by Nancy K. Herther, writer, information consultant and retired academic librarian
ByteDance has become a powerhouse of influence and data on books, publishing, reading trends and readership. Since the company formed in September 2016, ByteDance’s TikTok introduced a new formula and platform by hosting user-submitted short-form videos – ranging from 3 seconds to 10 minutes – discussing whatever their user/members choose to focus on. As Apple’s App Store describes it, TikTok’s short-form videos are “exciting, spontaneous, and genuine.” One reason often cited for this is the nonprofessional, ‘organic’ nature of the presentations which don’t come off as ads but as other types of social media postings that reflect the opinions of fellow readers instead of corporate promotions.
The rise of influencers isn’t new. Well before TikTok and COVID-19 took hold, young adults were already relying on the suggestions of their peers. As noted in a 2021 article on influencers, “today, most people on the planet have access to mobile devices or computers from which they can not only track opinions and ideas, but also participate in the critiques as they develop.” What we are experiencing today is a major shift away from reliance on expertise and “traditional curators of culture” to, instead, a broad based community of fellow readers, which is proving to have more influence on reading and book sales than ever before.
MARKETING IN THE METAVERSE
First imagined in science fiction, the metaverse was often defined as using tools such as headsets to access and interact in a hypothetical iteration of the Internet as a single, universal, and immersive virtual world. Meta (formerly called Facebook) is focused on creating “technologies that help people connect, find communities and grow businesses.” Today, Meta itself seems to be challenged by TikTok’s own efforts to create and influence the future of future global society and commerce.
TikTok was launched in China in September 2016. It quickly started to gain traction in China and parent company ByteDance launched an international version the following year. As Business Insider notes, “people on TikTok got excited about their books, filmed videos about them, and drove a 96% growth in sales in December 2022 compared to December 2021.” For the book industry and readership, that’s a monumental expansion of both influence and sales.
In 2022, the Nielsen BookScan’s Romance & Sagas category was able to “rack up its best sales in a decade [with] several editors and marketeers have attributed the genre’s current boom in large part to the thriving romance reader community on social media app TikTok.”
In a December 2022 article in The Guardian, Simon & Schuster UK’s Molly Crawford notes that BookTok has given publishers “extra insight into what consumer want,” she continues, “I think the big difference TikTok has made to the market is the evidence that readers want pure romance. This means we can reach an audience who were previously turning to self-published romance.”
However, Business Insider cautions that “the list of products and services registered with 8TH NOTE PRESS includes an app to read, download and discuss fiction ebooks in an online community; retail bookstore services; ordering books in audio, printed and digital formats; publishing ebooks, audiobooks and physical books as well as providing online, non-downloadable fiction and non-fiction books.” Impressive as that seems, the article cautions that “corporations register trademarks all the time in anticipation of expansion into new verticals in the future, but they don’t specify timelines or hold the registrants to any obligations, so the move to trademark 8TH NOTE PRESS doesn’t necessarily mean ByteDance is taking any material steps into the publishing world yet.” Time will tell.
Slash Gear notes another potential limitation to this new publishing scheme: “Statistically, one hour of going through your TikTok feed consumes about 840MB of data. Scaling this up to the weekly level, it’s easy to see how 10 GB worth of data could be used up by TikTok alone. And users who upload videos frequently can expect to use more than these amounts. All in all, the high data demands of TikTok perfectly illustrate the challenge of managing data for not just one application, but the entire suite of smartphone apps run by the user.”
As Vox’s Constance Grady notes in a recent article: “During lockdown, as Americans with extra time on their hands began picking up books to keep themselves busy, the US book market grew at unprecedented rates. The post-vaccine market appears to have corrected itself. Before the pandemic, it was common for the US book market to grow at rates of 3 or 4 percent. From 2019 to 2021, it grew 21 percent. In the first three months of 2023, according to Circana, it has declined 1 percent — except for the authors whose books blew up on BookTok. So far this year, they’re seeing an increase of 43 percent over their 2022 sales figures.”
WHO PROFITS FROM THIS NEW FORM OF PUBLISHING?
One natural question with this is how long TikTokers and BookTokers will be willing to freely share their ideas, information, opinions and time with huge profits going to a company that doesn’t offer a clear path to any type of ‘pay off’ for those who freely create content for this huge international company? And, how long before other publishers or websites develop their own take on this new publishing concept?
A recent 2023 survey from Casino.org, which calls itself “the world’s online gaming authority since 1995,” found that BookTok “had over 1 million posts and 6 billion views on TikTok within the last 90 days, demonstrating just how big the community of book lovers on the platform is. There are also over 20,000 Google searches per month for terms like ‘BookTok’ and ‘BookTok recommendations’ in the US and Canada alone.”
Their study went on to find that “48% of TikTok users in The United States and 53% of Canadian users reported reading more because of the influence of BookTok.” Casino’s Michaela Shaw reporting that “it’s happening everywhere. Every state or province we were able to collect data reported an uplift in reading among TikTok users. Some stand-out locations in the US include Maine, Nebraska, Idaho, Utah, and Kentucky, all over 60%.”
The role of influencers in this amazing growth has also been a source of academic study as well. Since the TikTok subculture of BookTok took hold across the globe during the early days of the COVID lockdowns, this rather astounding growth continues to evolve and strengthen.
By July 2023, the New York Times reported that “this niche corner of TikTok, with the hashtag #booktok, has amassed over 112 billion views. With numbers like that, no surprise it’s a powerful force within the publishing industry with BookTok darlings tending to fly off the shelves. It has been credited for helping authors sell over 20 million books in 2021, according to NPD BookScan data.”
IS BOOKTOK UPENDING THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY?
Individual publishers have noticed this meteoric increase in book sales as well. Bloomsbury reported increased book sales of 220 percent. BookTok isn’t alone in this. Bookstagram, Booktube, Booktwitter and many others have arisen to provide similar services to the reading community across the globe.
Booktok, explains in a recent Rolling Stone article, “has redefined publishing’s relationship with book content creators. Since its rise in popularity in 2020, the group has been directly responsible for millions of book sales, hundreds of trending conversations around new releases, and an organic word-of-mouth marketing structure that has publishing entities desperate to get a piece of the action.” In that article, Tishni Weerasinghe, a South Asian BookTok creator, explains that “the book community right now is center stage. BookTok has become a factor of what books get published and what books get turned into movies. We are the first stepping stone in the success of selling a book.”
This shift has impacted another aspect of book publishing as well. Paralleling the growth in newer types of identifying and recommending books, we are seeing a shift within the publishing industry as publishers are losing their prominence as gatekeepers in the book industry. J.J.Hebert is one leading advocate for democratizing the publication process by using self-publishing platforms which is beginning to impact the larger book publishing industry, causing them to experiment with new models and using technology to transform the publishing process itself.
Hebert believes strongly in the power of the crowd. “One simple way to make sure as many people as possible see your book is to utilize influencer marketing,” Hebert explained in a recent Forbes article. “An influencer, for the sake of this article, is somebody with a loud enough digital voice (or enough followers) that he or she can “influence” a sizable audience. Influencers relate and appeal to large and specific demographics, making them useful for marketing. When they recommend something to their following, the conversion rate is usually high because of the level of trust.” His list of key influencers includes not only TikTok and BookTok but You Tubers, podcasters, book bloggers, social media, content creators and email list curators.
CHANGING THE VERY NATURE OF THE BOOK?
The reach and depth of BookTok can’t be underestimated. “Do we really want our literary landscape to be overrun with romance novels, trashy thrillers and scientifically dubious self-help?” Sarah Manavis, writing on the New Statesman website, asked recently. “On TikTok the hashtag #BookTok has more than 160 billion views and drives millions upon millions of book sales.”
Writing on the BBC website, Jane Ciabattari reminds her readers that “the year 1925 was a golden moment in literary history. Ernest Hemingway’s first book, In Our Time, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby were all published that year. As were Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans, John Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer, Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy and Sinclair Lewis’s Arrowsmith, among others. In fact, 1925 may well be literature’s greatest year.” In another hundred years, how will history describe this coming era in publishing and reading?
AN INITIAL LOOK AT 8TH NOTE PRESS’ GAMEPLAN
Initially, at least, 8th Note Press will reportedly focus on their stable of self-published authors who have demonstrated success on TikTok. This author offers advice to budding BookTok authors:
“First, make sure your book is something that people on TikTok would be interested in. This means choosing a genre that’s popular on the platform, such as romance, fantasy, or young adult. It also means writing a book that’s well-written and engaging” notes this author. Second,” the Best SEO Idea website advises, “create engaging videos about your book. These videos should be short, to the point, and visually appealing. They should also highlight the best parts of your book, such as the plot, the characters, or the setting. Finally, use popular hashtags when you share your videos. This will help your videos show up in more people’s feeds. Some popular hashtags for books on TikTok include #BookTok, #Bookstagram, and #Bookworm.”
“We tend to read shorter and shorter books,” notes Joel Stafford writing at the Quora website. We simply want to skip the boring parts. The same phenomena happened with movies. We watch television series in length 20–45 minutes on Netflix.”
And studies seem to substantiate this. Wordrated reported last year that “the average length of the NYT bestseller decreased by 51.5 pages from 2011 to 2021, from 437.5 to 386 (11.8%). Long books (over 400 pages) are disappearing – the share of long bestsellers went from 54% in 2011 to 38% in 2021, a 30% drop.”
IS THIS THE BEGINNINGS OF THE ALGORITHM AGE?
Many believe that we are seeing a major shrinking of our attention spans today. According to a 2015 study by the Consumer Insights team at Microsoft Canada, looking at the brain activity of 112 people as they carried out various tasks, concluding that since the year 2000 the average attention span dropped from twelve seconds to eight seconds. As Lead of the study, Alyson Gausby reflected that “if there’s no need to stay tuned in, why not move onto the next new and exciting thing for another hit of dopamine?”
In a 2022 article on the Writing Cooperative website, Aisha Yusuf, black Muslim author and BookTok user, wrote about what she believes are major changes in publishing and reading communities. “While BookTok has undoubtedly brought visibility to many authors, especially those who are indie or marginalized, it has also perpetuated the lack of diversity within the publishing industry and has changed the way that authors write and market their books.”
All of which brings us to the issue of how important algorithms have become. In a 2017 report from the Pew Research Center, titled Code-Dependent: Pros and Cons of the Algorithm Age, the authors credit algorithms as “often elegant and incredibly useful tools used to accomplish tasks. They are mostly invisible aids, augmenting human lives in increasingly incredible ways.” Their extensive report included comments from key experts such as Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, who believes that “the core problem with algorithmic-based decision-making is the lack of accountability. Machines have literally become black boxes – even the developers and operators do not fully understand how outputs are produced…We need to confront the reality that power and authority are moving from people to machines. That is why #AlgorithmicTransparency is one of the great challenges of our era.”
A May 2023 Book Riot article reported on a recent poll of 10,000 US and Canadian TikTok users between the ages of 18 and 45 that found that 48% of TikTok users in the U.S. and 53% of Canadian users reported reading more because of the influence of BookTok.
BookTok began with a strong focus on young adult books and is not regulated by any legal or professional agency. As a core company marketing strategy, ByteDance provides free space for users to share their thoughts by engaging with content of books, which are rather organically spread to users across the globe through recommendations or from keyword searching instead of paid commercials or interception by influencers, publishers or other players.
Although many other hosted book communities exist – including on Instagram, Twitter and YouTube – TikTok, BookTok and the parent company ByteDance are very different. Their impact has been felt across the globe. School students, bookstore browsers and anyone on the web are able to participate in this global experiment in sharing ideas and books which has taken the global publishing and reader communities by storm.
PUBLISHING FACES PERHAPS ITS GREATEST CHALLENGE
“Publishing has a golden sort of veneer to it, a legacy perhaps of the hundreds of years of book and pamphlet publishing by community gatekeepers and tastemakers,” explains BioRiot’s Aisling Twomey in a 2021 article. “In the new social media world where people are highly engaged and knowledgeable, that veneer has started to slip a bit, and a previously very opaque industry has seen some light chip in.”
“BookTok,” a recent posting on the Seaway Printing website explains, “is a growing community on TikTok that is changing the publishing industry. BookTok influencers are driving sales and generating buzz for books, while also amplifying diverse voices and engaging with fans. TikTok’s impact on the publishing industry is still in its early stages, but it’s clear that the app has the potential to revolutionize the way that books are marketed, promoted, and discovered.”
ByteDance’s impact has already brought major changes to the publishing and bookselling industries. In the last section of this series on BookTok, we look at how librarians and authors are reacting to this new opportunity to reach new audiences – and the impact this Chinese company is having on reading and books across the globe – and how the impact of these major changes may change the very nature of books, reading and libraries as well.
Nancy K. Herther is a writer, information consultant and retired academic librarian. email@example.com