A YOUNG WOMAN holds a book and smiles. “This is the first day I read ‘The Song of Achilles’,” she said. The video advances. “And that,” she moaned, her face stained with tears, “I’m the one finishing it off.” Another clip, titled “Books That Will Make You SOB,” features written notes about how various stories made readers cry, such as “I can’t think of it without bawling” and “I ended up crying. sm [so much] I had to change my shirt ”. It’s BookTok, as the literary wing of the TikTok app is called. Imagine the emotional tone of a Victorian melodrama, add some music and you get the general idea.
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BookTok is passionate. It’s also profitable, at least for publishers. Bloomsbury, a UK-based publishing house, recently reported record sales and a 220% rise in profits, which Nigel Newton, his boss, attributed in part to the “absolute phenomenon” of BookTok. On Amazon, BookTok is so influential that it has leapt into the titles of the books themselves. The novel “It Ends With Us”, for example, is now listed as “It Ends With Us: TikTok made me buy it!” Obviously, TikTok has done a good job: romance ranks in the top 100 in Britain and America.
The midrange is not as exuberant as it looks. Much of the exaggerated emotion is ironic, and some of the videos are very funny, especially the ones with the hashtag #writebymen, which poke fun at the male gaze. Still, many would hurt traditional book reviews. But why should the young women who are the stars of BookTok care what hazy literary types think of them? Until fairly recently, their point of view was marginalized in both fiction and criticism. White men dominated both, although most novel readers are women.
BookTok has helped to reverse this hierarchy. 19-year-old American student Selene Velez (photo) is behind @moongirlreads_ (an account with 185,000 followers). It focuses on perpetrators who are generally not “taken as seriously” as others. “I am a woman of color,” she said. “I try to promote authors of color.
At the same time, BookTok opposes the publication’s amnesia. Books are thought to confer immortality on authors – to be a “monument more enduring than bronze,” as the Roman poet Horace wrote – but most have a surprisingly short lifespan. Check out a list of bestsellers from 20 years ago: Not only are today’s readers unlikely to buy them, most haven’t heard of them. Many books will have joined the legions of what WH Auden called the “unjustly forgotten”.
BookTok brings backlists to life. One of the reasons publishers took notice, says Philip Gwyn Jones of Picador, a UK publishing house, was that, under his influence, older titles were slowly moving up the bestseller charts. He gives such books “a second life”, and he is happy about it. “Ultimately, a good book finds its readers,” says Mr. Gwyn Jones. “We just have to hope that, unlike Kafka, [authors] you don’t have to die before it happens. Start following the trends on BookTok, and they won’t. ■
This article appeared in the Books and Arts section of Print Publishing under the title “Word of Mouth”