BookTok’s novel approach to books is helping Canadian authors, retailers attract new audiences

After writing novels for more than 15 years, Maggie Ray was ready to launch her first self-published book, Citizen.

Ray, 27, previously published novels and novellas on sites such as Wattpad, a website and app where writers can publish stories online, and further promoted them on social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram.

Her stories gained some attention, and she made connections with readers online, but she says it was difficult to maintain a consistent readership.

That was until Ray ventured onto TikTok last fall.

“I’ve gotten comments [from] people saying, ‘I’m seeing your book all over BookTok,’ which kind of baffles me,” said Ray, who lives in Moncton, N.B.

“My book has been published now for like seven, eight [months], and it’s still trending. I’m selling copies of the book every day.”

Author Maggie Ray of Moncton, N.B., says she found success promoting her first self-published book on BookTok, an online community and hashtag on the social media platform TikTok. (Submitted by Maggie Ray)

BookTok is an online community and hashtag on the popular social media platform TikTok, where readers post videos of book recommendations, talk about writing novels and make reading-related jokes. The hashtag #BookTok currently has more than 18 billion views on TikTok.

But what started as a community for bookworms is now driving demand for books to the benefit of Canadian authors, book retailers and book publishers.

Book retailer gets sales boost

After more than a year grappling with pandemic restrictions and store closures, Canadian bookstore chain Indigo Books & Music has seen rising sales, in part due to BookTok. (PR Direct/The Canadian Press)

Toronto-based Indigo Books & Music, Canada’s largest bookstore and lifestyle chain, has recently seen a rise in sales in part because of BookTok, the company said earlier this month, when it reported higher profits and lower losses for its first quarter compared with the same period last year.

“The popularity of reading on TikTok created a whole new level of reading excitement, particularly for teens, adding to an already strong performance in books,” Indigo CEO Heather Reisman told an Aug. 13 conference call discussing the company’s quarterly earnings.

Indigo also has a “Now Trending on #BookTok” page on its website, advertising the current titles that are popular on TikTok.

“Customers immediately valued our help in locating the books they were hearing about on BookTok,” Rania Husseini, Indigo’s senior vice-president of print, said in an email to CBC News.

“We are now dedicating more space to them in store with BookTok feature tables.”

TikTok helps Canadian authors reach wider audiences

Ray says TikTok made it easier for her to carve out a niche for herself, compared with other platforms such as Facebook and Instagram, because she accompanied her videos with certain hashtags and trending songs.

“I started using a specific hashtag, which is the dystopian author and dystopian young adult hashtag,” she said.

“The hashtag wasn’t on the app that much, which is why I think I was able to take over some of the hashtags for those genres.”

The majority of TikTok users are young adults between the ages of 16 and 24, and BookTok is being credited with reigniting interest in young adult fiction. According to the website for U.S. retailer Barnes & Noble, the most popular BookTok books are for teens and young adults, along with romance, science fiction and fantasy novels.

Ray says she sees a lot of younger readers on the app who are interested in fantasy novels. But using certain hashtags, she was able to find new audiences interested in the dystopian genre.

“If there’s a thought that BookTok is just for young readers, that is not true,” said Danielle Bernardin, 26, who posts daily BookTok videos on TikTok.

Bernardin, who lives in Lethbridge, Alta., says that although TikTok is popular among young readers, BookTok is a place where all types of genres and authors can gain popularity.

Danielle Bernardin of Lethbridge, Alta., posts daily BookTok content on her TikTok account. She says it’s ‘not true’ that BookTok is just for young readers. (Submitted by Danielle Bernardin)

“[Someone] can talk about their book on a TikTok and if it goes viral, they can get thousands of sales on a book that would not have [experienced] that a year ago,” she said.

“It’s not just the people with the biggest amount of followers. TikTok allows [diverse] stories to flourish.”

Elle Kennedy, a Canadian author responsible for the international bestselling Off-Campus book series, says she has seen an increase in sales for her older books as well as excitement for her new releases.

Elle Kennedy, a best-selling Canadian author of the Off-Campus book series. says she has seen a resurgence in popularity for her backlisted books due largely to TikTok. (Submitted by Elle Kennedy)

“TikTok is fun because it’s short, snappy content,” Kennedy said in an email to CBC News.

“Even just a short snippet saying, ‘This song reminds me so much of a character’ can spark interest and bring new readers to the table. It’s not something people have to invest a lot of time into watching.”

Readers key to promoting books

Morgann Book of Hamilton has more than two million followers on TikTok after posting videos of herself making Dairy Queen cakes and ice cream. An avid reader, she decided to combine her love of ice cream and books on TikTok. (Submitted by Morgann Book)

Morgann Book, 18, of Hamilton, gained more than two million followers on TikTok after posting videos of herself making Dairy Queen ice cream and cakes.

Book, whose parents own two Dairy Queen locations, is also an avid reader and decided to combine her love of reading and ice cream to promote books on TikTok.

Authors such as Kennedy and Jennifer Ann Shore send Book their novels, and after she gives them a read, she decorates a cake with the an author’s book cover on it.

“The video [for Shore] got 5.7 million views and her book sales kicked up,” Book said.

“She was so thankful and happy about it.”

But it’s not only authors and readers who have picked up on BookTok’s influence. Book publishers are also using TikTok to find new readers.

Faith Dehghan, who regularly posts BookTok content on TikTok, says book publishers such as Simon & Schuster, Macmillan and HarperCollins have reached out to her online and sent her books.

Faith Dehghan of Fort Erie, Ont., regularly posts content about books on her TikTok account. She says book publishers have reached out to her online and sent her books. (Submitted by Faith Dehghan)

Dehghan, 19, who lives in Fort Erie, Ont., says she reads the books she receives and then talks about them on her TikTok account.

“You could have the best book in the world, but if no one has heard about it, then no one’s going to want to read it,” she said.

“If readers like myself love a book, we [can] talk about the book and advertise it in different ways.”

Penguin Random House Canada also sends books to popular TikTok content creators, says Kara Savoy, the book publisher’s integrated marketing director. The hashtag has helped the publisher increase sales, she says.

“It creates such an immense amount of word-of-mouth for the titles that are taking off on the platform.”

New and old books move to top of bestseller list

While BookTok has helped launch the careers of new authors, it has also propelled older titles to the top of the bestseller list.

Savoy says sales for books such as E. Lockhart’s 2014 novel for young adults We Were Liars are 10 times higher now than they were a year ago.

Madeline Miller’s novel The Song of Achilles became a No. 1 New York Times bestseller 10 years after it was published in 2011.

Books like Iron Widow by Canadian author Xiran Jay Zhao are already gaining popularity online, even before the book’s release date in late September.

“It’s one of the books that we’ve really been sending out to Canadian influencers,” Penguin’s Savoy said.

“When Xiran did an unboxing video of their advanced copies a few weeks ago [on TikTok], the pre-sale numbers in the U.S. went up 600 per cent that week.”

BookTok ‘makes reading cool again’

Another reason why book publishers and authors may see a boost in sales is because BookTok “makes reading cool again,” according to Dehghan.

“Before [TikTok], everyone was like ‘Oh, reading is associated with school. Why would I want to waste my time with that?'” she said.

BookTok “is showing people that reading can be enjoyable. It can just be a fun hobby.”

Ray also says the interactivity of the short video platform can help teach audiences to appreciate the effort that goes into writing a book.

“A lot of people call books a ‘dying craft’ because movies and TV shows are really up there in popularity,” she said. “Something like BookTok keeps [books] relevant.”

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