By: Julita Fenneuff
January 6th, 2021
This article is part of our Winter 2022 Magazine Issue. Read the full edition of The Current here.
BookTube. Bookstagram. BookTok. Besides being awkward amalgamations following the formula of “book” + “social media network,” these words can also make some book lovers shake their heads. Others perk right up. Some do a combination of both. These online communities are, as one can presume, all about books. Reviewing books, talking about love-hate relationships with particular characters or authors, recommending books to others, showing off bookshelves and much more. What’s not to love?
A lot, actually.
If it was just about sharing the love of reading, well, that would be enough. Unfortunately, there’s a lot lurking beneath the shiny surface that the online book community presents.
As previously reported by The Current, the Bookternet is littered with capitalistic implications. Much of the online book community revolves around buying and collecting books, making it the focal point of much of the content found there. Countless videos are uploaded to various platforms using the Bookternet label, and a huge portion of them feature creators in front of their (often very well organized) bookshelves.
The visual aspect of the Bookternet means that aesthetics are important. Because of this, bookshelves are important to creators. It’s common practice to show off your bookshelves, which are often overflowing and arranged in a way that is pleasing to the eye. There are “bookshelf tours” and #shelfies, which are blatantly about showing off one’s collection of books—but there are subtleties to this practice, too. It is extremely common to see a creator talking in front of their shelves, and even if the creator is not actively discussing their book collection, the allure of a beautifully arranged bookshelf is hard to deny.
People who spend a lot of time watching videos on the Bookternet are being slowly conditioned to believe that to be a book lover, they must own a lot of books. If all their favorite creators have beautiful bookshelves, why shouldn’t they? However, there are a number of issues present with the never-ending pressure to be buying books. For one, it distracts from the actual act of reading, which should be the focus of a community centered around books. Instead, it seems that the act of buying and having a collection of beautiful books trumps enjoying and expanding your world-view through reading.
A big problem with the consumerist aspects of the Bookternet is that it sets a barrier that lower-class readers may have difficulty overcoming. Putting the emphasis on the collecting aspect of reading sets a standard that in order to be part of the online book community, one must be spending money on growing their personal book collection. This mindset discourages patronizing the library because, once again, the obsession with owning books trumps everything.
Even the practice of buying used books that are visibly worn is looked down upon. The slightly tattered appearance of second-hand books can cause others to think they are unworthy of being added to a personal collection, which then makes it difficult for those without a disposable or even flexible income to feel welcome in the community.
Mackenzie Patten, a junior at Michigan State University, joined BookTok during the pandemic as a viewer but now makes her own content. On the topic of preserving the condition of books, she said, “There’s a stigma within book communities that you have to keep your books in pristine condition. You don’t crack the spines, you don’t fold the pages, you don’t write in them, you don’t do anything to them.”
Even more dangerous than the stigma against owning used books is the increasingly popular practice of selling used books for major profit. The capitalistic overtones of book buying are not exclusive to the initial purchase of a book from a store. Countless articles have been published about the gentrification of thrifting in regards to fashion, but not much has been said about how thrifting becoming trendy has affected second-hand book sales. While at one point, purchasing used books was an easy way for people to get their literature fix without having to spend major dollars, re-selling sites are now flooded with listings for “rare” versions of books being sold for exorbitant prices.
Reselling books as a way to make money has taken off, especially on second-hand sites such as Depop and Mercari. While buying used books can sometimes mean purchasing books at a lower price due to signs of wear-and-tear, different editions of books can fetch a pretty penny nowadays. The combination of the certain books blowing up on social media and the Bookternet’s obsession with buying has resulted in an alarming increase in the price of items that typically would have been sold for a lower price due to their used condition. Second-hand book buying is no longer the inclusive practice it once was.
“Six of Crows” by Leigh Bardugo is a spinoff duology from the “Shadow and Bone” series, and both are extremely popular on the Bookternet. Since the content of both book series has been combined into a Netflix original show, also titled “Shadow and Bone,” copies are now printed with an un-removable sticker advertising the show. Because of this, copies of the books without the Netflix branding are extremely sought after.
Pressings of both books in the “Six of Crows” series without the Netflix logo are expensive, and copies that have sprayed edges (factory painted/dyed edges) are even more so. It’s hard not to blame this overpricing entirely on the Bookternet. For one, it’s Bookternet which got the series so popular, and it’s the collecting side of Bookternet that started to value certain copies of certain books higher than others. The Netflix stamp does not change the content of the book, yet people are paying upwards of $100 for a used copy of “Six of Crows” if it doesn’t have the sticker.
This is just one of many examples of books that have, for one reason or another, become collector’s items and are now valued at a higher price––which has allowed those who wish to profit off the situation to do so. “Literature is getting popular again, and that’s such a fun and exciting thing, but with that … the money hungry people are coming in and are saying ‘this is another thing we can take advantage of,’” Patten says.
There’s another phenomenon plaguing the online book community, and that’s the lack of diversity present. “On the surface, [the Bookternet] is very whitewashed. A lot of the most popular creators are white,” Patten said. “A lot of the people that I see big publishing houses working with are white women.”
Most Bookternet content creators who gain traction on their platforms are white. “A quick search of whatever book is popular that you want to watch a review of, it’s like: white person, white person, white person and then one person of color,” said Aireona M. (AM in this article), a senior at Georgia State University and a viewer of book content on both YouTube and TikTok
More than just white creators, a vast majority of the authors and characters talked about on the Bookternet are white as well. Generally, the most popular novels are written by white authors and feature white characters. This leads to white authors and characters being the norm, even though the reading community is not a monolith. The reading community is diverse and members of the community want their reading experience to be diverse, too.
“I’m interested in reading from women authors, trans authors, authors of color, etc. because I’m interested in all kinds of books and all kinds of narratives! I don’t limit myself to any genre or age range, and I think that is what helps me read diversely naturally. I try to look up the demographics of an author before picking up their book; cool people write cool books, and I think marginalized people are cool,” said a sunny book nook, a creator on BookTube.
Sarah J. Mass is probably the most talked about author on the Bookternet, with her series “A Court of Thorns and Roses” rising to popularity on multiple platforms. The hashtag #ACOTAR (pronounced ah-co-tar and the term the series is typically referred to by readers) has amassed over 2 billion views on TikTok alone. However, all that popularity doesn’t come without controversy.
Sarah J. Mass is a topic that deserves an article all its own, but typically readers either love her or hate her. She has been heavily criticized for her lack of characters of color, as well as her emphasis on the paleness and whiteness of her characters. Besides ACOTAR, her second most popular series, “Throne of Glass,” also centers a white protagonist. Both series’ original (and most popular) covers feature the aforementioned white character, but both have pressings where the cover is absent of any character.
In books, there is a trend of not specifying the race of characters unless they are anything other than white, which effectively perpetuates the idea that white is the norm. However, this practice allows readers to create their own version of a character in their head while reading, and the lack of specific racial depictions leaves room for readers to envision characters as a variety of different races. Because of this, there is something to be said about choosing to put a depiction of a character on the cover of a book, especially when that character is white. Choosing to illustrate a white character on the front of a book effectively squashes this opportunity to picture a character as any race other than white.
Zadie Smith, a professor and novelist, actively combats this practice in her 2012 book “NW.” Smith chooses to specify the race of characters only if they are white, flipping the trend on its head. In an interview with NPR, she said, “Everybody’s neutral unless they’re Black—then you hear about it: the Black man, the Black woman, the Black person. Of course, if you happen to be Black, the world doesn’t look that way to you. I just wanted to try and create perhaps a sense of alienation and otherness in this person, the white reader, to remind them that they are not neutral to other people.”
Unfortunately, even when authors do include descriptions of their characters that include race, readers can still just skim right over them. A good example of this is Rue from Suzanne Collins’s “The Hunger Games.” Collins specifically describes Rue as having dark skin in her books, yet when the cast of the movie adaptation of the first book was announced, many fans of the books were upset by the choice of Amandla Stenberg for Rue.
Even though Collins specifically describes Rue as having “satiny brown skin,” that wasn’t enough to convince readers to accept Stenberg for the role. Amongst a flurry of probably long-deleted tweets (good thing the internet lives forever via screenshots), some readers admitted to ignoring the character’s description and picturing her as white while others claimed not to have known Rue’s race because Collins didn’t describe it enough. Stenberg was only 13 years old, but she received a slew of racist hate comments that all stemmed from readers being affronted that a character described as having brown skin was being played by a brown-skinned girl.
These are just a couple small examples of the way that whiteness as the default permeates the reading community. White authors who write about white characters tend to succeed more than authors or characters of color. Even when authors do include non-white characters in their books, readers can still choose to ignore their canonical descriptions and picture them as white anyway.
Recently, authors have received enough backlash about their lack of diversity that you can see an increased effort to expand their cast of characters to include more marginalized identities. In reference to Mass, Patten said, “The further you get into ACOTAR, the more characters she introduces, and you can kind of see her trying to include some sort of diversity, but I feel like it’s in a very cliché way.”
This is a very common issue in the media, often referred to as tokenism. Tokenism occurs when creators make a conscious effort to add diversity to their work, but it backfires because their inclusion is either all based entirely on stereotypes or is generally inaccurate to the experiences marginalized people face.
“Authors can see that consumers want diversity, and they see the dissatisfaction when it isn’t there, so they rush to include it in their work, but it’s never good because they never go into these communities to make sure that they are accurately representing their experiences,” AM said.
It isn’t enough to just include a marginalized character to a story without doing adequate research. Situations like those are why tokenism occurs, and why people from minority communities are often disappointed by the representation they get in the media. Minority characters are more than just the color of their skin or the texture of their hair. They have experiences that are not universal, so it doesn’t work to just swap a white character for a non-white one, write them in the same manner, and call it a day.
Despite the surface-level whiteness that the Bookternet seems to perpetuate, it is beginning to move away from that monolith and reflect the diversity that the community holds. Many people of color on the platform are making active attempts to support other creators of color. “A lot of non-white BookTubers will try to recommend other channels, usually smaller channels who happen to be not white as well,” AM said.
It’s important not to let the whiteness of the Bookternet deter book lovers from consuming or creating content if that’s what they want to do. As BookTuber a sunny book nook said, “White audiences and white readers will always be a reality, but they don’t have to rule what you choose to read or talk about because if you talk about books you care about, others who also care will tune in.”
Nowadays, there seems to be a more open dialogue about diversity in the reading community. Both creators and viewers are more comfortable addressing the lack of non-white presences in the community, which is a major step forward.
It’s difficult to combat the pressures of a capitalistic community, and trying to advocate for better representation, both in books and creators, can feel daunting. However, making changes in one’s own actions can encourage others to do the same. Visit the local library. Buy used books. Seek out creators, authors and characters who are from marginalized communities. It’s okay to go against the flow, no matter how intimidating it may seem at first.
A sunny book nook said, “My advice to non-white book internet creators is, don’t give a f— about what other people think. If people like you and your opinions, that’s cool, but that’s not the purpose of reading or making book content. I think being clear about your intentions with making book content is important too—what is your purpose for making videos or blog posts or TikToks about what you’re reading and your favorite or least favorite books? I think chasing clout is unsustainable, but searching for community and connection over shared interests is always meaningful.”
Julita Fenneuff is a senior majoring in public and professional writing with a minor in Spanish. She currently writes and edits for Sherlockian.net. In her spare time she enjoys reading, listening to music and spending time with her pet bunny.