By: Julita Fenneuff
Originally published: October 18, 2021
This article is part of The Current’s “Throwback Thursday” series.
As of October 18, 2021, at 7:30 P.M. EST, there are 24 billion views under the #BookTok on TikTok.
“BookTok,” as it has been dubbed, is the community of readers on TikTok, an app known for sharing short videos. People use #BookTok to talk about their favorite and least favorite story-telling tropes, authors they’d take a bullet for, characters they love to hate and hate to love and, of course, to show off their carefully curated bookshelves. Because of this, BookTok has become a family of sorts. Readers around the globe have been brought together, if not to post their own videos under the hashtag, then to peruse the tag to gather recommendations of which books to check out ASAP and which to stay away from.
It’s difficult to scroll through #BookTok and find a video that doesn’t have at least one book in the thumbnail, which, for a community based around its love of books, is expected. Even if a thumbnail doesn’t feature a book or two, it’s even rarer to find an entire video under the tag that doesn’t show a creator flipping through pages of a book or displaying its cover. It’s easy to see why BookTok is a haven for any book lover, but somewhere after watching the tenth or fifteenth video, users will find themselves wondering, “How do they afford all these books?”
Once they ask that question, it’s hard to pay attention to anything else. Most books shown by BookTok creators are in pristine condition: completely devoid of spine cracking, page folding or annotating of any sort. And the books hardly ever have library stickers on them. When scrolling through the hashtag, there’s a definite pressure, whether explicit or not, to buy, buy, buy. If this was the 2000 hit single by *NSYNC, there’d be no problem here. Unfortunately, this conversation is about something far more damaging: consumerist culture online.
BookTokers may not be telling their viewers to buy every book they recommend, but they don’t have to. The subliminal message that the more books one owns, the better, is everywhere. More often than not, videos are filmed with the creator’s bookshelf as a background.
“I feel like that’s a staple,” Aireona M. (AM in this article), a student at Georgia State University, said in reference to the way that many creators use their bookshelves as the backdrop of their videos. AM views content on both BookTok and BookTube, YouTube’s own online book community, and she feels that the problem exists on both platforms. “Even in just thumbnails of videos, … it’s just something people do. It’s expected.”
It’s a problem that both creators and viewers on BookTok have noticed. MSU junior Mackenzie Patten (@iiznek) first joined BookTok during the pandemic as a viewer but now creates her own content. Since then, she has felt the pressure to constantly be buying books.
“The whole thing about creators,” she said, “is you have to have the book to talk about it.”
Of course, one doesn’t actually have to own a book to talk about it. In day-to-day life, people talk about books they don’t own all the time. However, there’s a different set of expectations on BookTok. When every creator users encounter under #BookTok is holding every book they talk about in their hand, a standard is set. And as BookTok has grown, so has the pressure to buy books.
“The main aspect of BookTok, I feel, baseline is just consumerism,” Patten said.
The numbers reflect this sentiment. Publishing Perspectives reported that, compared to the first quarter of 2020, Young Adult novel sales alone were 60% higher in the same quarter of 2021. The article itself attributes this growth to BookTok, calling it “a platform that’s influencing book sales in an unprecedented way.”
One of the clearest examples of BookTok’s power can be found in the sales trajectory of Colleen Hoover’s “It Ends With Us.” Published in 2016, the book is a contemporary romance that sold 21,000 copies in its first month, though this success was cut short in the following months and years. In November 2020, sales began to increase slightly, thanks to some BookTokers recommending the book to their followers. As more people read the book, more people talked about it, taking to TikTok to share their thoughts and feelings on the book. As of the date this article was published, #itendswithus has raked in over 106.5 million views on TikTok. In 2021 alone, “It Ends With Us” has sold more than 308,000 copies, bringing the total since release to over 450,000 copies.
Booksellers are capitalizing off the buying power of BookTok. Barnes & Noble and Schuler Books & Music both have dedicated in-store displays for popular books from BookTok, and Barnes & Noble even has a whole page on their website dedicated to it. And while it is great that BookTok is giving some books a second shot at relevance, why does that relevancy have to manifest into consumerism?
“Bottom line, you’re spending money that you don’t need to be spending, and the people who follow you are doing the exact same thing but in a bigger way because you aren’t the only account they follow,” Patten said.
Once a precedent is set, it’s hard to break. Creators may feel pressure to buy more and more books in an effort to feel validated on the platform, but viewers are just as susceptible.
If BookToker #1 says that X is their favorite book, and BookToker #2 says that Y is their favorite book, and someone is a fan of both, well, why not buy both? Often, though, people so immersed in BookTok are not going to follow just one or two creators that they’re big fans of, so the problem increases tenfold. Multiply this by the millions of people that make up BookTok, and the over-consumption the platform breeds becomes obvious.
Though the issue of consumerism is ever growing, BookTok has its good parts. “It’s a wonderful community,” Patten said. “People are making friends; people are talking about the thing that they love.”
BookTok has become a place for many to find comfort and joy, and it has encouraged others to take up reading as a hobby. The community isn’t without its flaws, one being the pressure to over-consume, and it can be difficult to break out of that mentality. But remember: you don’t have to own a book just to talk about it, and the library is a great resource.
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.