How TikTok became a best-selling machine

Most of this year’s best-selling books have something in common, but it’s not one of the usual factors: a famous or long-established author, a connection to a movie or TV show.

It’s TikTok.

Early last year, the publishing industry began to notice that readers of books gushing on TikTok – the social media platform that streams short videos – were appearing on bestseller lists. The editors were surprised, the authors were surprised, even the readers who made these TikTok videos were surprised.

A year later, the #BookTok hashtag has become a sustained and powerful force in the world of books, helping to create some of the biggest sellers in the market.

Books by writer Colleen Hoover, for example, have caused a stir on TikTok, and Ms. Hoover is now one of the country’s best-selling authors. NPD BookScan, which tracks the sale of most books in print in the United States, said that of the ten best-selling books so far this year, Ms Hoover has written four.

TikTok has “transitioned from a novelty to a true market anchor,” said Kristen McLean, executive director of business development at NPD Books. “The very idea of ​​dominating supermarket shelves, dominating airport stores, dominating bookstore storefronts, it’s just not really where it’s happening in the same way.”

Now one of the dominant forces in adult fiction, BookTok helped authors sell 20 million books in print in 2021, according to BookScan. So far this year, those sales have increased another 50%. NPD Books said no other form of social media had this kind of impact on sales.

BookTok is not dominated by the usual players in the book world such as authors and publishers, but by regular readers, many of them young people, who share recommendations and videos of themselves talking about the books they love, sometimes crying or shouting or throwing away a copy. on the other side of the room.

The most popular videos typically don’t offer information about the book’s author, writing, or even plot, like a traditional review does. Instead, readers speak loud and clear about the emotional journey a book will provide.

And it turns out that’s exactly what a lot of people are looking for, said Doubleday chief marketing officer Milena Brown.

“‘This is how it makes me feel, and this is how it’s going to make you feel,'” Ms Brown said, describing the content of many of the videos. “And people are like, ‘I want to feel this. Give it to me!'”

Essentially, BookTok supercharges something that has always been essential to selling a book: word of mouth.

“I think one person can put it on the radar, but it takes the rest of BookTok to get involved and go big with it to really make a book successful,” said Laynie Rose Rizer, assistant store manager at East. City Bookshop in Washington, DC which has 70,000 followers on the platform. “Once the word starts to spread, that’s how a book becomes great.”

The books that take off there are mainly fiction, and generally date back a few years. That’s unusual in publishing, where most titles, if they have a flurry of sales, see it right off the bat.

Sales were initially focused on young adult titles, but BookTok is now even stronger in adult fiction, according to BookScan. Romance is another major category, followed closely by science fiction and fantasy. But even classics like “Wuthering Heights” and “The Great Gatsby” have love for TikTok.

Writer Madeline Miller is another big beneficiary of TikTok’s enthusiasm. A former high school teacher with a master’s degree in classics, Ms. Miller’s most successful book is “The Song of Achilles,” a love story between two young men, Achilles and Patroclus.

It was released in 2012 with an initial print run of 20,000 copies. This month, its publisher, Ecco, announced that it had sold two million copies in all formats.

Miriam Parker, associate editor of Ecco, said this type of sales record for a book like “The Song of Achilles” is more than remarkable.

“That never happens,” she said. “It’s a book on the Iliad!”

Ms Miller, who has another book, ‘Circe’, which has also been popular on TikTok, said she is now taken more seriously in the literary world due to the greater visibility of her work. Sales were also a relief during an extremely difficult period.

When the pandemic started, her speaking and touring opportunities dried up and she thought she might need to go back to teaching to earn a living. Since February 2020, she has been struggling with a long Covid and worried about her ability to work, she said. Having “Song of Achilles” catch fire on TikTok has allowed her to take care of herself and her family, and to continue working on her next novel.

“It really changed my life,” she said. “It gave me time to write, to continue being a writer.”

Part of TikTok’s success in selling books can be attributed to bookstores, which started paying attention to books that were gaining traction on the platform, Ms McLean said. Barnes & Noble in particular stood out early on; many of its stores feature tables with a selection of trending titles. These screens introduced 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 the books they read and pollinate readers. A BookTok landing page shows users curated videos, including a selection titled “get to know your local B&N booksellers” and a list of suggested titles, which link to the Barnes & Noble website. Barnes & Noble will have QR codes in its stores that will send customers to the BookTok landing page.

Barnes & Noble stores have their own TikTok channels, as do many publishers. Publishers also send free books to TikTok creators or pay them to make videos on certain titles. But as powerful as BookTok has become, it’s difficult for publishers to leverage it as a sales tool.

“It’s not a video that blows up book sales,” Doubleday’s Ms. Brown said. “It’s this grassroots explosion of people creating the videos, and then organically, word of mouth, it grows from there.”

Getting an author on the platform, for example, is also no guarantee of a book’s success. It’s not even a requirement.

“I’m still not on TikTok,” Ms. Miller said. “I’m still very bad on social media.”