FIf ten seconds is all you need. Point your phone’s camera at a shelf and hold your favorite book or three. Add a popular track, a caption, and a couple of hashtags – #BookTok #FYP. Throw a plague into the mix and you’ve got the formula: You can make a book review go viral.
Trapped indoors during the Covid lockdown in Sydney, she plunged into the endless abyss of TikTok, finding BookTok: the app’s reading nook that has racked up more than 26 billion views.
There, I spent more time watching people talk about books than reading books myself. One such person is Cait Jacobs, a New York-based book blogger.
Jacobs joined BookTok under the title @caitsbooks in December 2019. Three months later, she started posting content to a small following of 100 followers. This number has since risen to more than 240 thousand.
Her videos range from 10,000 to over 1 million views. One on LGBTQ+ representation in books has been viewed over 8 million times.
“I really thought when I started that no one would see my videos,” she told me. “I am an introvert – I have social anxiety about going to the grocery store. So contacting so many other readers is a shock.”
On a platform like YouTube or Instagram, you have to actively search for content related to books. On TikTok, you can get stuck. Jacobs explains that “videos are filtered to the For You page seamlessly” to collect new TikToks users as soon as they open the app. “And the audience you reach is not just readers.” Hence the amazing numbers.
Behind the mystery of the TikTok algorithm is a sense of organic growth, stronger than any other platform. My page is filled with vaguely curated mixes. It is individual – perfectly compatible with my interests, and a little intimidating if you think about it deeply.
An audience that scrolls past FYP — through BookTok accounts and tags — will pick up patterns. Many videos follow “formats” that are likely to go viral.
Recommendation lists are a prime example, where the emotion of a popular song on the app is carefully paired with recommended books. A stack of novels featuring “angry romance from enemies to lovers” would be perfect for punching Good 4 U by Olivia Rodrigo, for example. Or, a selection of “books guaranteed to make you cry” included on her driver’s license.
One of my favorite video formats is less popular, and includes a creator who shares the plot of a book as if it were their own true story.
Elizabeth Coyote – aka betysbooklist – pioneered this. Looking into the muzzle of her phone camera, she said, “Someone died at a school masquerade party. My friends and I take paternity very seriously, and while we have our secrets, I assure you it was an accident. So why wouldn’t anyone believe me?”
After a baffling moment of shock and intrigue, he clipped the video to the cover of Big Little Lies: Australia’s Domestic Mystery Novel published in 2015.
Other TikTokers admins like Jacobs jump across various formats, from sharing guilty pleasure metaphors and related book experiences, to assuming what their audience says their “favorite book is about.”
Often featured in her videos is Leigh Bardugo’s young adult fantasy game, Six of Crows. It’s a series that I also call a favourite, so we share a little shout about it over the phone.
“Six crows always get people talking,” Jacobs says. “I think it’s a combination of a rich fantasy world and a variety of characters.”
Although YA novels like Six of Crows, E Lockhart’s We Were Liars, Kiera Cass’s The Selection, and whatever Sarah J Mass has written thrive on BookTok, the broader genres haven’t been forgotten.
“YA fantasy is a great one, but puzzles and classics as well.” There is also a huge appetite for “spicy” and “lewd” books, Jacobs says. Sensual or erotic books or both.
“BookTok is a place where everyone feels comfortable,” she says. “Because everyone is eager to share their reading and delve into what they want out of their plots, characters, and worlds. All it takes is a short video.”
These short videos have been noticed outside the BookTok world – the 26 billion BookTok brand views mean that a viral five-second clip can impact sales worldwide.
Coined by the Guardian the BookTok effect; Where books are promoted on TikTok, and bestseller charts soon after. So pervasive, Jacobs says, she can “point directly to the videos” that led some books to popularity.
“Celine from moongirlreads created a spike in sales of Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles. Ayman, from @aymansbooks, made it impossible for readers to get their hands on The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by VE Schwab after her video recommended it.”
Booksellers have mushroomed, with Barnes & Noble in the US offering the “Discover Famous BookTok Books” category on their website, and the BookTok table display in stores.
“It’s surreal,” Jacobs says. “It’s special, because BookTok has such a wide reach and audience all over the world, but it’s just a community that loves to read and talk about.
“It’s something I never imagined would happen.”