An Author’s Guide to BookTok
A guide to all things BookTok, from tagging to algorithm training, for the newbie author on TikTok.
So we mentioned TikTok briefly in our Social Media for Authors piece, saying that it was a video-centric platform geared toward shorter videos that’s popular with a young audience, but there’s so much more to it than that, and we didn’t have time to go into it fully. Let’s change that, shall we?
Here’s your overview of the growing, ravenous, and exciting world of TikTok’s bookish microcosm, BookTok.
What is BookTok?
BookTok is the hashtag that bookworms on TikTok use to tag all kinds of content related to books, from what they’re reading to what they’re publishing. It’s one of the larger communities that’s sprung up on the app since its launch in September 2016 and has since been subdivided into smaller communities, like QueerBookTok - a section specifically for books written by, for, and about the LGBTQ community. All of them still have a common goal, though: to celebrate books and bookish lifestyles.
Book communities online
Of course, online book communities are nothing new. Since the dawn of the internet, lovers of literature of all kinds have flocked to forums, message boards, and social media to connect with other readers and writers and build followings around their literary interests.
The most enthusiastic communities that have been around since before BookTok include BookTube (book lovers on YouTube), Book Twitter, Bookstagram (book lovers on Instagram), and Bookblr (book lovers on Tumblr), each of which had its own unique flair to them.
- BookTube frequenters find themselves enjoying long-form video essays about themes and structures in books, bookstore hauls of the latest must-reads, and bookshelf tours with recommended reading built-in.
- Book Twitter (or, BookTwt, a popular abbreviation) is where you go for the latest industry gossip and rapid-fire reviews for new releases as readers get their hands on them.
- On Bookstagram, you’ll find aesthetic images of beautiful books with in-depth reviews in the captions side-by-side with idyllic libraries and dark academia.
- Bookblr is…well, it’s Tumblr; it’s full of a wide variety of media from controversial discourse about themes and moral implications, mood boards for favorite characters, and - excuse my French - “shitposts” that delve into character mentalities and dynamics in the funniest ways possible.
How BookTok is different from other social media
BookTok takes a slightly different road than these other communities, though. Because of the app’s unique format - with short videos assembled on the Following, For You, and individual tag pages - BookTok is able to seamlessly blend in some of the best qualities of the other book communities online.
In this tag, you can find all kinds of videos from 15 seconds to several minutes long (now up to ten minutes at the longest). BookTokers might cover aesthetic bookish places, reading recommendations, character mood boards, or comedic memes, all in the same place.
Better than that, though, the app’s infamous algorithm is ridiculously good at curating your personal feed on your For You page, which is the default page for the app. After a little while of interacting, you’ll start to see BookTokers who match your content preferences perfectly, making it very easy to connect with both other readers and authors who create interesting content and write things you might like to read.
Why BookTok is important for authors
It’s this algorithm that makes BookTok incredibly important for authors of all kinds to hop on the app. As I mentioned, its unique and specific tailoring means that your videos are very likely to end up in front of readers who are part of your ideal target audience, and who are willing to buy your work if you can convince them to like you.
It’s easier to build a devoted following on TikTok than it is on other apps because of this algorithm as well. Your videos go out to more than just your personal feed, especially if you keep up with and participate in current trends, which means your work is constantly being exposed in much the same way that it would be through a Facebook or Instagram ad - it’s just free for you, which is a major bonus.
There are lots of these readers available for you to connect with as well; according to Insider Intelligence, an estimated 750 million users are logging onto the app monthly, making it the third-largest social network in the world behind Facebook and Instagram. The BookTok tag itself is sitting at 77.5 billion views as of the writing of this article and is continuing to grow with no signs of stopping. Science Fiction, Fantasy, Romance, and Young Adult tend to have the largest presence on the app, but it’s worth trying, regardless of your genre. Young women are the largest segment of users, but TikTok’s popularity is such you can find users of any age or demographic.
BookTok has become a big enough phenomenon that the publishing industry has taken notice, with publishers now trying to get in on the action, and use the platform to promote their books, either directly or in sponsorships with BookTok creators. Booksellers like Barnes & Noble have set up tables in their stores to promote the “best books from BookTok,” or “BookTok Books.” Popular books supported by influencers with large followings may get picked up by book clubs, and pick up additional book reviews across various retailers. The BookTok community is always on the hunt for new books, and watching industry representatives figure out how to use it to boost book sales is like watching a modern-day literary gold rush.
BookTok Success Stories
Not convinced yet? Let’s look at a couple of massively successful creators and books on BookTok and see what the affectionately-termed “clock app” did for them.
Colleen Hoover is an American romance and thriller writer who currently claims four of the 15 top spots on the New York Times Best Sellers list - and the newest book among those four was published in 2018.
While the books themselves came out to reasonable readership at their initial launches, what really catapulted Hoover into the public eye was the sudden and intense rise of her fame on BookTok. Creators posted reactions and reviews to her books all over the tag, inspiring others to add her books to their TBRs and review them themselves, which snowballed into Hoover’s books becoming a trend with their own tag (#coho) for people to join in on.
One of her most popular titles is It Ends With Us, her 2016 novel about a woman’s dedication to stopping the cycle of abuse that she’s been caught in with her parents and her own relationship. It was, according to Hoover, written with inspiration from her own mother’s story, and thanks to BookTok, she’s been able to thank her fans directly for allowing her to give her mother the kind of life she deserves.
It Ends With Us has now sold a wildly impressive 3 million copies worldwide.
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo
Taylor Jenkins Reid’s The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo was released in 2017. It’s a historical fiction novel about a starlet’s scandalous love life in the 1950s through to the 1980s and was released to relatively good reviews.
But nothing compares to the boom caused by its rise to popularity on BookTok. BookTokers love its faux-biographical style and the inclusion of queer romantic representation for a time period that was vitally important for the LGBT+ community.
So, the book gained impressive traction - its unique hashtag now has more than 18 million views! It hit the #3 spot of most read books on Goodreads last year, and has been holding a spot in the Amazon bestseller lists for quite some time. Its popularity on TikTok spiraled into popularity on many other social media platforms; now, it’s hard to enter any online book community without spotting this title at least once.
Romance, as you might have guessed, is ridiculously popular on BookTok, as is fandom content for the things that readers deeply love, so what happens when you mix the two? You get Ali Hazelwood’s debut hit The Love Hypothesis, which is, according to the author, loosely based on a Reylo fanfiction she penned. (That’s Rey + Kylo Ren from the Star Wars sequel trilogy for the uninitiated).
Its tag on TikTok has, as of writing, nearly 400 million views. The book blew up on the site after it fell into the perfect storm of BookTok review niches and content trends that related heavily to the book’s themes and romantic tropes.
Hazelwood herself was shocked by this development. In an interview with GoodReads, she said, “I remember my good friend Jen telling me that a video about my book had, like, a million views…I couldn't even comprehend it. BookTokers are just so creative. The way they talk about books is so engaging and fun.”
And she’s right! Her book has been both lauded and memed across the platform, so much so that she’s included social media as a large portion of her next book, Love on the Brain. That book, by the way, just came out in August and its tag already has nearly 2.7 million views.
A Court of Thorns and Roses
Sarah J. Maas has been a staple in the fantasy world for quite some time, with her A Court of Thorns and Roses series hitting the shelves in 2015. This thrilling series of fae court intrigue has everything that fantasy readers love - political tension, complicated romance, and a bit of murder - so it’s no surprise that when TikTok rose in popularity, these books rose right along with it.
The series’ tag on the app - #ACOTAR - has at writing 4.1 billion views. Billion, with a “b.” And the main BookTok tag is filled with recommendation videos that include this book series as a must-read. It’s appeared in hundreds of “TikTok Made Me Read It” pieces on and off the platform, with stellar reviews to match.
Maas’s books sit in that sweet spot of fantasy that technically counts as YA or Teen, but is definitely a bit on the risque side, making it perfect for the core demographic of the app. Combine that with a fascinating plot and excellent writing, and you’ve got a perfect storm to sell more than 13 million copies worldwide and even land a Hulu series.
Other authors and books that found success through BookTok videos:
The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller
We Were Liars, by E. Lockhart
They Both Die at the End, by Adam Silvera
People We Meet on Vacation, by Emily Henry
A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder, by Holly Jackson
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, by V.E. Schwab
It Happened One Summer, by Tessa Bailey
Six of Crows, by Leigh Bardugo
These Violent Delights, by Chloe Gong
How to Use BookTok as an Author
Okay, so if you get lucky and your book happens to be picked up by the algorithm, you’re all set, right? Actually, there are a few things you can do to tip the scales in your favor when it comes to using BookTok as an author.
Create a recognizable brand
First thing’s first: get on TikTok!
- Download the app to your phone and create an account. You can choose to make it a business account if you like; this gives you access to business analytics and options for branding, but it does limit some of the functions of the app.
- Upload an appropriate profile picture and fill out your bio. You don’t have a lot of room to do this, so be as succinct as possible. You’ll also want to include “#booktok” in your bio if you want it to show up in the Accounts tab when people search.
That’s really all there is to getting onto TikTok in the first place. Unlike other apps, you won’t have access to a bio link immediately; you have to hit 1,000 followers before that happens. For now, focus on building an audience. More on that in a second.
Remember that you need to keep your author brand consistent across platforms, so make sure you’re using either your headshot or logo as your profile picture and that your videos all have recognizable elements of your style in them. This might include signature colors, fonts, and music styles.
Interact with your target audience regularly
TikTok’s algorithm - that thing that everyone describes as being either scarily accurate or absolutely damning for content - trains itself based on your watch habits. This means that, in order to understand what your target audience is seeing, you need to follow and watch content from BookTokers in your target audience. Yes, you can 100% count scrolling through TikTok and interacting with videos (likes and comments) as work!
Follow relevant hashtags for your content, as well as relevant creators. If you come across a video that you enjoy or that suits your audience well, interact with it by liking and/or commenting on it.
When creating your own content, remember that full-blown sales-only accounts aren’t popular because the app is built around being personable and building communities. Instead of constantly trying to promote your books, try instead to talk to the kinds of readers who might enjoy it - review other books in your genre, poke some fun at your own book, and join in on staples of the app like “[whatever] recommendations for [specific group]” (in this case, it’s usually book or game recommendations for people who like a certain genre, trope, or series) or “things about [whatever] that just make sense.”
Alongside your original content, you need to be using the main drawing feature of the app: collaboration. “Stitch” videos that ask questions with your own answer, try to use popular sounds when creating videos, and participate in TikTok trends as they come up (the app has a helpful “join the tag” button that lets you jump straight into making popular content from the hashtag). This will help you stay in the loop of what’s popular.
As with most other social media platforms, tagging is incredibly important on TikTok. Tagging puts your videos into certain categories on the app that help the algorithm know what kind of video it is and who it might be best to put it in front of.
Unlike other platforms, however, your description for each video is incredibly limited when it comes to characters (300 total, including spaces and punctuation), so you’ll want to prioritize the most important tags for each video and make them extremely specific and relevant.
Obviously, #booktok is the most important one to have, but some other good options are:
- Tagging for your specific genre: #poetry, #scifi, #fantasy, #romance, etc.
- #writersoftiktok, a popular one if you’ve got industry tips or are trying to relate to other writers.
- #author, which is good for more general posts.
- #bookrecommendations, which is excellent if you’re promoting your books or reviewing others’ books.
You can find more specific tags by using curators like this one or by simply looking in the descriptions of videos that you come across that are similar to the content you make.
Social media is all about experimentation, for everyone but especially for authors. You’ve got to find the right platform for your content, where your audience is already gathering and interacting and you can just jump straight into the mix.
If you get on TikTok and find that you’re not growing quickly or that these tips aren’t working, have some patience. Like everything else, building a following on TikTok takes time, dedication, and a plan. Try to have fun with it while you’re growing, and join in the thriving, bookish, somewhat silly community that flourishes in this built-to-work-together platform.