Romance or fantasy, comics, history or current affairs, BookTok recommendations deliver cool content across every genre
#BookTok, which covers all genres from romance to fantasy, thriller, crime, non-fiction, or comics, (just to start) replicated for the literary world the viral sensations of early beauty video tutorials by sending previously unheard of book titles — and their authors — to the top of the best-seller lists.
But having blossomed during the darkest days of the pandemic, literary content on social media is more than just a lockdown TikTok fad. At its very essence, the phenomenon brought existing communities of young readers out of obscurity and into the light. Suddenly, books and reading were cool.
“[During] the pandemic, people were stuck at home and they turned to reading and social media […] It was the perfect mixture of what was happening in the world at the time, this new platform and past hobbies coming together,” comments BookToker and LGBTQ+ activist Kevin T. Norman @kevintnorman (241k TikTok followers, 109k Instagram followers).
“There is more and more content. It’s interesting because books used to always be a nerdy thing, or it wasn’t cool. Now it’s cool because people see it on social media and I think they feel more comfortable being: ‘Oh, I love reading too, let me make some content’. It’s just continuing to build and it will keep building.”
LGBTQ fiction: riding the BookTok wave to become one of its most popular genres
With 1.63bn views and counting, #BookTok is one of TikTok’s most active communities, according to the platform. Not one to miss an opportunity, TikTok has leaned into the phenomenal success of literary content by promoting BookTok Challenges, reading recommendations, the TikTok Book Club — the online equivalent of a traditional book club or reading circle — and enlisting popular literary KOLs to be “BookTok Laureates”.
BookTok recommendations have not only sent a series of unknown authors and titles into stratospheric fame, they have boosted whole genres of literature previously overlooked by publishers. Sales of LGBTQ fiction in the US, for example, grew 11% during the year ending May 2023, according to Circana, representing a 173% surge in growth compared to pre-pandemic levels.
One of the most celebrated BookTok successes is Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, a love story between two young men. The book was released to critical acclaim in 2011, but failed to gain traction with the public until going viral on TikTok in 2021. It has since sold 2 million copies.
“The growth in LGBTQ fiction has outpaced the overall market for fiction sales, including adult, kids’, and young adult fiction combined, which remained relatively flat,” says Circana books industry analyst Kristen McLean. “This comes at a critical time when reports of book bans have surged, predominantly targeting books written by or about the LGBTQ community and people of color.”
Norman is one of the many literary creators who decided to share his love of books on TikTok during the wave of activity generated by the pandemic. Selected as one of TikTok’s LGBTQ Trailblazers in 2022 [now renamed Visionary Voices], Norman chose to focus his content on queer and diverse literature to create an “online resource” for queer people looking to come out, learn about their sexuality, or find stories that represent who they are.
“I made a video about [André Aciman’s] Call Me By Your Name, posted it, went to dinner with my mom and the next day it had 50K views,” Norman tells Kolsquare. “I’d never experienced anything like that. It made me realize people are interested in this, so I started making more videos.”
Booktok and Bookstagram: reaching audiences where they are
The success of BookTok and literary content on social media in general has forced the publishing industry to question the preconception that young people are not interested in books and reading. It has also swept away elitist ideas that have previously held back categories like romance, young adult or fantasy fiction, which dominate influencer and social media content in the category.
Young adult fiction, for example, has been a key beneficiary with global sales expected to grow 3.5% annually over the five years from 2022 to 2027, faster than any other category.
A major driver of the growth of literary content on social media is the fact that traditional means of literary communication and publicity fail to reach young audiences, comments Head of Communications and Web Partnerships at independent publishing house Bamboo Edition Fabrice Fadiga.
In France, for example, a 2022 study by the Centre National du Livre (National Books Center) found 29% of young people aged 7 to 25 had chosen a book after having heard about it on the internet. To learn about books, 35% use YouTube, 25% Instagram, 19% TikTok, and 10% turn to Twitch.
“What do young people watch the most? Influencers, their telephones. So the reason [for the exponential growth of literary content on social media] is purely practical, it’s about reaching young people where they are on the social networks,” comments Fadiga.
“The Song of Achilles completely exploded after one TikTok video. Publishing houses saw that, and without knowing exactly how and why the book was liked, are trying to reproduce the same miracle.”
Aside from new titles, publishers have also realized that literary content creators offer a fresh opportunity to revive old catalog titles. Classics like Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby or Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, for example, are all finding new audiences and readers thanks to content creators.
“Bamboo Edition is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year; we have series’ with 20 volumes which are still going strong. Inevitably, when you get to volume 20, 21, 22 — we have regular readers who are waiting for the book to come out, but the challenge for us is to reach a new readership, all the more so on social media where generally speaking, the audience is quite young,” comments Bamboo Edition Head of Community Emma Gatto.
Booktok and Bookstagram: something for everyone
It’s perhaps unsurprising that books and literary content are so successful on social media. Afterall, books, storytelling and poetry have been generating conversations and inspiring art and films since, well, forever.
From the plot to the characters, the cover art, or correlations with current issues, there is after all, plenty for Booktokers and Bookstagram influencers to discuss with their audiences.
“On issues like someone burning queer books, I have to speak out on that. I’m not going to stay silent,” comments Norman. “There are other times where my voice should not be the loudest in the room. When it came to the Trans Rights Readathon on TikTok, I wasn’t going to make a video about issues in the trans community but rather reposted other trans creators who were talking about it.”
Just as there is a KOL to fill every niche, so too is there a book, be it from the classics to fantasy comics, historical biography, romance, politics, or true crime… the list goes on. This commonality offers marketers the opportunity to partner with a larger pool of content creators and activate those outside of the literary sphere.
“We work with influencers on an annual basis, who we choose because of what they like to read, who have wide ranging tastes and who like reading in the larger sense,” comments HarperCollins Head of Social Media (France) Melusine Huguet.
“For titles that are more specific, like poetry and prose, autobiographies, or even fiction that discusses a specific subject, we’ll find very specific influencers who are passionate about the subject of the book we want to promote.”
Relative to segments like lifestyle or beauty, the size of communities following the new generation of literary content creators are much smaller, making for audiences that are more easily engaged.
“What makes [literary influence] different compared to other types of brands is that the audience is extremely qualified. The communities are certainly more limited but they have a real affinity with the influencer that they follow. It means we are going to much easily reach an audience of readers initially,” comments Huguet.
This compares to the audiences of the original BookTubers — the literary bloggers who transitioned to YouTube a decade ago, and who are the top booktubers of today, with audiences in the millions. For Gatto, specificity of subject matter makes nano and micro influencers the ideal targets.
“Influencers who have audience sizes that are big enough to be interesting but not too big so that we know the content won’t get lost and be thrown into the pot of a super-vast community, two-thirds of which won’t hold much interest for us,” comments Gatto.
BookTok, BookTube or Bookstagram: which one suits your purpose?
Another key challenge for influencer marketers in the publishing sphere is adapting to the particularities of each platform, from algorithmic overhauls to the emergence of new players like video streaming platform Twitch which is seeing creators splice books and gaming content.
From BookTube to Bookstagram, to BookTok and back again to Bookstagram, literary content and creators are adapting content to the specificities of each platform.
“On TikTok the literary communities have a lot more growth [than other platforms], they are much bigger, not only because of the segmentation but because of the trends. The evolution has passed from the blogs to social networks, and to posts which are focused on photos or staging. It’s something very ephemeral which is less based on the content of the book,” comments Huguet.
Where TikTok might see content creators dancing to a trending song with a book in their hand, books content on Instagram offers more opportunities to create and join more conversations.
“People launch on Instagram, for example, to talk about what they’re reading. There is not the ambition to become an influencer in three months. It’s almost like a reading journal before it is an account that aims to influence people,” comments Bamboo Edition’ Gatto.
Bookstagram has never laid claim to the revolutionary success in the books category that occurred on TikTok, but the platform’s literary ecosystem is growing steadily, and has some key advantages over its younger rival.
“I’m 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,” comments Norman, who launched his Instagram account two years after starting on TikTok.
“The community on Instagram has been more uplifting, whereas on TikTok people always want to have an opinion on everything. You can get some really rude comments on TikTok which I’ve never really received on Instagram.”
Looking at Twitch, Bamboo Editions’ Fadiga points to French content creator Madame Point Virgule (@madamepointvirgule, 2.2k Twitch followers, 9.57K Instagram followers) as an example of just how far the literary community is stretching the boundaries of content creation.
Several times a week, Madame Point Virgule live streams ‘Read with Me’ sessions which incorporate two or three ‘sprints’ during which she and the audience stop chatting to read for 15-20 minutes. The sessions usually break 200+ views.
“It’s real reading. It’s strange, but it works. I don’t think it will explode with thousands of people connecting at the same time to watch someone read — at least not now — but it’s another thing to explore,” comments Fadiga.
The revolution of literary communications being driven by content creators on social media certainly shows no sign of slowing down. As the energy of the ecosystem brings books and reading to new audiences, the challenge for influence marketers in the segment will be reaching and engaging the right niche in a rapidly evolving landscape.