Sep 2023 / Blog / Q&A

Booktok and Bookstagram: how @kevintnorman conquered both

Book lover and LGBTQ+ activist Kevin T. Norman (@kevintnorman) began creating content for TikTok during the pandemic, when he was laid off from his job as a waiter and suddenly had a lot of time on his hands. He has since grown his community to 240k followers and been selected as a TikTok LGBTQIA Creator Trailblazer for the US. Perhaps more impressive, however, is Norman’s performance on Instagram, which he joined in April 2023 and where his steadily growing community of 105k fans generates a whopping 24.5% engagement rate on Reels. In this interview, Norman discusses his exponential growth as a content creator, dealing with online negativity, and what he sees for the future.

How did you get started as a creator?

TikTok was a new platform that everyone kept talking about. As someone with a creative background, I saw this as a great opportunity because I knew the platform was just going to get more popular. On TikTok, you have to find your niche. One day I saw a video of books and I was like, ‘Oh my God, I love books, I can talk about books’. Then I had to get specific about what type of books I wanted to talk about. When I was trying to figure out my sexuality and coming out, books are what I turned to to help me understand that. So I decided to focus on queer and diverse literature, and create this online resource for other queer people who may be looking to either come out, learn more about their sexuality, or just find stories that represent who they are. I didn’t think anything of it, but then I made a video ‘If you like [André Aciman’s] Call Me By Your Name, check out these other books’. I posted it, went to dinner with my mom, and the next day that video had 50,000 views. I had never experienced anything like that. It made me realize people are interested in this, so I started making more videos and it just grew to what it is today.

What has your experience on Instagram been like?

I was hesitant [to launch on Instagram] because I didn’t want to stress myself out by trying to work on two platforms. I started posting on Instagram Reels and it wasn’t really hitting, no one was seeing them. But then one video took off, then the next video took off and it just kept going. I grew that community in a matter of months, which was wild.

What I found is I’m actually enjoying Instagram a bit more than TikTok, solely because it’s easier to engage with the community you build on a daily basis via Stories, DMs and polls. It’s easier to build a community whereas on TikTok it’s always getting pushed out to new people, so it’s always new people seeing your content, which makes it harder to community-build.

Do you notice a difference between the communities on TikTok and those on Instagram?

There’s a lot more Gen Z on TikTok, and Millennials on Instagram. In my experience, the community on Instagram has been more uplifting, whereas on TikTok people always want to have an opinion about something. You can get some really rude comments on TikTok, which I’ve never really received on Instagram. It’s interesting to see that dynamic.

How do you deal with the haters?

The content I make for myself is usually a hate-free zone. It’s when I’m doing paid sponsorships and ads; those get pushed out to God-knows-who. I received a comment today on one of my videos promoting a queer book saying, “how do I block this stuff?”. It only really happens when it’s ads. Most of the time I don’t look, it’s not helpful at all. There was one really bad experience where I heard it. For a while, I censored words so if people said certain things, their comment wouldn’t show up. People could still comment, but I wouldn’t have to see them. It gives people the satisfaction of saying whatever hateful thing they want to say and it gives me the protection from having to see it.

How is the ecosystem around books developing on social media?

What really helped was the pandemic, because a lot of people were stuck at home and people turned to reading and to social media. On social media, they see people talking about books and they’re passionate about them. It just started to grow and build over time. It was a perfect mixture of what was happening in the world, this new platform and past hobbies coming together.

There is more and more content now. It’s interesting because books used to always be a nerdy thing or it wasn’t cool. Now it’s cool because they see it on social media and I think people feel more comfortable saying: ‘Oh, I love reading too, let me make some content’. It’s going to continue to build.

How many books a week do you read? Do you feel pressure to read a lot and post a lot?

It’s tough. I don’t feel I am reading nearly as much as some of my fellow creators. I’m also a very slow reader. I have a trick where I will listen to audiobooks and read along with the physical book because it helps me focus. I do feel a lot of pressure to read certain books that I may not be interested in just so I can join the conversations and create content. It’s weird because sometimes I’ll feel guilty just sitting down and reading because I feel I should be coming up with content ideas or filming or doing research. I have to remind myself that reading is part of my job. It’s okay to take the time to sit down. It’s not wasted time. Having to wrap my head around that has been a struggle sometimes.

How do you curate your reading selection?

Publishers will reach out if they want to promote a book, and offer to do a brand deal. I generally say yes because they are books I align with. They have a sense of what I like to read based on my content. I get a lot of queer books, which is nice. If a book is very popular — right now there’s a book called Fourth Wing that everyone is talking about — I received an advance copy of that book and put it on the back burner because I get sent a lot of books. It was interesting to see how that book blew up, which sparked me wanting to read it so I could join the conversation and understand what the hype is about. Granted, it was a book with a premise that I definitely would have read but it wasn’t top of my radar until everyone started talking about it.

You’re an LGBTQ+ advocate and have also discussed your issues with mental health in your posts; what’s your approach to raising these very personal issues, and what are you hoping to achieve?

I like to be as vulnerable as I can on my platforms, just to let people also know I’m a real human being. We have similar struggles and most people don’t talk about them. As someone who’s also a writer, I’ve always wanted to talk about these issues in my poetry. It just feels right to talk about it because when I was coming out, I didn’t have a queer person I could look up to, who could help guide or mentor me, or just show me that life can be “normal”, quote unquote. I’ve always been passionate about the LGBTQ+ community and storytelling. I feel having a platform also comes with a responsibility to talk about these issues. It just feels like the right thing to do.

So no regrets? It's a big deal to put yourself out there like that...

It’s scary. There are moments where I’m like, “no one’s getting what I’m saying”. There was one moment — I didn’t regret it because I was still advocating for something — but the backlash I received was tough. But no, for the most part, no regrets.

How do you decide what to share? Is it just instinct?

Kind of. I don’t share everything. I do have boundaries around what I think feels right to share. Mental health: I felt that was important to share because it gives people a little more understanding of who I am, where I come from and some of the struggles I deal with.

On issues like someone burning queer books, I have to speak up on that, I’m not going to stay silent. There are other times where my voice should not be the loudest one in the room, and I’ll take a step back and help to uplift other voices. When it came to the Trans Rights Readathon on TikTok, I wasn’t going to make a video talking about issues in the trans community, but rather I reposted other trans creators who were talking about it, left comments and things like that, because those are the voices we should be hearing from right now. It’s just being discerning about when it’s appropriate for you to hop in [to the conversation] and when it’s not.

Where do you see all of this going? Do you imagine continuing as a creator?

This journey has been wild. It’s been one of those things where I just keep going through the doors that are opening for me. Last year TikTok chose 12 people from the United States as LGBTQ+ trail blazers (which they now call Visionary Voices), and I was one of those. I was shocked because I’m just making videos about books in my apartment. Sometimes as creators, we don’t see the impact we have on others.

Because I know TikTok so well, I recently got a job creating content for an ad agency. I definitely want to write more and publish going forward. However, it’s been one of those things where I’m just seeing where it leads me. So far, I have a full time job and I’m still able to do brand deals. I don’t know what’s next, but if you would have asked me this a year ago, I wouldn’t have predicted what I’m doing now.

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