By: Nancy K. Herther, writer, consultant and former librarian with the University of Minnesota Libraries.
Reading is not only foundational 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 on 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.
FINDING A RESPITE FROM THE PANDEMIC
“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. 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. Hub also found that 39% of people said they paid to watch a movie at least once a week, and 39% also said they paid to watch a TV show. In both cases, that doubled the percentage of people who said the same thing before the COVID-19 shutdown.”
A new survey from Interpret indicates that the time spent watching TV and movies 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. Hub Entertainment Research’s annual Video Redefined study, examining how Americans use various entertainment options, reported that TV and movies account for just 48% which is five points less than just a year ago, but instead found that consumers were replacing TV and movie time with time spent watching online videos, gaming, and browsing social media, areas that were up an equivalent five points from last year.
Andreas Schellewald, Doctoral Researcher in Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London, recently published a paper based on his research into the perception that “digital media as such distract their users from more meaningful and profound experiences.” His research indicated that “early during fieldwork, it become clear that the key reason why mindlessly scrolling through TikTok’s algorithmically curated content feed appealed to people was as a means of escape. For them TikTok was something like a ‘true 30-minute escape’, an easily accessible way of forgetting about life in the ‘here and now’. An experience that none of their other social media apps seemed able to afford.”
Professor Michael Dezuanni undertakes research about digital media, literacies and learning at Queensland University of Technology in Australia. He cautions that the “explosive growth of TikTok in 2020 was in part due to the pandemic and lockdowns. However, I think there are likely to be other factors at play, too. For young people, #booktok provides one of the few spaces where books, reading and book culture have been treated in a way that is appealing to young audiences. In fact, it is perhaps the first time books and reading have been presented in such a ‘youth friendly’ way.”
“TikTok’s stylistic features, the kinds of trends seen on the platform and its ‘youthful’ orientation are all appealing to young people,” Dezuanni’s research shows. “If we compare #booktok to, say, Goodreads, it is not hard to see why #booktok appeals to younger readers. Because this is a new space for young people, specifically about books, there is a lot of room for growth. It is encouraging that many young people seem to be interested in books and reading. In addition, we can’t underestimate the role of TikTok’s algorithm in pushing content to #booktok viewers. The TikTok algorithm is very finely attuned to individual readers’ preferences.”
Dezuanni believes that TikTok’s “popularity will continue on. It is not as though social media were not popular with young people before the pandemic. TikTok has likely benefited from the timing of the pandemic, and maybe there has been more time for reading during the pandemic. However, YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat were all very popular with young people pre-pandemic. I would expect to see exponential growth of these platforms into the future because social media have become deeply engrained in our lives. In addition, there is ready made growth assured because as each ‘generation’ of young people ‘comes of age’, they will take up social media. This is not to say that TikTok will remain popular forever – it will probably eventually give way to something else. But it will be with us in a major way for several years yet.”
Duzanni hopes “that #booktok will lead to teens discovering great books that they might otherwise have never found, and that we will have more diverse books being successful as a result. For instance, there is a lot of focus on LGBTQI friendly books on #booktok – which is great and very positive. My fear is that the book industry will try to ride the #booktok wave in awkward and unhelpful ways. For instance, we know that book covers are now being designed so they are more likely to appear on social media. On a more problematic level, it would be a concern if publishers start to award book contracts on the basis of what the industry thinks may be popular on #booktok – this could lead to unintended consequences. Rather than try to ‘game’ the system – publishers should continue to publish diverse and well-written stories.”
NURTURING “A VERY PARTICIPATORY CULTURE”
Clarkson University Public Services librarian, Lisa Hoover, sees a strong future for BookTok. “I think we’ll see more things like book trailers, for one. I also suspect we’ll see more multimedia “books,” like Amazon has been exploring for Kindle. I would love to see more authors doing things like JK Rowling has done with Pottermore (now WizardingWorld).”
“We are a very participatory culture now,” Hoover believes, “and fans want ownership and participation in their favorite stories, and I think the more authors and publishers can give that to them, the more we’re going to encourage reading but also expand what it means to be a reader and a fan. I still see discussions about whether listening to audiobooks ‘counts’ as reading and I think that’s really the wrong question; I think we should think more about the benefits of reading and why we want students to read, and think about how we can accomplish those goals even if it’s not via traditional reading of the same classic books we read in school when we were kids. If that’s via social media and author talks and interactive websites and audiobooks, great.”
“In an educational context, I think one obvious approach would be to use this these things as assignments; ask kids to do their own BookToks or other similar types of projects, rather than a more traditional book report. The more we can think outside the box and give students ownership – and choice – over what they do with their work and how they approach reading and learning, the better. I think one of the things that has unfortunately gotten lost in a lot of education is that curiosity piece and the actual desire to learn, and if we can use less traditional formats, less traditional assignments, etc. to help keep that, I think there’s a lot of great possibility out there. And some of that may be outside the bounds of the classroom through things like social media and from people who aren’t “educators” in the traditional sense of the word.”
LOOKING BEYOND THE PANDEMIC
Margaret Merga is on the faculty of the School of Education at Australia’s Edith Cowan University and has studied the role of apps in education. “We don’t have any data on the long-term impact that BookTok may have on young readers.”
“However, from what we know about the importance of positioning reading as a socially acceptable pastime, it could very well exert a positive influence, and encourage young people to keep reading in order to remain connected to peers in this online community.”
“My previous research,” Mertga notes, “has found that teens who viewed books as socially unacceptable were less likely to read books in their free time, and to enjoy reading for pleasure, suggesting that where BookTok elevates the social position of books and reading, young people could be more likely to build and maintain a reading habit.”
However, Merga believes the book industry still has a lot to learn about BookTok and app-based marketing: “One concern from my research on BookTok is that the breadth of commonly mentioned book titles is quite limited. The publishing industry may need to step up their engagement with the platform to try to broaden the range of titles that young people are being exposed to in this space. I’ve kept my eye on this space, and I’ve seen mixed success rates when commercial entities try to move into TikTok more generally. For example, the Washington Post has done well on TikTok, garnering more than a million followers on their TikTok content, but they’ve taken the time to figure out what appeals to this audience. If publishers and authors want to promote their works on TikTok, they will need to get better at this, as some of the attempts I’ve seen have been discordant, showing a poor understanding of what BookTok users enjoy.”
“My recent research also highlights ways that school and public libraries might use TikTok to promote reading,” Merga explains, “and some library professionals have already shared their creative attempts at harnessing these suggestions with me by tagging me on Twitter. Some possible ways BookTok can be used in the library include as the focus of displays, influencing the reading environments constructed in library spaces, and as a means of creative expression for writing groups.”
“Given that many young people on BookTok actively promote reading as a healing escape from the stressors of life, there is potential for BookTok to steer young people toward more active engagement with what can be a healthy pastime.”
However, Merga believes the book industry still has a lot to learn about BookTok and app-based marketing: “BookTok has the potential to increase purchasing of books, though more research is needed and this is purely speculation at this stage. The key reason that I think this could be the case is that in addition to sharing recommendations on BookTok, many young people also share images of personal home libraries that they are in the process of building which in my research I discuss as ‘personal library management.’ As such, BookTok promotes pride in these collections. This is obviously problematic for those consumers without the space or funds to build these kinds of collections, and in my article I note that these images of privilege risk alienating young readers who do not have these resources. However, this trend is probably good news for publishers.”
In the last 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