Teenage girl enjoying reading

How TikTok is changing the publishing game

BookTok has stepped in as a tool for publishers to find readers, with everyone from retailers to producers taking their cues from the platform's young creators.
October 22, 2021

Forget whatever you think you know about the greatest rivalries of all time, because nothing compares to the fervor with which tweens and teens debated the merits of Team Edward vs. Team Jacob. Stephenie Meyer’s young adult fantasy Twilight hit shelves in 2005, with another book rolling out annually for the next three years. By the time the first feature film based on the series hit the big screen in 2008, fans were well and truly obsessed. That same year, the first book in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games series was released, and the conversation grew to include whether you preferred Peeta or Gale. Four blockbuster films followed, raking in nearly US$3 billion worldwide and kicking off a massive trend of dystopian young adult books-turned-movies.

The YA book/movie relationship is a symbiotic one. Popular young adult books have been a huge inspiration for blockbuster movies and TV series, which in turn drives viewers unfamiliar with the source material to buy the books.

According to a report in The Atlantic, books that are made into films see their Goodreads ratings increase by more than 1,000%, compared to titles that aren’t adapted.

Release delays and lockdowns over the last 18 months, however, have meant publishers haven’t been able to rely on these adaptations to drive sales in the same way. But it turns out you don’t need the Hollywood treatment to drive audiences to bookshelves because TikTok has stepped in.

According to April 2021 data from market research firm The NPD Group, the young adult fiction category had grown by 68%. In fact, the 10 million units sold during this period outpaced the eight million units sold during the same time frame in 2014, which was the previous best-selling year for the category. (NPD reports that around six million units were sold each year during the same period in 2018, 2019 and 2020.)

This recent growth is being attributed to TikTok, as creators on the platform (they call their corner of the app BookTok) shared reviews and reading lists with millions of followers and strangers throughout the pandemic. Trending on TikTok is the new golden ticket—the two bestselling titles from January through May 2021 were Adam Silvera’s 2017 novel They Both Die at the End and E. Lockhart’s 2014 book We Were Liars. These older titles found new life on BookTok, going viral after they were included on a number of reading lists. In fact, We Were Liars landed on the New York Times Best Seller list six years after it was published. A January 2021 viral TikTok for the title preceded a sales spike of 17,000 units in one week, according to NPD data.

“These books that were several years old were popping up on the sales lists, and there were no events, articles or content pushing them. I looked into it on social media and was able to trace it back to TikTok,” says Kristen McLean, executive director of business development and primary analyst for NPD Books.

Publishers also observed the increase in sales and started their own investigations into BookTok. Then, McLean says, booksellers caught on. Retailers like Barnes & Noble and Target started marketing around TikTok, putting together displays with titles that were trending on the platform. It turned into a virtuous circle, with trending books being featured in stores, and therefore becoming more likely to be picked up by readers and shared on TikTok, she says. This phenomenon supports the industry, but also makes it more difficult for the NPD team to determine how much sales volume can be attributed to TikTok, and how much is due to the efforts of booksellers.

Beyond sales data, McLean says the focus of publishers and retailers on the social media platform is bound to alter the nature of BookTok.

“Publishers have already started to pay creators to make sponsored content the way they do on other social media platforms, and that takes some of the organic quality out of it,” she says. If all of the book-focused videos on the platform start to feel like paid ads, tweens and teens will likely migrate to another app that feels more authentic.

In an attempt to avoid this, the team at Random House Children’s Books is working to take advantage of TikTok without altering its creator culture.

“Over the last 18 months or so, there has been so much more attention paid to not only what we’re seeing on the platform, but how we’re leveraging that content,” says John Adamo, SVP of marketing for Random House Children’s Books. “TikTok has sort of changed everything we do from a social strategy. It’s been disruptive in a really positive way.”

While Random House works with Instagram influencers to create campaigns and employs a lifestyle photographer to take stylized photos for the aesthetic-focused platform, Adamo says the team’s approach to TikTok has been significantly different. The appeal of creators’ videos on BookTok is how raw and unrehearsed they feel, he explains, so Random House decided to focus on spotlighting existing content without trying to impose its own agenda.

“We do have an official TikTok account, and we’re trying to find a balance between the things we post and the existing videos that we find and amplify,” says Adamo.

“If we see someone post a review and they’re getting attention, we reach out to them. Unlike on Instagram, where we have a running list of influencers we tap, this is more organic. It doesn’t have to be the same person over and over, and I think that’s a good thing. You get different perspectives. It’s a different model, and we’re getting a different response, clearly. We’ve never seenĀ a response from an Instagram campaign the way we’ve seen those efforts translate on the TikTok platform.”

TikTok also changed Random House’s budget. Since recognizing the power of the platform’s reading lists and reviews over a year ago, the team has redirected funds that were previously spent on print ads and physical promo materials to its online and social campaigns. BookTok also led the team to re-think its scheduling strategy, Adamo says.

“The very old-school publishing mentality is that you plan [marketing] 12 to 18 months out. Now, it’s a matter of determining what the plan is four weeks out. And that might shift as you get closer to launch, or even after the book comes out. A real-time strategy is definitely front and center for us more than ever,” he explains.

This is especially important because TikTok isn’t linear like Instagram or Twitter, Adamo says. Users on the app are just as likely to see a video from three months ago as they are to see one from three hours ago, which means backlist titles (like Random House’s We Were Liars) can go viral at any time.

Audiences are so focused on some of these older titles, in fact, that their popularity is influencing producers. Backlist books like They Both Die at the End and One of Us is Lying (2017) recently landed upcoming TV adaptations, and BookTok continues to boost the profiles of books from years gone by. But while those kinds of older titles have been Random House’s bread and butter for the past 18 months, Adamo says that launching new books has been difficult even with the significant sales increases for YA.

“It’s been so much more difficult to establish new books during this pandemic period because readers have been returning to things they’re familiar with,” he says. “But on TikTok, if you can get some traction with creators, that’s one of the ways you can break out with a new book.”

BookTok Author

Author Cindy Callaghan spent months researching BookTok to find creators who could promote her books.

Author Cindy Callaghan is looking to test her hand at TikTok marketing for this very reason. The author—known for her 2010 teen fantasy Just Add Magic (later adapted into a 2015 Amazon series)—hopes her latest holiday release, The Girl Who Ruined Christmas, can take advantage of BookTok’s reach.

“I’m not planning to make my own content for TikTok,” she says. “Quite frankly, the content that’s already there is so good, I don’t know that I could compete.”

Instead, Callaghan spent months researching BookTok, searching for creators with a focus on tween content. She started following as many as she could to keep track of their videos and get a sense of their taste in books.

“I ended up reaching out to some BookTokers who didn’t have big follower numbers because they felt like a really good fit. And, who knows—they might have more followers by the time my next book comes out,” she says.

One factor that was make-or-break was that the creators’ content was completely age-appropriate. Callaghan says she ended up removing some BookTokers from her shortlist because the language or content of some of their videos didn’t feel like the right fit for her middle-grade audience.

Now that she has a list of strong candidates, Callaghan is putting together packages with a copy of The Girl Who Ruined Christmas—along with a number of holiday-themed items creators can use to make their videos more festive—in the hopes that the BookTokers will choose to review the title or include it on a reading list. The packages are set to arrive soon so that any potential content can go up ahead of the peak holiday shopping period in November and early December.

Callaghan sent her new book—along with holiday themed items to creators so they can make more festive videos.

Callaghan sent her new book—along with holiday themed items to creators so they can make more festive videos.

“I’m not measuring success in terms of impressions. The quality of impressions is much more important to me than volume,” Callaghan says. “I think I’ll have to weigh the effort versus return in terms of how it performs compared to other social media platforms or more traditional marketing efforts. But it has the potential to be a really nice bang for the buck.”

The true value of BookTok, though, is the love for reading it’s encouraging in tweens and teens, Callaghan says. TikTok is one tool in her marketing toolkit, but she hopes that the attention (and cash) from the publishing industry doesn’t corrupt the genuine excitement of kids sharing the books they love best.

Adamo also hopes that authors, publishers and booksellers continue to respect BookTok’s unique culture even as they leverage the platform for marketing purposes or provide inspiration for their next book-focused screen adaptation.

“When you have a trend like [what we're seeing right now with] TikTok, it’s all about finding your place,” he says. “How can we get in there without stomping on the creators?”

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