I have to admit up front that I don’t use TikTok. I already spend way too much of my life scrolling, so I’m trying to avoid anything that would add to that. I also didn’t think that BookTok was relevant to me: it seemed to be mostly teenagers recommending the same YA fantasy novels over and over. Then I saw a list of LGBTQ BookTok accounts and was surprised by the number of accounts recommending diverse content. Maybe my initial reaction was wrong!
I decided to take a semi-scientific approach to see what kind of books got the most attention on TikTok. I looked through the #books and #BookTok tags, which seemed to be the bookish tags that were the most popular. I recorded the titles mentioned or shown in the top 25 videos of each that included specific books, skipping the generally bookish videos that don’t reference any individual title. I didn’t count books that are quickly panned over on a shelf, but I did count books as props when their cover was visible. I only counted the first (most popular) video from an account in each tag.
Before getting into the numbers, I also wanted to share some general observations. The first thing I noticed was that there was one theme showing up multiple times: books that made me cry/books that destroyed me. There were about five TikToks with this theme, and I didn’t see any other topic that was repeated. There were also a surprising amount of popular TikToks about works in progress, usually describing the aesthetic of the world they had created. These are not from previously published or well-known authors, either. I haven’t seen that sort of attention on a WIP in any other book media, like Bookstagram or Book Twitter.
There were also a good handful of videos about Wattpad, including from Wattpad itself, primarily about fanfic. Do teenagers just read fan fiction on Wattpad? Do they not use AO3? I’m not sure why this unsettles me, but it does. Finally, I put the one-from-each-creator-per-tag rule in place because as soon as I started recording titles, the top TikToks were dominated by a teenager named Colin reading picture books as bedtime stories to TikTok. This was unexpected, but wholesome!
Enough preamble. Let’s look at the stats! If you want to look at all the numbers, check out the Google Sheets doc, complete with statistics and graphs!
The Most Popular Books on TikTok
I recorded 79 titles across the 50 videos that I used, ranging from classics to short stories to YA fantasy. The averages, though, did not have a large range. Only 14 titles were mentioned more than once. See if you can take a wild guess of what they were! (Oh, you might need to know that I combined series into one entry, so Twilight and New Moon would both count as a Twilight series mention.)
Tied for 5th Place, with 2 Mentions Each:
- Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
- Red Queen series by Victoria Aveyard
- Guinness World Records series
- Crescent City series by Sarah J. Maas
- Throne of Glass series by Sarah J. Maas
- Shatter Me series by Tahereh Mafi
- All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven
- They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera
Tied for 4th Place, with 3 Mentions Each:
3rd Place, with 4 Mentions:
- Divergent series by Veronica Roth
2nd Place, with 5 Mentions:
- The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins
1st Place, with 10 Mentions:
- The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling*
*Editor’s Note: In light of J.K. Rowling’s transphobic statements, we do not promote or recommend her or her work. Harry Potter is mentioned here for data accuracy.
Did you guess them? I have to admit, I found this list pretty disappointing. Not only is it mostly white authors and mostly YA fantasy—exactly the homogeneity I expected—but it’s also outdated. The most popular series are still Harry Potter, Divergent, and the Hunger Games? I’m shocked by how many of the books featured here were at their peak of popularity 5–10 years ago. There have been so many incredible books published in the last five years, especially queer and racially diverse books, and we really don’t see that here. The only book from 2020 that makes it is by Sarah J. Maas, and I feel like that’s just a continuation of her popularity from the Throne of Glass series.
Let’s take a look at how these titles shake out in graph form. (We’re all nerds here; you want to look at some visually represented data, right?)
There are no real surprises here. I used Goodreads genre categorizations, so some of these books likely fit multiple genres, but I went with the top genre listed. Fantasy makes up 50% of the books mentioned, and if you lump dystopian in with it, it’s an even bigger majority. General fiction is about 29%, and nonfiction is 7%. There are no romances here, though many of them include romance. There are no mysteries or thrillers, no memoirs, no graphic novels. There isn’t even a science fiction title included—spoiler, but there isn’t one on the long list, either.
Since TikTok is mostly used by teens and young adults, it’s shouldn’t be surprising that 71% of the books mentioned more than once are YA. There’s only one middle grade/children’s mention, and the adult books are Guinness World Records books (which may actually be more popular for children), Pride and Prejudice, and Sarah J. Maas’s adult fantasy series.
This is not an exact percentage, because I don’t know how every author on this list identifies, but I wanted to get a rough idea of how many authors of color are getting mentioned in these popular BookTok videos. Only two of the authors mentioned, as far as I know, are people of color: Tahereh Mafi and Adam Silvera. (The question mark is for Guinness World Records.) I’m disappointed, but not surprised.
Finally, here is the publication date of the books mentioned the most. For series, I went with the date of the first book in the series—which is why Guinness World Records is recorded as 1955. Apart from that and Pride and Prejudice, this is a pretty narrow range. Almost all of these books came out 5–10 years ago, and the latest Sarah J. Maas series is the only 2020 book to get a spot. The average publication date of these book was 1993, and the median was 2011. It’s baffling to me. I associate YA with being constantly changing—what’s popular six months ago is not necessarily popular now.
Divergent, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and Twilight are all series that have already had their time in the sun. I wish that there was more discovery on BookTok of new titles, especially since, if I’m being brutally honest, there are a lot of better books out now. And, you know, maybe promote books that aren’t by famously transphobic authors.
The Rest of the Most Popular Books on TikTok
Those are the books that got multiple mentions in these videos, but I think it’s worthwhile to look at all 79 of the titles/series mentioned. (Again, you can check out the spreadsheet for every title.) Was there are a lot of variety in the one-off titles? Maybe there’s just such a wide range of books being covered that not a lot of books get mentioned twice! Unfortunately, that’s not exactly what I found.
We definitely see more variety in the genres of books mentioned here, which is nice. Fantasy holds strong at about 33%, fiction at 29%, and dystopian with a respectable 8%, but there’s also romance (9%), historical fiction (5%), nonfiction (5%), picture books (3%), and even a short story (1%). Nonfiction is a small percentage overall, but the most popular TikTok video in one of the tags featured it. It’s a video about Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, explaining that teenagers release melatonin at different times than adults, and that’s why they fall asleep later and get up later. Another mentions that The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene is BANNED in PRISONS and that everyone should read it to protect themselves! (It’s a little sensationalist.) The picture books are, of course, from the bedtime story king of TikTok.
Like the genres charts, we see the same general trend looking at all 79 titles, but with a little more variety. YA is still the majority at 54%, but there are a few more Children’s (10%) and Adult books (54%).
Somehow, though, the unabridged list is even whiter. 81% of the authors mentioned are white—again, this is a rough estimate, not an exact percentage, but it definitely indicates a trend. Only 11% of the authors on this list are people of color, which is a truly dismal result. Of course, according to The New York Times’s “Just How White Is the Book Industry?”, only 11% of the authors published in 2018 were people of color. So, if you are not actively seeking out books by authors of color and trying to counteract the whiteness of the publishing industry, this is exactly what you end up reading.
Finally, we do see more of a range of publication years on the full list, including 14 from 2019 and 2020, but they average out in a similar way. The average publication year is 1996, and the median is 2012.
So, is TikTok all teenagers recommending the same white YA fantasy books over and over? Kind of. YA definitely dominates BookTok, and so does fantasy. The books mentioned in the most popular TikToks are overwhelmingly by white authors. This also likely isn’t the place to find brand new titles to read—they tend to skew 5–10 years behind, which definitely isn’t what I would have predicted.
At the same time, if I had done a similar analysis of BookTube or Bookstagram, I think I would reach similar conclusions. The most popular TikToks/YouTube videos/Instagram posts are the ones that are the most broadly appealing, which tend to be predictable. The fun of BookTube, Bookstagram, or BookTok is finding your niche. While the bookish TikToks with the most views may be mostly white YA fantasy, that doesn’t mean that’s all BookTok has to offer. Just as diverse books aren’t getting as many views, the creators promoting diverse content may be more difficult to find.
My takeaway isn’t that BookTok isn’t worthwhile because it’s homogenous, it’s just to point out that there is a problem. Seek out those diverse creators so that they can be seen and discovered! If you are on BookTok, seriously consider the books that you’re promoting and whether they are reinforcing what’s already popular. TikTok is a really interesting platform to promote books, and I hope that we see it diversify as it grows and matures.