Many of this year’s best-selling books have something in common, but it’s not the usual factors: a famous or long-established author, an affiliation with a movie or TV show.
Early last year, the publishing house started noticing that the books that readers about TikTok – the social media platform that distributes in short videos – were appearing on bestseller lists. Publishers were surprised, authors were surprised, even the readers who made those TikTok videos were surprised.
A year later, the hashtag #BookTok has become a persistent and powerful force in the book world, helping to create some of the biggest sellers on the market.
For example, books by writer Colleen Hoover became a sensation on TikTok, and Ms. Hoover is now one of the best-selling authors in the country. NPD BookScan, which tracks the sales of the most printed books in the United States, said that of the top ten best-selling books so far this year, Ms. Hoover has written four.
TikTok has “made the transition from a novelty to a real anchor for the market,” said Kristen McLean, executive director of business development at NPD Books. “The whole idea of dominating supermarket shelves, dominating stores in airports, dominating the front tables in bookstores, it’s just not really true in the same way.”
Now one of the leading forces in adult fiction, BookTok has helped authors sell 20 million printed books by 2021, according to BookScan. This year, those sales are up another 50 percent so far. NPD Books said no other form of social media has ever had such an impact on sales.
BookTok is not dominated by the usual rulers of the book world, such as authors and publishers, but by regular readers, many of them young, who share recommendations and videos of themselves talking about the books they love, sometimes crying or yelling or throw a copy away on the other side of the room.
The most popular videos generally do not provide information about the author of the book, the writing, or even the plot, as a traditional review does. Instead, readers speak clearly about the emotional journey a book will provide.
And that turns out to be exactly what a lot of people are looking for, says Milena Brown, director of marketing at Doubleday.
“‘This is how I feel, and this is how you feel,'” Ms Brown said, describing the content of many of the videos. “And people say, ‘I want to feel that. Give it to me!'”
Essentially, BookTok encourages something that has always been essential to selling a book: word of mouth.
“I think one person can put it on the radar, but the rest of BookTok has to go with it and deal with it big for a book to really succeed,” said Laynie Rose Rizer, the assistant store manager at East City Bookshop. in Washington, DC which has 70,000 followers on the platform. “Once the word starts spreading, a book becomes this big.”
Books that are booming there are mostly fiction and are generally a few years old. This is unusual with publishing houses, where most titles, if they have a burst of sales at all, see it right out of the gate.
Sales were initially concentrated among young adult titles, but according to BookScan, BookTok is now even more powerful in adult fiction. Romance is another important category, closely followed by science fiction and fantasy. But even classics like “Wuthering Heights” and “The Great Gatsby” are getting some TikTok love.
Another big beneficiary of TikTok enthusiasm is the writer Madeline Miller. A former high school teacher with a master’s degree in classical languages, Mrs. Miller’s most successful book is “The Song of Achilles,” a love story between two young men, Achilles and Patroclus.
It was published in 2012 with an initial print run of 20,000 copies. This month, the publisher, Ecco, announced that it had sold two million copies in all formats.
Miriam Parker, Ecco’s associate publisher, said this kind of sales record for a book like “The Song of Achilles” is more than remarkable.
“It never happens,” she said. “This is a book about the Iliad!”
Ms. Miller, who has another book, “Circe,” which was also popular on TikTok, said she is now being taken more seriously in the literary world because of the higher profile of her work. The sale also came as a breath of fresh air in an extremely challenging time.
When the pandemic started, her speaking and touring opportunities dried up and she thought she might have to start teaching again to earn a living. Since February 2020, she has long struggled with Covid and was concerned about her ability to work, she said. Because “Song of Achilles” caught fire on TikTok, she was able to provide for herself and her family and continue working on her next novel.
“It really changed my life,” she says. “It has given me time to write, to remain a writer.”
Part of TikTok’s success in selling books can be traced back to bookstores, which started paying attention to which books were gaining popularity on the platform, Ms McLean said. Barnes & Noble, in particular, caught on early; many of his stores have tables with a selection of trending titles. Those displays spread the word about BookTok to new readers, and the cycle continued.
This week, TikTok and Barnes & Noble announced an official partnership — a summer reading challenge designed to encourage people to post about books they read and cross-pollinate readers. A BookTok landing page shows users some curated videos, including a selection called “meet your local B&N booksellers” and a list of suggested titles, linking to the Barnes & Noble website. Barnes & Noble will have QR codes in its stores that will direct customers to the BookTok landing page.
Barnes & Noble stores have their own TikTok channels, as do many publishers. Publishers also send TikTok creators free books or pay them to make videos about certain titles. But as powerful as BookTok has become, it’s difficult for publishers to use it as a sales tool.
“It’s not one video that makes a book explode in sales,” said Ms. Brown of Doubleday. “It’s this grassroots explosion of people making the videos and then growing organically, through word of mouth, from there.”
For example, getting an author on the platform is also no guarantee for the success of a book. It’s not even a requirement.
“I’m still not on TikTok,” said Ms. Miller. “I remain very bad at social media.”