After receiving the Orange Prize Award in 2012, Madeleine Miller’s novel, The Song of Achilles sold approximately 50,000 units. It saw a slow decline in sales for nearly a decade, before a TikTok video in 2021 sparked worldwide excitement for the novel. By 2022, that same novel had sold 2 million copies.
The influence of TikTok has cast a shadow over the publishing industry, and transformation within publishing houses has already begun to maintain power in this rocky new age.
This three-part article series will follow the impact of TikTok’s ‘BookTok’ on popular literature, reading culture, and admired authors, fueling discussion on the re-shaping of the publishing industry, potential ‘cheat-sheet’ works from future authors, and the evolving world of bookshops. Gone is the time of swatting the social media app from serious conversation. TikTok is already remoulding industries— it’s either embrace modernity or be left in its wake.
TikTok’s helpfully named community, ‘BookTok’, has become a popular niche within the platform where users can discuss all things literature and reading. If you stumble there organically there’s no doubt you’ll be met with individuals crying over the ending of their newest novel, elongated reveals of favourite monthly reads, and aesthetic shots of pleasing book covers, trendy mugs, and fluffy blankets, with a hum of relaxing music to convince you that you too are in that beautiful reading nook. The community is huge, for lack of a better word, with the hashtag #booktok used 206.2 billion times since TikTok’s first appearance worldwide in 2018. With 1.1 billion active users over the entire app, do you see the dominance this community has generated?
Since its origin, TikTok has been reduced to a place where young teenagers lip-sync to trending songs and post dances with their friends. The app is perceived as a vice for the younger generation to receive constant stimulation in the form of endless seconds-long videos. It’s temporary satisfaction on the highest level. Though there is truth here, there is much to be lost by viewing the app as only this. Let’s look back to the days of One Direction’s fandom army known as ‘Directioners’. While the world undermined the hoards of teenage girls supporting the band, they proved time and time again the influence that social media communities can have. When the band was voted out of X Factor, fans took to Twitter, leading to the boys signing a deal with Sony. The vast amount of media of the band members online created a connection between band and fan that supporters of the Spice Girls and Nirvana couldn’t experience. This relationship led to One Direction being named ‘The world’s first internet boyband’, and their albums selling an extortionate number of units upon release of their first single, despite little to no radio-plays. The power of the masses cannot be undermined, so why do we so often undermine these masses of young people?
When The Song of Achilles experienced its renaissance in 2021, Madeline Miller took to Twitter to say, “I’m not social media proficient, so learning about the passionate readers on TikTok has been an astonishing delight, and an honor.” What started as one TikTok about the user’s emotional experience reading the novel tumbled into a spontaneous promotional campaign resulting in the tag #thesongofachilles now having 441.3 million views on the app. Miller isn’t alone in misconceiving the extent of passionate reading on TikTok; the compelling community gathering there has been overlooked by more than a few.
Madeline Miller hasn’t been the only successor of TikTok influence, however. More prominent is popular BookTok author Colleen Hoover, a leading favourite within the social media space. Girls and young women have clung to the somewhat controversial ‘romance’ novels of Hoover, resulting in the tag #colleenhoover having 4.7 billion views on TikTok. It’s no doubt that the author’s active appearances on her own TikTok account have catalysed her growth within the BookTok community, producing a dedicated fan base. The interpersonal relationship TikTok users have with Hoover is reminiscent of the relationship between Directioners and One Direction via Twitter over a decade ago, and has led to her being named one of the 100 most influential people of 2023 by Time Magazine. The buzz around Hoover reaches every corner of TikTok, appearing on random ‘For You’ pages by other individuals, the influence of her fans and engagement putting her annual book releases at the top of bestseller lists without fail.
Photo by Molly Whiting
You can dismiss popular books, even popular authors, to a few rare fan bases that tip the statistics. Perhaps Colleen Hoover has sold approximately 20 million books since her first release in 2012, and perhaps Madeline Miller did receive a rather spontaneous resurgence of her early work with The Song of Achilles, but what does that have to do with publishing? The short answer is, everything. The long answer is, prospective authors now have a realistic option with self-publishing.
You see, up until the 80s, using traditional publishing houses like Penguin Books or Cambridge Publishing Press was the only way to get your novel printed. After Dan Poynter created desktop publishing (DKP) in 1979, authors had a manual to self-publish. This would involve your novel being printed as-and-when it was bought, rather than printed in bulk and sent immediately out like a traditional publishing house. Self-publishing requires the author to put money up-front for printing, promotions, graphic design, and legal work amidst other things. It’s a bumpier path in which you have complete creative control, and receive larger royalties, but have much higher risk of financial debt and your book not getting the traction a traditional publishing house could attain. Often self-published books would be overshadowed by the ‘big names’ in the industry, like those of Penguin Books for instance, and it was known as nearly impossible to get a self-published book stocked in a bookshop like Waterstones or Daunt Books. Though self-publishing has been becoming more popular in the modern day, TikTok has established the final step to its future superiority within the industry. Everything has changed.
TikTok’s BookTok has become a formidable tool for self-published authors, providing them with traction for their books that was once thought only achievable through traditional publishing. Like Hoover, an author can set up a personal profile on TikTok and connect with the BookTok community, promoting their book free-of-charge to a potential fan base already set up for them. Authors can even contact prominent users within the space with free copies of new releases, just as traditional publishers might with celebrities, with the hope they will start a scurry of free promotional TikToks on their favourite scenes, characters, and plot developments.
One of the major enticements of traditional publishing is the ‘name’ your book gets attached to it. I’m sure every writer dreams of the day their book will be sat on the coffee table, the white curves of ‘Penguin Random House’ on the spine just like the legends of Mark Twain, Wilkie Collins, and H.G. Wells. But the world of TikTok reduces this fantasy into a daydream, and potentially one day into an afterthought. Why lose complete creative control over your novel, struggle through the years-long and notoriously difficult road to securing a traditional publisher, and suffer small cheques for the rest of your life, when TikTok can influence billions of people in your chosen demographic to buy the book directly from you?
The biggest literary retailers across the world have changed their promotional formats for TikTok’s favourite books. With the likes of Barnes and Noble, Waterstones, and WHSmith all having allocated areas in store to peruse TikTok influenced reading, as well as their online sites having specific category tags designated to the same thing. The entire literature scene is transforming, and it won’t stop at publishing.
We are no longer living in lockdown where TikTok was just an app for young people to joke around on and attempt to socialise from their bedroom. There is an abundance of professionals pondering how the app can work for them, too. Modernity is evolving and TikTok is the propelling force behind it. But what does this mean for our developing reading culture? Will TikTok render literature meaningless? This and more will be explored in the next two articles in this Ink to Screen series - stay tuned, I’ll see you there.