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BookTok Part 4: The Future of Books & Reading

by | May 17, 2022 | 0 comments

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

In 2021, the apps that used photos and videos to create their user experiences dominated the social app industry. BookTok isn’t the only book-specific social media app – and it probably won’t be the last. BookTube, for example, is a book-specific subset of the YouTube community. The BookTube community has, to date, reached hundreds of thousands of viewers worldwide. While the majority of BookTubers focus on Young Adult literature, many address other genres. Instagram and other social media joined in as well.

TikTok, owned by China’s ByteDance, has arisen quickly to become one of the major social apps on the globe, however even at one billion users, the company is still dwarfed by Facebook with nearly 4 billion users, Instagram and other social apps for readers.  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.” 

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. 

THE POWER OF THE CROWD

There can be no better example of the potential for crowd-based book promotion. Instagram member aymansbooks on Instagram, TikTok, and other social media has been a dramatic success story for the power of books and reading.  On TikTok alone, Chicago’s 21 year old Ayman Chaudhary has over 702,000 followers and over 59 million likes. She also shares her love of books on Goodreads and other outlets.  Fellow social media young people are adding their own voices to this organic movement and bookstores and publishers are taking note

And so are entrepreneurs.  Fable, for example, has recently received seed funding for their intention create and support mobile platform for online book clubs.  Publishers Weekly recently noting that “the platform is focused on enabling readers to join online reading cubs moderated by experts, authors, and influencers, or to start their own clubs” at either a free level or “$69 premium annual subscription [which] gives users access to a broader selection of clubs and allows members to host larger clubs.” Fable and other companies – working with high-profile influencers such as Sean Astin and Lavar Burton – are also joining this movement.

THE DOWNSIDE OF USING APPS

More than just social media companies are a key component of this market. Bookstores, too, realize the power and reach of these social apps are now heavily investing in social apps to understand their customers better to boost their sales and presence in the industry. This effort is being called “surveillance marketing,” and a 2017 article explained how Google itself has developed and uses this information tool.  

A recent study, published in January by mobile marketing company URL Genius, found that YouTube and TikTok track users’ personal data more than any other social media apps.  The report found that “the average app contacts 15 domains, with 12 of those being to unfamiliar third-party domains (roughly 80%). Each app was downloaded and opened only once without registering for the service to understand the starting set of connections. The results raise important questions about the alignment of consumer perceptions and potential behavioral tracking still taking place when permission to track is not granted.” In February, it was reported that TikTok has been updating their policies, with a focus on use by minors. 

Last October, TikTok was brought into a Congressional hearing due to concerns about platform safety, with the Commerce Department, in February proposing new potential rules to widen restrictions on Chinese apps. In response, ByteDance just announced policy changes and new features and technologies to deal with the safety of especially younger users of their products. Whether these policies will address privacy issues in terms of user data – especially for the youngest users of their product – is yet to be determined. TechCrunch noted that “fallout from revelations around teen mental health on Instagram continues — and not just for Facebook. On Tuesday, policy reps from YouTube, Snap and TikTok faced Congress to talk about kids and online safety, marking the first time the latter two companies appeared in a major tech hearing.” 

That same month, “Wired published a guide to how TikTok tracks user data, including your location, search history, IP address, the videos you watch and how long you spend watching them. According to that guide, TikTok can “infer” personal characteristics from your age range to your gender based on the other information it collects. Google and other sites do the same thing, a practice called “inferred demographics.” 

READING IS STILL FUNDAMENTAL- ESPECIALLY

DURING A PANDEMIC

“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,” notes a recent paper in  the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy. “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.”

According to British publishing house Bloomsbury, their 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. 

Momentum for these book apps 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. 

FROM READERS ADVISORS TO 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. 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.”

As a social network, TikTok members have created many subcommunities, such as BookTok.  For many in the book business, TikTok has already made massive changes to how authors, publishers, bookstores, libraries and readers see themselves, reading and each other.  BookTokkers, as they are sometimes called,  have created the BookTok community which provides information and discussions on books – both new and old – as well as literature, writing and commentary. The initial interest and focus was on young adult literature and authors, but has expanded across all literary types, styles and age groups. 

In an interview with the New York Times, Shannon DeVito, director of books at Barnes & Noble, said: “We haven’t seen these types of crazy sales – I mean tens of thousands of copies a month – with other social media formats.”  The Evening Standard goes on to note that “publishers have started joining the platform to promote books, and some have started sending early copies, free books, or payment to popular influencers in exchange for endorsing their titles.”

SEEKING A SAFE FUTURE FOR THE BOOK

INDUSTRY AND READERS

Cormac Keenan, TikTok Head of Trust and Safety, recently announced “updates to our Community Guidelines to further support the well-being of our community and the integrity of our platform. Transparency with our community is important to us, and these updates clarify or expand upon the types of behavior and content we will remove from our platform or make ineligible for recommendation in the For You feed. We routinely strengthen our safeguards so that TikTok can continue to bring people together to create, connect, and enjoy community-powered entertainment long-term.” Many believe this is long overdue.

In October 2021 TechCrunch noted, “Fallout from revelations around teen mental health on Instagram continues — and not just for Facebook. On Tuesday, policy reps from YouTube, Snap and TikTok faced Congress to talk about kids and online safety, marking the first time the latter two companies appeared in a major tech hearing. The hearing, held by the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security, managed to stay on topic about half of the time. The committee’s Republican members were keen to steer their rare time with a TikTok executive toward questions about privacy concerns over the company’s relationship with the Chinese government.”

CNBC noted in February 2022 “That’s according to a recent study, published last month by mobile marketing company URL Genius, which found that YouTube and TikTok track users’ personal data more than any other social media apps. The study found that YouTube, which is owned by Google, mostly collects your personal data for its own purposes — like tracking your online search history, or even your location, to serve you relevant ads. But TikTok, which is owned by Chinese tech giant ByteDance, mostly allows third-party trackers to collect your data — and from there, it’s hard to say what happens with it.”

“In October, Wired published a guide to how TikTok tracks user data, including your location, search history, IP address, the videos you watch and how long you spend watching them. According to that guide, TikTok can “infer” personal characteristics from your age range to your gender based on the other information it collects. Google and other sites do the same thing, a practice called “inferred demographics.” 

TikTok has been the subject of criticism in the past over how the company collects and uses data, especially from younger users, including claims that the company has transferred some private user data to Chinese servers. As CNBC noted last year, TikTok’s privacy policy states that the app can share user data with its Chinese parent company, though it claims to employ security measures to “safeguard sensitive user data.”  

SOCIAL MEDIA MAY JUST SAVE THE BOOK INDUSTRY –

OR CHANGE IT FOREVER

“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.”

Libraries and bookstores are also taking notice, creating displays and recommendation lists of books seen on TikTok to meet the demand and interest of voracious readers. 

As Britain’s Evening Standard noted last year, “TikTok has created almost every bizarre trend imaginable. The platform is credited with popularising everything from reciting sea shanties to cottagecore, and who can forget chanting along to a musical version of the Pixar film Ratatouille.”  The Barnes & Noble website now has a “BookTok” page dedicated to the most popular books on TikTok and its American stores have introduced allocated sections displaying titles that have gone viral on the platform. 

As Doctor Suess wrote, “the more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” With social apps, we are seeing perhaps the largest international revitalization of reading and culture, and led by our youth. You can’t knock success.

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

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