E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars. Colleen Hoover’s It Ends With Us. Browsing in a Barnes & Noble, my eyes are immediately drawn to a table overflowing with colorful paperbacks. A sign displayed above them reads “#BookTok.”
During the early days of the pandemic, many teenagers stuck at home turned to books for entertainment. Quickly, the hashtag BookTok spread across the social media platform TikTok, in which users would share their thoughts on what they were reading.
Even though creators had already been producing book-related content on YouTube and Instagram (“BookTube” and “Bookstagram”), BookTok began to outpace both of them, as is demonstrated in the Google Trends comparison below.
What makes BookTok more successful than its predecessors is its ability to appeal to a teenage audience.
Bookstagram and BookTube creators are often in their twenties and thirties, mainly reading classic literature and nonfiction. These genres alienate teenagers, who struggle to identify with the characters and are less likely to engage with the books.
Dr. Harte Weiner, founder of CambridgeEditors and recipient of a PhD in English and American Literature, explains, “Although there are certain benefits to reading classic authors, most [teenagers] are not affected by renaissance upper-class drama or someone being killed in a guillotine, simply because it seems so archaic and far away.”
By contrast, BookTok’s biggest hits are Young Adult (YA) fiction novels, particularly ones that have been published in the last five years. While many teenagers see reading classic novels as a chore, they quickly devour YA novels, which have relatable characters, accessible language, and familiar themes.
Consequently, while BookTube and Bookstagram’s popularity have been largely unaffected by the pandemic, teenagers' lighter workload over the period has caused a flood of BookTok videos on TikTok. The hashtag is jam-packed with sixty-second clips of teenagers arguing over love triangles, sharing their unpopular opinions (known as “hot takes”), and discussing their theories for upcoming sequels.
Forbes writer Anna Kaplan explains that the spike in reading as a result of Booktok has caused book sales to soar, with 125 million more books sold in 2021 than in 2019. This is especially surprising given the increased number of consumers turning to streaming services and social media instead of books for entertainment over the past decade, according to Medium writer Dexin Zeng. Thus, this recent increase in sales signals a revival of the book industry.
In addition to boosting recreational reading among teenagers, BookTok challenges the negative view of YA novels. In the early 2010s, many labeled the genre as shallow and immature amid the release of widely criticized series such as Twilight. The stigmatization of the genre caused many teenagers to feel embarrassed about enjoying YA books, disincentivizing them from reading.
However, the genre has evolved over the past few years, with most recent YA books tackling current issues and representing a wide range of races, religions, and gender identities, unlike classic literature. As Weiner describes, “contemporary young adult fiction still contains the same messages and literary complexity as Shakespeare, Tolstoy, or Dickens, while also representing important racial, political, and economic struggles children face in our world today.”
Ultimately, by challenging the negative perception of YA novels and creating a community of readers, BookTok has shifted the way that many teenagers perceive books.
Through Teen Lenses: Has BookTok changed how frequently you read and which specific books and/or genres you gravitate towards?
“BookTok has influenced me to read because it gives me motivation. I like that when I’m reading a book, I can go on BookTok and see the comments people have made in the past about it and get to obsess over it. I hadn’t been a really big reader before, and then over quarantine I started to read because of BookTok. There are so many different sections: if you want romance they have a section, if you want mystery they have a section, if you want fantasy they have a section. They have everything for everyone. It’s a close community and a place to take your mind off things. I literally went from reading two books a year to 66 books last year. I feel like I’ll be reading for the rest of my life.”
Emerson Labovich, Sophomore at Walter Johnson High School
“Before BookTok, I found it very difficult to connect with other people over books because my friends and I read such different books. When I started seeing BookTok videos, I realized how vast these communities were of people who loved reading. I started to read books that were recommended to me and I really enjoyed them. I used to want to read a typical story, but with BookTok, I’ve started gravitating towards books with insane plot twists or books that will change my perspective on life.
Sophia Rees, Junior at National Cathedral School
“I read a lot of books when I was young. But then I fell off reading books because I got a phone and that form of entertainment is more immediate. Once I found BookTok last summer, it revived my love of reading. I really like how they categorize everything with certain tropes like “enemies to lovers” or “your brother’s best friend.” It was nice to see a list of ten specific books that fit the tropes that I like, and it meant that I could buy them right away and have books that I knew I’d enjoy.”
Abby Bown, Junior at Washington International School