotional conversation on Zoom yesterday at the Booksellers Network coffee morning. People were worrying about their vulnerable customers: the ones who come in for a glass of water, the older person who just wants a chat. How will this work with social distancing?”
COVID STILL CAUSES DELAYS AND ISSUES FOR THE BOOK TRADE
The American Booksellers Association canceled their popular Winter Institute 2022. A favorite venue for bookstore personnel to share information and ideas will have to wait another year. Publishers Weekly reports that the key role of “online sales are here to stay, though many booksellers are relieved by the transition back to in-store shopping and the shift away from being virtual fulfillment centers. And much uncertainty remains regarding events. Many booksellers said they plan to do exclusively online events as long as the omicron surge continues, and that they are also committed to hosting outdoor events when the weather permits.” And, for online events, BookTok and similar social apps will remain essential for booksellers, schools, libraries and everyone else in the book and reading pipelines.
In the third part of this series we consider the rise of TikTok and how this Chinese company became a global icon for books and reading.
Nancy K. Herther is a writer, consultant and former librarian with the University of Minnesota Libraries