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TikTok fuels new surge in teen reading habits

When Cait Jacobs started posting book reviews on TikTok in December 2019, she didn’t think anything would come of it. 

She has been a book blogger since 2016 and her reviews didn’t get as much traction then — her site hit about 700 views per month for six to 12 posts. But then the pandemic hit. That first week in quarantine, her TikTok account @caitsbooks jumped from around 100 followers to 10,000.

“I’m in shock still,” Ms. Jacobs, a Mattituck resident and employee at Cutchogue New Suffolk Free Library, said. “It’s been over a year, and I just can’t believe any of it is real. Like, those numbers just don’t make sense to me.” 

In the past year, her accounts have grown to more than 214,000 followers on TikTok and almost 70,000 on Instagram. Her videos achieve around 3.2 million views on TikTok and 4.7 million on Instagram each month. And as a “BookToker” — a TikTok creator who primarily posts content about books —  she’s noticed a dramatic shift in BookTok’s influence on the publishing industry.  

“I had been trying to work with publishers initially and I saw their reluctance with BookTok in the beginning because it was a new platform. No one knew what was going on — TikTok was the Wild West,” Ms. Jacobs said. “But as BookTok started gaining more traction, as creators started growing more and videos started going more consistently viral … publishers, I think, realized the impact it could have.” 

TikTok, a popular social media app known for its short videos on everything from dance routines to story-telling and tutorials, saw its popularity explode during the pandemic. According to February statistics from Statista, the percentage of Americans between 15 and 25 using the app jumped from 10% to 28% after the COVID-19 outbreak, a growth of 180%.

Ms. Jacobs, 23, recalled a few weeks earlier this year when it was difficult to purchase a copy of “The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue” by V.E. Schwab — because, she said, of a viral video posted by Ayman Chaudhary of @aymansbooks. A video Ms. Chaudhury posted in late December 2020 saying she’s “never read anything more beautiful” than that novel reached 2.8 million views.

Ms. Jacobs pointed to another viral video posted last August by Selene Velez of @moongirlreads that surpassed six million views, listing “books that will make you SOB.” Only a day later, “The Song of Achilles” by Madeline Miller, one of the books she listed, hit the bestseller list — 10 years after it was first published.

“It’s crazy to think about how someone making a video gets this book back on the bestseller list, or on the bestseller list for the first time,” Ms. Jacobs, who is sometimes paid to promote books, said. “It’s kind of insane to see when you watch people make these videos blow up and then suddenly how much hype that book starts getting.” 

Now, especially since this past winter, publishers have started to specifically ask for BookTok influencers, she said. Scott Raulsome of Burton’s Books in Greenport said he has seen a change in consumer habits since the rise of “BookTok.” Although it’s “difficult to say” whether trends on the platform have led to increased sales, he said there’s been a “noticeable increase in teens in the store who are interested in [young adult] books” — enough so that the bookstore has created an “As Seen on TikTok” display featuring a rotating selection of about 10 popular books.

An “As Seen on TikTok” section in Burton’s Books in Greenport. (Courtesy photo)

“We have definitely noticed a BookTok influence,” he said over email, noting that BookTok influencers often encourage their viewers to purchase from local independent bookstores. “Certain books have become very popular as a result. The books are often in the YA genre, but some adult titles have seen a surge in popularity as well.” 

He listed titles like “We Were Liars” by E. Lockhart, “They Both Die at the End” by Adam Silvera and “Shadow and Bone” by Leigh Bardugo as examples of books that have seen renewed interest over the past few months. 

There’s been a similar trend at Mattituck-Laurel Library. Library director Jeff Walden said according to the teen librarian, there’s been increased requests for several older books that are popular on BookTok.

“I actually unknowingly experienced it myself earlier this week,” he said over email. “I had a teen patron come in and ask for the book ‘Song of Achilles’ by Madeline Miller the other night. I noticed that the book was published in [2011] but all 28 copies in Suffolk County were checked out and there were also 10 additional holds.”

Forty e-books of the novel have been signed out in the county, with 54 people on the wait list. All 20 audiobooks have also been checked out, with 53 people on the waiting list. Mr. Walden thought this was odd, so he asked the patron where she heard about the book. She said social media but didn’t name TikTok specifically. Either way, the book’s sudden popularity led Mr. Walden to order more copies. And that’s not the only novel at the library that’s seen a sudden surge in popularity years after it first hit shelves. 

“One book that we own is ‘A Court of Thorns and Roses’ [by Sarah J. Maas] and it has been circulated four times already this year, which is unusual for a book that is six years old,” Mr. Walden said. “All 30 e-books in the county have been checked out, with 33 people on the waiting list.” 

“We Were Liars” is another popular title, with all 25 e-books in the county checked out and a three-person waiting list. Its eight audiobooks have similarly been checked out, with three on the waiting list. 

“I don’t know if these books are being checked out by people on the North Fork but I can tell you that BookTok has definitely increased the circulation of these books in Suffolk County libraries, including e-books and e-audiobooks,” Mr. Walden said.

Cailin Duffy, a staff member at Burton’s Books, remarked on TikTok’s accessibility — “a lot of nonreaders are being exposed to the culture surrounding certain books and series and deciding they would also like to be a part of it,” she said.  

She pointed out, however, that a lack of diversity can be an issue — something Ms. Jacobs acknowledged as well.  

“That is such a huge problem in the industry,” she said. Although creators have been discussing ways to promote more diverse reading habits and there’s been some improved representationin the publishing industry, “we’re not there yet.”  

“I’m [bisexual] and I also have like mental health stuff, so it’s really important for me to encourage people to diversify their reading, and it’s really important for me to see representation of some of my own experiences,” Ms. Jacobs added.  

Mr. Raulsome similarly pointed out that, although it’s great more people are “discovering the joys of reading,” only a “limited selection of books” gain popularity through TikTok. A 60-second BookTok clip can sell more books than “a stellar critical review from a reputable source,” adding pressure to authors to be active on social media, he said. 

“The issue of diversity can apply to both the variety of books that gain popularity on BookTok as well as the authors themselves,” he added. “We often see people asking for the same [five to 10] books that have gained a strong foothold in BookTok culture while some truly wonderful books are virtually ignored.” 

Ms. Duffy and her coworker Stephanie Licciardi both said most books that trend on BookTok are written by white authors, although there’s been a recent push to promote authors of color. Burton’s Books tries to “carry and promote a diverse selection of books” outside of current trends, Mr. Raulsome said, adding that ideally, people who fall into reading on TikTok will branch out on their own.  

“I would love to see books like ‘Deacon King Kong’ [by James McBride] or ‘The Overstory’ [by Richard Powers] become BookTok famous as well,” he said.