A TikTok account of one’s own: BookTok and the commodification of reading

By Emma Searle

April 25, 2024

As a part of UQES’s publications team, it’s most likely not a surprise that I know how to read, and surprisingly even enjoy it. Also unsurprisingly is that people who read copiously for leisure are known to harbour – sometimes secretly and often obnoxiously – a belief in their own superiority of taste. I’m almost certainly guilty of this; obviously the books that I have selected to read and, even more exclusively, have decorated as being ‘good’ should in their own right enter into the literary canon to be appreciated by absolutely every other person with enough spare change and understanding to do so. (I’ve read almost everything Virginia Woolf has ever written and will not fail to bring it up in every conversation – or, apparently, in a UQES blog!)

So, when the books that I wouldn’t usually seek out become almost instantaneously and overwhelmingly popular, my first instinct would be to bristle and proclaim their unworthiness – why should people be reading these, when the books I like are so unquestionably better in every way? This was my first reaction to the emergence of BookTok and its associated surge in romance/fantasy recommendations. BookTok is the self-explanatory name for the TikTok community of readers, reviewers, and more recently, authors who produce content gushing about the books they enjoy, disparaging those they do not, and promoting their own material to an insatiable audience of typically young people.

BookTok largely picked up speed towards the end of the pandemic, with Bloomsbury reporting a 220 per cent increase in sales in 2021, and Dymocks citing a 180 per cent rise in the three years to 2023, both crediting the “phenomenon” of BookTok and its recommended titles. A predominant feature of BookTok is the sheer volume of content – often endorsing the same authors, aesthetics, and ‘tropes’. As of November 2023, the BookTok tag on TikTok had 60 billion videos with more than 200 billion views.

Popular authors including Colleen Hoover, Taylor Jenkins Reid, and Ali Hazelwood, have reached a new level of stardom thanks to BookTok, regardless even of when their books were first published. However, a common criticism of these and other authors is their formulaic approaches, with similar cover art, character types, and an adherence to tropes over more experimental plots. Also, like most anything with an audience of typically young women, a lot of criticism falls on the users of BookTok. Namely, they are accused of having a competitive desire to read as many books as possible, with a lack of critical engagement as a result, and a devaluation of true ‘literary’ works.

Much like my own reaction to this widespread uptake of a hobby I had irrationally coveted, the criticism likely stems from an instinctive reluctance to let reading become easily democratised. A democratisation of reading necessarily dilutes the belief that people who read are engaging in a superior and elevated pastime: if everyone’s doing it, you’re not so special now, are you? But this instinctive reaction is not new; with every innovation to reading, which usually allows for more people to have access to books, there has been a proportional backlash to the changing styles.

Penny dreadfuls and dreadful elitism

Publishing and the delivery of books to demanding consumers has experienced many innovations in line with economic development, greater productivity, and improvements in social mobility. Most obviously, the industrial revolution in Europe brought about advances in the materials and mechanisms of the printing press, production of cheaper but more durable paper, and more efficient binding of books. These productivity gains were part of a slow pull but seismic shift to introduce cheaper and more portable books to a wider group of people. As such, books no longer wilted within the mahogany shelves and stifling libraries of the wealthy.

Particularly in the US and UK, the 19th century saw an emergence of so-called ‘penny dreadfuls’, which were small serial editions that could be printed cheaply and sold at low prices. These penny dreadfuls mainly appealed to middle and working classes due to their sensationalist nature with striking plots, which allowed for easy escapism and a distraction from daily hardships. Greater social mobility had allowed the working classes to afford an education, literacy, and the leisure time to sit down with these books.

However, literary critics and the publishing industry at large with all their pretensions did not take lightly to an expansion of the ‘reading masses’. Literature had been democratised and no longer reflected back upon them the shining light of their own superiority and good taste (a familiar story).

According to one Geoffrey Faber, a publicist and poet who was the founder of what would become Faber & Faber publishing house, “literature now is in the hands of the mob; and the mob is stampeded. It moves in a mass, this way or that, and all its thinking is done for it.” Faber’s assertion is remarkably similar to criticisms levelled against BookTok enjoyers and authors – their supposed reliance on trends with the same material being regurgitated so that readers only stick to what is familiar but ultimately shallow.

Fast fashion and commodification

Given the fast-moving nature of BookTok and the sheer quantity of users, some common patterns in the types of books being endorsed have been highlighted and doggedly criticised. This criticism can be summarised as the idea that BookTok is falling victim to fast fashion cycles.

The snowballing quantity of books recommended on BookTok, which generally fall under romance or fantasy genres by similar authors, has led to an over-saturation of publishing and book markets. You cannot step foot into a bookstore without seeing a ‘TikTok made me buy it!’ section. The same tropes are used to describe these books to the point where the stories being told follow essentially the same plots within these discrete categories and subcategories which strip the work of any possible newness.

Consequently, production surges to meet patterns of demand which ebb and flow as tastes change, such that the books are written and published quickly and in a way that supersedes a detailed editing and proofreading process. Quality becomes impeded as authors frantically put forth sequels and expanding series to ride the transitory wave of their popularity after a handful of videos supporting them trend on BookTok. Hanging onto the coattails of trends mean that the final product will have only an ephemeral quality; it reflects a temporary burst of interest instead of a deeper purpose for being written.

This commodification and over-saturation of reading can mean that critical engagement with the books being read is limited. If the idea is to read as many books as possible, many of which fall into neat formulaic categories, then absorbing them entirely is almost unnecessary. The pattern is familiar and comforting, so it is less important to think about what you’re reading when you can predict exactly what will happen based on the trope used to market it. Additionally, any books which don’t fit neatly into the aesthetics of BookTok will receive less attention and a thinner audience, regardless of quality. Authors are essentially judged, at least by the publishers who decide whether their books are worth selling, by their ability to market and voice trends.

Brave new world of publishing

Whether or not you agree that this commodification of reading in line with fast fashion trends is necessarily bad, it has undoubtedly created a shift in how the publishing industry operates. Authors without traditional avenues into a publishing house but with enough support from BookTok now have a point of entry into established literary spaces. Engagement on BookTok has allowed many authors to navigate the choppy but cheaper waters of self-publishing. As such, expensive and corporate publishing channels can be bypassed. This provides a fresh breath of competitiveness into the staunchly conglomerated publishing industry. In Australia, the largest four publishers generate 32% of revenue, and globally large publishers have no qualms in consolidating with smaller independent agents to eat up more market share.

This surge in anti-competitiveness has arisen from the increased threat from Amazon, who control over half of the print book market and around 80 per cent of the e-book market. Independent publishers cannot compete, and it is even costly for established players to do so as well. For example, a dispute about pricing between Amazon and Hachette – one of the ‘top 5’ US publishers – in 2014, saw a quarterly drop of 18 per cent in Hachette’s sales. So, with self-publishing an option to BookTok authors, some of the oligopoly powers can be stripped and this allows for easier access into the book market.

However, the intentions and requirements of authors are also undoubtedly changing. They need not only be able to write and communicate stories, but also to promote and market these effectively. Many publishers encourage, or even require, promotion by authors of their new books on TikTok. Authors are therefore more given more steady financial support if they can adhere to formulaic trends that are overwhelmingly demanded by users. The push for film and TV adaptations of the most popular of BookTok books further widens the avenues through which these stories are being commercialised and, ultimately, dulled.

Although authors on BookTok can become a boon to the oligopolist publishing market, this does not negate the fact that they cannot be rewarded for experimentation. Instead, even to be a successful self-publisher, they must adhere to the checkbox of familiar tropes that TikTok readers have come to expect.

Is BookTok exclusively bad?

Much of the backlash against BookTok can be summarised as pretension and a knee-jerk reaction of mistrust in response to the democratisation of reading. However, given its similarities to an industry of fast fashion and excessive commodification, some of the criticism is well-founded. Regardless, it is true that within a traditional media setting many of better parts of BookTok have been easily ignored.

The enormous popularity of BookTok has widened the audience of readers and particularly benefits young people who engage with the platform. There has been a noticeable reversal in the tendency of teenagers to stop reading later into high school across many countries, thanks in part to BookTok’s idealisation of reading. Critical engagement does openly occur through the overflowing reviews of books by BookTok users. In particular, the books being reviewed would traditionally have been outside the vantage of typical media critics, for example books within the romance genre.

However, BookTok suffers uniquely from a tendency to sanitise and commodify literature. Using easily identifiable tropes and formulas means that authors have less room to be inventive or original in their writing. Similarly, the over-saturation of the same types of books and a heavier focus on marketing can diminish the ability for authors to provide authentic storytelling.

To become an author, it seems that the only cost of entry is a TikTok account of your own. Even if this means that a wider audience of people are reading, will the quality of books being produced suffer if we don’t ask for more than this?


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