Ffifteen seconds are enough. Point your phone’s camera at a bookshelf and hold your favorite book, or three. Add a trending soundtrack, a caption, some hashtags – #BookTok #FYP. Add a pandemic to the mix and you have the formula: You can make a book review go viral.
Stuck inside during the Covid lockdown in Sydney, I fell into the endless abyss of TikTok, where I found BookTok: the app’s reading nook that has racked up over 26 billion views.
There, I spent more time watching people talk about books than reading books myself. One of those people is New York-based blogger Cait Jacobs.
Jacobs joined BookTok under the handle @caitsbooks in December 2019. Three months later, she began posting content for a small number of 100 subscribers. That number has since grown to over 240,000.
His videos range from 10,000 to over 1 million views. The one on LGBTQ + portrayal in books has been viewed over 8 million times.
“I really thought when I started that no one would see my videos,” she tells me. “I’m an introvert – I have social anxiety going to the grocery store. So connecting to so many other readers is a shock.
On a platform like YouTube or Instagram, you need to actively search for content related to books. On TikTok, it can be tripped. “The videos filter seamlessly to the For You page,” says Jacobs, of the assemblage of new TikToks users who scroll down as soon as they open the app. “And the audience it reaches is not just the readers.” Hence the astounding figures.
Behind the ambiguity of the TikTok algorithm lies a feeling of organic growth, stronger than that of any other platform. My page for you is filled with a mysteriously organized mix. It’s individualized – perfectly aligned with my interests, and slightly terrifying if you think about it too deeply.
Audiences scrolling beyond FYP – via BookTok accounts and tags – will pick up the models. Many videos follow “formats” that may go viral.
Recommendations lists are a prime example, where the emotion of a popular song on the app is aptly paired with recommended books. A stack of novels featuring “anguished love between enemies and lovers” would suit the punch of Olivia Rodrigo’s Good 4 U perfectly, for example. Or, a selection of “books guaranteed to make you cry” listed in his heart-wrenching Driver’s License.
One of my favorite video formats is less popular and involves a creator sharing the plot of a book like it’s a real story.
Elizabeth Cayoutte – alias @bettysbooklist – was the pioneer. Looking at the barrel of her phone’s camera, she says, “Someone passed away at the school costume party. My friends and I take parenting very seriously, and while we have our secrets, I assure you it was an accident. So why won’t anyone believe me?
After a tantalizing moment of shock and intrigue, the video moved to the cover of Big Little Lies: The Australian Mystery Novel released in 2015.
Other TikTokers such as Jacobs roam a variety of formats, from sharing tropes of guilty pleasure and relatable book experiences, to hypothesizing what “his audience’s favorite book says about them.”
Her videos often feature Leigh Bardugo’s fantastic young adult duology, Six of Crows. It’s a show that I also call a favorite, so we’re sharing a little shout about it over the phone.
“Six of Crows always gets people talking,” says Jacobs. “I think it’s the mix of a rich fantasy world and a diverse set of characters.”
While YA novels such as Six of Crows, We Were Liars by E Lockhart, The Selection by Kiera Cass, and everything written by Sarah J Mass thrive on BookTok, the broader genres aren’t forgotten.
“YA fantasy is great, but so are the mysteries and classics. Jacobs says there’s also a huge appetite for “spicy” and “smutty” books; sensual, erotic or both books.
“BookTok is a place where everyone is comfortable,” she says. “Because everyone is eager to share their reading and to immerse themselves in what they expect from their plots, their characters and their worlds. And all it takes is a short video.
These short videos have been noticed beyond the world of BookTok – 26 billion views of the BookTok hashtag means that a five-second viral clip can impact sales worldwide.
The Guardian invented the BookTok effect; where books are featured on TikTok, and top-selling charts shortly thereafter. Jacobs says it’s so prevalent that it can “point directly to the videos” that catapulted some books to popularity.
Selene of @moongirlreads boosted sales of Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles. And Ayman of @aymansbooks prevented readers from getting their hands on VE Schwab’s The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue after her video recommending it.
Booksellers get it, Barnes & Noble in the US offering a “check out popular BookTok books” category on their website and displaying a BookTok table in stores.
“It’s surreal,” says Jacobs. “It’s special because BookTok has such a wide reach and audience around the world, but it’s just a community that loves to read and talk about it.
“This is something I never imagined I could happen.”