The following article was first published in my paid newsletter, The Hot Sheet.
It might well be impossible at this point to host a children’s publishing event without offering at least one session focused on TikTok—or, more specifically, BookTok, the community of young book lovers on the platform. At The Bookseller’s children’s online publishing conference last fall, a panel discussed the power of BookTok and why it’s pushing YA books up the bestseller lists. The latest title to fly off shelves because of BookTok is They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera, the second best-selling book of 2021 overall in the UK children’s market—and number-one bestseller in the US.
The marketing power of BookTok starts with peer-to-peer recommendation.
All book marketing research shows that people are strongly influenced by what friends suggest they read, and that describes TikTok on a global scale. But the twist with TikTok is that it goes beyond a simple recommendation or just flashing a book cover. Instead, BookTokers focus on a book’s plot, themes, and genre—the real meaty heart of the book, not necessarily the aesthetic. Panel moderator Charlotte Eyre (children’s editor at The Bookseller) said, “TikTok is about conveying the emotion” felt while reading the book. Author Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé, an avid consumer of BookTok videos, says, “I really like living through [BookTok readers] as they’re experiencing the emotions.”
TikTok remains a positive place for young people.
TikTok creator Faith Young, whose audience is 97% women, said, “I sort of describe it as the last wholesome place on the internet. It’s just become this safe haven for young women.” Young, who is 22, described growing up as an uncool teenager who spent all of her time reading books in the library. She then discovered her people on TikTok. Georgia Henry, a children’s specialist campaign manager at Rocket (a UK marketing agency), said that, given her job, she hardly ever has time to pick up a book for relaxation, but whenever she goes on BookTok, “I just want to curl up with a cup of tea and open a book and lose myself in a book, and it’s just really inspiring.” Young audiences are now walking into bookstores and libraries in significant numbers to buy and read books. (If you haven’t visited a brick-and-mortar store lately, try it. You are sure to find a display based on BookTok.)
TikTok has made it easy for everyday people to become book influencers—and for authors to reach different audiences. Young had been on the platform for only four days (at @hellyeahbooks) when her video discussing why she loves enemies-to-lovers books went viral and quickly turned her into a BookTok star. People loved her video, she said, because they felt seen. Young said she had always wanted to “join the book influencer world,” but she didn’t have the patience to learn how to edit YouTube videos or do fancy photography. But TikTok was user friendly. “You don’t have to have a degree in video editing to be able to make a TikTok,” she said. However, whether your video will take off is hard to predict; having a strong following doesn’t mean your video will get seen. “TikTok is so much luck of the draw,” Young said. The platform’s algorithm looks closely at what users watch and like, then tries to find things specifically suited to their interests. The content shown is not driven primarily or only by who you follow. Àbíké-Íyímídé said, “As an author, it really has helped in building a different connection with different audiences.”
However, as with all social media, TikTok requires authenticity and may come more naturally to younger authors. Àbíké-Íyímídé said that posting on TikTok feels like an extension of her overall creator skills—skills she’s built up over time as a Gen Z author. She and her author-peers are using what they know about internet culture and applying it to their publishing careers in how they talk about books and engage with readers online. “Especially as Gen Z we can see when something is inauthentic,” Àbíké-Íyímídé said.
Publishers can use the platform organically and succeed.
Young said that one of the first accounts she followed on TikTok was Penguin Teen because they have a designated person who creates their social media posts and also shares about her own life. “An important part of TikTok is feeling like you know the people that you follow,” Young said. “It wouldn’t work if [publishers] have loads of different people creating videos.” Similarly, she really likes the content coming out of Sourcebooks Fire, one of her favorite publishers. “They recently casted—no, hired—a new head of social media, and she already had a big following on TikTok, and she now runs their TikTok, and that felt very authentic and I really like their videos.”
Henry, who has worked with many different publishers and authors to create TikTok campaigns, said that if you’re going to have a presence on TikTok, you need to have a voice and commit to it. You can’t just repurpose your Instagram stories (or other social media) and pop that on TikTok—there would be no point. TikTok content needs to be “homemade” and have a human behind it who people can connect with. It can’t be shunted off to an intern or content team. Henry also said that publishers and authors shouldn’t plan ahead too much on their TikTok marketing because you need flexibility to jump on the platform’s current trends, e.g., a song or meme that’s trending.
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Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.
In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.
Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.