Essays

Is BookTok Changing the Way We Talk About Books?

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With Goodreads, BookTube, Bookstagram, and the #LitTwit community on Twitter, bookworms have been talking about books on social media for years. With BookTok’s recent emergence into the scene of bookish social media, especially with how impactful it has been on the sales of books both new and old, it got me wondering how the platform has changed the way we talk about books. 

Do we use different terms for book recommendations or reviews than we did ten years ago? Do we ask for different types of books, or just ask differently? I decided to find out.

Before BookTok

Before we can see any new trends in how we talk about and recommend books, first we’ve got to go back. To get a sense of how readers chatted about books before TikTok arrived, I went back to some BookTube channels you’ll probably recognize if you were in the community in its early years: PeruseProject and polandbananasBOOKS.

Looking back at their videos from eight and ten years ago, it’s fairly easy to see the similarities between their content at the time. Book hauls, wrap-ups, TBRs, tags, unhauls, and single-book reviews are the vast majority of what they posted. And they aren’t the only ones. If you look back at the early days videos of jessethereader or The Booktube Girl or abookutopia, you’ll see fairly similar content when they joined the community. 

BookTube at that point was fairly rigid in its content. While some deviated a little, like Katytastic’s NaNoWriMo vlogs, most creators had some variation of these types of videos in their monthly spread.

The books featured were very often recognizable YA like Twilight or The Hunger Games or Divergent. Recommendation videos were often quite broad with titles like “book recommendations” or “Halloween reads.” PeruseProject had a running series of recommendations for large-scale genres like “fantasy,” “contemporary,” or “historical fiction.”

Shelf organization videos appeared often, too, with creators coming up with new and fun ways to organize their shelves. Debates were had regarding whether organizing by height was better than organizing by color. I distinctly remember watching hours of videos and then tearing my own bookshelves apart to do it myself. 

So, with that in mind, let’s take a look at what’s out there in more recent years.

Enter BookTok

BookTok has been a driving force in the publishing industry in the last few years, propelling books both old and new to bestseller lists. 

Content on BookTok ranges from recommendation lists, reviews, tags, POVs, hauls, and more. And that can depend on the “side” of BookTok you’re on. Laynie Rose Rizer, a Booktoker and Assistant Store Manager at Easy City Bookshop in Washington D.C., said, “I feel as though people tend to think of BookTok as one singular place, instead of a larger community with small subsets and communities within it.” What works for her is posting about romance and sci-fi/fantasy, especially in QueerBookTok. She went viral for her “criteria” for good books which turned into an audio with over 200 videos now, “It’s Gay and it slaps.” 

@thelaynierose

Use this audio to show off what books you have that meet my requirements: it’s gay and it slaps #booktok #lgbtbooks #gaytiktok

♬ original sound – Laynie Rose

On BookTok, especially QueerBookTok, that kind of endorsement works. Videos like “Books that are gay and slap” or “gay novel recommendations” get thousands or hundreds of thousands of views. One video with 67.1K views is a reply to a comment that says, “Gurl just say it’s gay and I’m going to buy it.” Previously underrepresented genres and recommendation lists are able to thrive on BookTok by finding the right audience. TikTok’s algorithm can clock you in minutes and then show you content and community you’ve been searching for for years. People can find their people with ease.

Cristina Russell, Book Buyer at Books & Books, called it a “sort of international, virtual book club,” which I think is an apt description. You can find recommendations from those with similar identities or tastes to you all the way across the world. “It’s like getting a recommendation from a friend or bookseller but from the comfort of your own home,” said Lauren Suidgeest, General Manager at Schuler Books.

Big retailers like Barnes & Noble and indie bookstores like Schuler Books have dedicated displays to books TikTok loves. Suidgeest said they won’t be taking down their displays anytime soon as “many of these books end up store bestsellers each week.”

As for BookTok’s popularity, Suidgeest attributed it to the pandemic, really, saying “2020 was a time that customers couldn’t rely on their local booksellers to help them find their next great read because they couldn’t come to stores in person. Instead, they were able to get recommendations from others in the book community via TikTok.” And it only seems to be increasing in popularity as publishers, authors, and celebrities continue to join the community’s ranks.

Now, how does BookTok talk about books? Let’s take a look at some trends I noticed.

An Emphasis on Feelings

It doesn’t take long scrolling on TikTok’s #BookTok or #BookRecommendations tags to find videos recommending books that “made me forget I was reading,” or “books that made me ugly cry,” or “books that will make you fall in love with reading.” Renee on the account @feministbookclub has a whole series dedicated to recommending books based on how commenters want a book to make them feel with some covering topics like “loneliness” or “informed and empowered” or, even more specific, “something funny, authentic, with characters I root for.”

Content very often centers on books with, as Cristina Russell put it, “a big emotional gut-punch” citing books like Song of Achilles, They Both Die at the End, and Colleen Hoover’s books among the fray. 

Of note, many of these novels are not new. Song of Achilles was published in 2011, They Both Die at the End in 2017, and Hoover’s plethora of popular TikTok books spanning the last decade. While BookTok often reads new releases, they aren’t afraid to hype up backlist titles. One of Schuler’s booksellers, Claire, for example, posted a TikTok recommending The Thief which was released in 2005 and Code Name Verity in 2013, and both of them sold out nationwide.

@schulerbooks

If you haven’t read these fantastic books, this is your sign to do it! What book do YOU wish you could read for the first time again? #booktok #bookrecs #readinglist #reread #rereading #bookish #favoritebooks

♬ BACHATA – Freddy Petit

BookTokers seem to care less about the genre or newness of novels, but the feeling they get when they read them. Recommendation lists will put a 10-year-old contemporary YA novel beside a newly released spicy adult romance because they both made them sob. It’s all fair game as long as the tears come with it.

In an interview with The Washington Post, BookToker Samawia Akhter had a similar sense of BookTok’s tendency to just want to feel something, and the director of books at Barnes & Noble in an article on StudyBreaks said creators’ openness about the books that make them “cry or sob or scream” make it so viewers “immediately connect” to the creator. BookTok’s popularity, it seems, comes from their willingness to be open about their emotions. Which isn’t surprising, as TikTok is a place that values authenticity, maybe more so than any other social media platform.

This wanting for feelings could account, too, for BookTok’s focus on YA, romance, and fantasy novels. Suidgeest at Schuler Books saw a “massive increase in sales and requests for romance books” which she pointed to TikTok for. Russell at Books & Books, too, said “a lot of the TikTok books we’ve seen fly off shelves tend to come from our romance or fantasy section.” These bumps in sales have, as she sees it, pushed traditional publishing into these areas they were previously ignoring like romance and fantasy, citing newly released novels Daughter of the Moon Goddess by Sue Lynn Tan and A River Enchanted by Rebecca Ross as two examples of this new surge. “Fantasy romance readers rejoice, our time has come,” she said.

Speaking of romance and fantasy, let’s join TikTok’s bandwagon and talk tropes.

TikTok Loves Tropes

To be fair, tropes have been around for much, much longer than TikTok. But, if you look for book recommendations by trope, they were harder to come by for sure. Google results for “enemies-to-lovers” for example have only a few relevant hits in 2018, but the volume increased dramatically in 2019 and continues even now. Rather than making a list of romance novels and then mentioning it has a fake dating or friends-to-lovers plot, those tropes have become the sole focus of these recommendation lists. In the last year, dozens of videos on BookTube have been posted, too, recommending enemies-to-lovers books in all kinds of genres whereas it’s difficult to find a handful of them in the early years on the platform.

Laynie Rose has found the videos that do best on their channel are “queer trope-based rec lists” like WLW enemies-to-lovers, queer friends-to-lovers, or new queer adult romances.

It seems no matter what side of BookTok you’re on, the trope videos are everywhere you look. Other frequent ones you’ll see are fake dating, second chance romance, brother’s best friend/best friend’s brother, sunshine/grumpy (or some variation of that dynamic), or found family. Some get even more specific like “knife-to-the-throat” or “tends-to-your-wound” scenes. 

Which brings me to another trend: specificity.

Let’s Get Specific

BookTok loves specificity, and it has spread to BookTube too. I wonder if this might be because BookTok allows creators to make entire videos addressing one comment in ways that is harder to do with other social media. If we look back at @feministbookclub’s feeling recommendation videos, the creator can take a very specific request from a commenter like “curiosity through deep mystery,” put it in the corner of the video, and suggest away for hundreds or thousands of people to see. 

The #hyperspecificbooktag has been going around BookTok lately with creators recommending their favorite BookTok books, books they were forced to read for school but ended up enjoying, or books they read way too young, to name a few. Other videos are dedicated to “insanely specific book recommendations” or “overly specific book recommendations” which can range from something as simple as books about books or as detailed as books that have characters who are enemies but also the only people who can help each other.

Suidgeest at Schuler, too, said readers often come into the store asking sellers, “Can you recommend anything similar to [insert Book Title here]?” Laynie Rose also noticed the same, saying “a lot of people will come in and know exactly what they want.” Whether it’s because of the hyper-specificiation of TikTok’s algorithm figuring out quickly what a reader likes or the sheer volume of videos they scroll through that helps them target their taste, readers know what they like, and they want more.

This, too, has spread to BookTube with creators like Emmie making recommendation videos based on her bad dates and viewers’ very specific requests. Other BookTubers like Sunny Kim, Dakota Warren, and Alexandra Roselyn have videos in that same vein, often taking commenters’ requests, much like BookTokers do, to give them hyper-specific recommendations. BooksandLaLa also posts overly specific book recommendation videos like books inspired by Shakespeare, weird books, and island magic YA to name a few. 

In conjunction with BookTok’s love of mystery boxes and personalized recommendation services like Novel Neighbor and Chapters Books and Gifts, this doesn’t surprise me. People want to be seen, to feel understood. Feel connected to others, especially considering the isolation we’ve all experienced these last few years. They want a book that makes them go, “they feel the same way too” or “maybe I’m not so alone!”

So…What’s Actually Different?

At the end of the day, how differently do we talk about books now? It sort of depends on how you look at it. Reviews before TikTok did discuss how a book made a reader feel. They, too, often mentioned tropes or got specific. But these weren’t the focus of the review or the recommendation list or the video. They often played second fiddle if they made an appearance at all.

I think what we’re seeing now is a shift in the parts of reading readers are emphasizing now. They want to feel something, something specific, and they know what tropes will do it. We’re talking about romance novels and fantasy and YA because they make us feel heartbroken or empowered or loveable. Make us feel connected to each other, to the characters, to the idea of love itself. 

In decades past, I’m talking pre-social media, books were often symbols of intelligence and status. They were talked about by how they made you think, or the lessons learned from them, or how clever they were. And we still do that to an extent. But now, we’re also talking about how they make us feel, which is just as important. Books teach us things, yes, but they’re also emotional and touching and fun! Why else would we spend so much time reading?

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