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Did BookTok really get Gen Z into reading?

Thanks to BookTok, last year UK publishing’s total income reached a record high of £6.7bn

Welcome to BookTok, the wholesome side of TikTok where young people share content inspired by the books they’ve been reading. There are snappy reviews and recommendations, as well as funny, relatable content for fellow book lovers. In one video, Kate (@kateslibrary) reels off a bunch of books which will “have you SOBBING at 2AM”. In another, Mallak (@endlessbookworld) posts about the struggles of having no space in your home for all your books. These kinds of videos are incredibly popular, and #BookTok has racked up over 50 billion views.

22-year-old BookToker Valeria (@lifeofbvalerie) began posting about books on TikTok last summer. She’s been an avid reader since her teenage years, and recalls how she and her classmates used to be “obsessed” with Twilight, the Hunger Games, and even fanfiction on Wattpad. “It’s been really nice knowing that I can connect with people through books on BookTok,” she says. “It’s like my safe space.”

Hana, 29, is another member of BookTok. She co-runs @booksonthebedside with her 26-year-old sister Hali. “We have always been big readers and books are a passion we share as sisters,” she says. “With the pandemic and how grim things look for young people at the moment, it’s really nice to bond with people over good books. Now when you finish a book, you can go online and discuss books with friendly people. BookTok is one of the few corners of the internet where the majority of people are really open and nice.”

Hannah, 23, is a fan of BookTok. She explains that it’s an easy and accessible way to find recommendations tailored to her age range. “Everyone on TikTok is my age, so nine times out of ten I’m going to enjoy the books that everyone hypes up on there. I trust it more than a bestseller list, which I feel is more influenced by older readers,” she says, adding that BookTok has also encouraged her to read books which she wouldn’t have ordinarily picked out for herself. “I also read A Song of Achilles [by Madeline Miller] even though I would have never really chosen to read a retelling of Greek mythology before. I ended up really enjoying it.”

However, BookTok isn’t without its own issues. “Because TikTok is so addictive, sometimes I spend more time looking at books that I would like to read and adding books to my to-read list than I do actually reading,” Hannah says. She adds that she also dislikes the competitive side of BookTok. “People will make TikToks saying ‘here’s all the books I read in April’ and they’ll be holding ten books. Then you feel really shit about yourself because you only read one book in April,” she says. It’s true that BookTok – as well as other platforms like GoodReads and Bookstagram – gamify the reading experience to an extent which puts unnecessary pressure on us to read books just to say that we’ve read books.

Hannah adds that she suspects many BookTokers promote certain books purely because they make them seem intelligent or interesting. As Rayne Fisher-Quann put it in her ’standing on the shoulders of complex female characters’ essay: “it’s become very common for women online to express their identities through an artfully curated list of the things they consume, or aspire to consume [...] your existence as a Type of Girl has almost nothing to do with whether you actually read Joan Didion or wear Miu Miu, and everything to do with whether you want to be seen as the type of person who would.”

Some have also taken issue with how white BookTok is. “BookTok can be a hard place to discuss diversity issues – not only within the BookTok community, but also within the publishing industry itself,” Hana says. “It’s just a difficult app to have a nuanced conversation on sometimes.” While #BlackBookTok is flourishing and the hashtag has racked up over 86 million views, its very existence suggests that white authors are seen as the ‘default’. “There are so many cool BookTokers of colour but a lot of them don’t get the recognition they deserve for the amazing content they’re putting out,” she adds.

It has its flaws, but the fact remains that BookTok is getting more young people reading: UK publishing’s total income reached a new high of £6.7bn in 2021, and TikTok has undeniably helped drive this growth as four out of the five top sellers among the young adult bestseller list are fan favourites on BookTok. A notable example is the surge in popularity of We Were Liars by E Lockhart: the book was released in 2014 but, thanks to TikTok, re-entered bestseller lists in 2020 and a new prequel is now set to be released in May. Booksellers like WHSmith and Blackwell’s even have dedicated BookTok sections, making it easier for customers to find the titles everyone is raving about online. It’s a similar story across the pond, too: in the US in 2021, readers bought over 825 million print books, setting a new record.

Speaking to Dazed, Publishers Association chief executive Stephen Lotinga affirms that BookTok has had a positive impact on the publishing industry, adding that the fantasy, romance, and young adult genres have particularly benefited from BookTok. “Publishers are, of course, engaging with BookTokkers and creating their own TikTok content, but this boom has really come from a growing community of book-lovers on the platform,” he says. “It’s empowered a new generation of readers to engage with each other in a more powerful and authentic way.”

Is it fair to say that BookTok has inspired the entirety of a tech-addicted generation to take up good ol’ fashioned reading? Maybe not quite – Hannah tells me that she believes it’s a slight “misconception” that young people are only just getting into reading. “BookTube has always been a thing, and back in the day people used to make Tumblr accounts dedicated to the Hunger Games,” she says. “Young people have always been and always will be into reading, we just use new platforms to express ourselves on.” It’s arguably more likely that BookTok is simply the next iteration of young people talking about books online. But that doesn’t make it any less magical, and there’s evidently something a little special about BookTok. The numbers speak for themselves.

BookTok book recommendations:

  1. Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, obviously
  2. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
  3. All My Rage by Sabaa Tahir
  4. Good Girl Complex by Elle Kennedy
  5. While We Were Dating by Jasmine Guillory
  6. Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston
  7. Seven Days in June by Tia Williams
  8. Vagabonds! by Eloghosa Osunde
  9. Dance of Thieves by Mary E Pearson
  10. These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong