How TikTok became a best-selling machine

Many of this year’s best-selling books have one thing in common, but it’s none of the usual factors: a famous or long-running author, a relationship to a movie or TV show.

It’s TikTok.

Early last year, the publishing industry began to notice that books that readers were raving about on TikTok, the social media platform that traffics in short videos, were showing up on best-seller lists. Publishers were shocked, authors were shocked, even the readers who made those TikTok videos were shocked.

A year later, the #BookTok hashtag has become a sustained and powerful force in the world of books, helping to create some of the best-selling books on the market.

Author Colleen Hoover’s books, for example, became a sensation on TikTok, and Ms. Hoover is now one of the best-selling authors in the country. NPD BookScan, which tracks the sale of most printed books in the United States, said that of the top 10 best-selling books so far this year, Ms. Hoover has written four.

TikTok has “transitioned from a novelty to a real anchor for the market,” said Kristen McLean, executive director of business development at NPD Books. “The idea of ​​dominating supermarket shelves, dominating airport stores, dominating bookstore check-in tables, it’s just not in the same place.”

Now one of the dominant forces in adult fiction, BookTok has helped authors sell 20 million books in print by 2021, according to BookScan. So far this year, those sales are up another 50 percent. NPD Books said that no other form of social media has had this kind of impact on sales.

BookTok is not dominated by the usual power players in the world of books, like authors and publishers, but by regular readers, many of them young, who share recommendations and videos of themselves talking about the books they love, sometimes in tears. , yelling or throwing a copy. across the room.

The most popular videos usually don’t offer information about the author of the book, the writing, or even the plot, like a traditional review does. Instead, readers speak clearly about the emotional journey a book will offer.

And it turns out that’s just what a lot of people are looking for, said Milena Brown, director of marketing for Doubleday.

“’This is how it makes me feel, and this is how it will make you feel,’” Ms. Brown said, describing the content of many of the videos. “And people say, ‘I want to feel that. Give it to me!'”

In essence, BookTok powers something that has always been essential to selling a book: word of mouth.

“I think one person can get it on the radar, but it takes the rest of BookTok to get on board and do it in a big way for a book to really succeed,” said Laynie Rose Rizer, assistant store manager at East City Bookshop in Washington. DC who has 70,000 followers on the platform. “Once word gets out, that’s how a book gets big.”

The books that get off the ground there are mostly fiction and usually a few years old. This is unusual in publishing, where most titles, if they have a burst of sales, see it early on.

Sales were initially concentrated among young adult titles, but BookTok is now even more powerful in adult fiction, according to BookScan. Romance is another big category, closely followed by science fiction and fantasy. But even classics like “Wuthering Heights” and “The Great Gatsby” get some love on TikTok.

Another big beneficiary of TikTok’s hype is writer Madeline Miller. A former high school teacher with a master’s degree in classics, Ms. Miller’s most successful book is “The Song of Achilles,” a love story between two young men, Achilles and Patroclus.

It was published in 2012 with an initial print run of 20,000 copies. This month, its publisher, Ecco, announced that it had sold two million copies in all formats.

Miriam Parker, associate editor at Ecco, said this kind of record sales for a book like “The Song of Achilles” is more than remarkable.

“It never happens,” he said. “This is a book about the Iliad!”

Ms Miller, who has another book, “Circe,” which has also been popular on TikTok, said she is now taken more seriously in the literary world because of the higher profile of her work. Sales were also a relief during an extremely difficult time.

When the pandemic hit, his speaking and touring opportunities dried up and he thought he might need to go back to teaching to make a living. Since February 2020, she has been battling Covid for a long time and was concerned about his ability to work, she said. Having “Song of Achilles” catch fire on TikTok allowed him to take care of himself and her family, and continue working on her next novel.

“It has really changed my life,” he said. “It has given me time to write, to continue being a writer.”

Part of TikTok’s success in selling books can be attributed to bookstores, which began paying attention to books gaining traction on the platform, McLean said. Barnes & Noble, in particular, caught on early; many of its stores set up tables with a selection of fashion titles. Those screens spread the word about BookTok to new readers, and the cycle continued.

This week, TikTok and Barnes & Noble announced an official partnership: a summer reading challenge designed to encourage people to post about the books they’re reading and to pollinate readers. A BookTok home page shows users a few selected videos, including a selection called “Meet Your Local B&N Booksellers” and a list of suggested titles, which links to the Barnes & Noble website. Barnes & Noble will have QR codes in their stores that send customers to the BookTok landing page.

Barnes & Noble stores have their own TikTok channels, as do many publishers. Publishers also send TikTok creators free books or pay them to make videos on certain titles. But as powerful as BookTok has become, it’s hard for publishers to leverage it as a sales tool.

“It’s not a video that makes a book sales explode,” said Doubleday’s Ms. Brown. “It’s this grassroots explosion of people creating the videos and then organically, by word of mouth, it grows from there.”

Having an author on the platform, for example, is also no guarantee of the success of a book. It’s not even a requirement.

“I’m not on TikTok yet,” Miller said. “I’m still very bad on social media.”

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