The power of BookTok has become a publishing industry truism. As early as the start of 2021, news outlets have been celebrating the platform’s power to sell books. The New York Times reported in March 2021 that short videos of people crying could make books go viral. Other articles about BookTok use phrases like “reshaping the book world” and “revitalizing the publishing industry.” There are even stories like Alex Aster’s, who pitched her rejected book concept to BookTok, and subsequently gained a six-figure book deal for her title Lightlark, as well as a movie deal–once publishers saw that BookTokkers were interested. The idea that BookTok can launch a book onto the bestseller list–even a backlist title–has caused publishers to rush to stamp their books as BookTok approved. Even Barnes & Noble has tables dedicated solely to advertising books popular on BookTok. But I still wish publishers and booksellers would stop using the phrase, “As Seen on BookTok” to market titles.
The issue that I see with the phrase, “As Seen on BookTok,” is that, to me, it does not fundamentally mean anything. Tiktok has millions of users. They all presumably have different tastes in books. They are not using any shared set of criteria to highlight books that they perceive to be “the best” (whatever that means). The phrase basically just means that a bunch of people liked a book. But we do not really know why they all liked it. NPR says BookTok likes books that are “passionate and emotional,” which seems kind of vague and like it could describe any number of books. I am not ultimately sure why I should read a book just because someone told me a bunch of people on a specific platform made videos about it.
Additionally, any number of other phrases could suggest the same thing–that a large amount of people liked a book. One could, in this vein, advertise books that are on the NYT bestseller list or that “have tons of Goodreads reviews” or that “are big on Instagram.” Publishers and booksellers do typically note bestsellers. But they do not use phrases like, “As seen on Bookstagram,” or, “As seen on Book Twitter.” Why pick just one platform to use as an advertising strategy? Presumably publishers think saying, “BookTok,” is magical in a way that referencing, “Bookstagram,” is not. And maybe it is. But, personally, I do not usually want to read a book just because a large number of people have recommended it. I might read a book because reviewers I trust recommend it. But numbers alone are not usually enough.
Finally, I do not find the phrase, “As seen on BookTok” meaningful because, as someone not on BookTok, I do not really know how many people actually recommended it/how popular it truly is. How is the data acquired to determined what is popular enough to go on a list of trending titles? Does one just go to the BookTok tag and count the number of times a certain title is mentioned? Could one just have a feeling about how often certain titles seem to pop up in one’s feed? Could the algorithm be promoting a bunch of the same titles in people’s feeds, but obscuring other titles because they did not use trending audio or something? And what’s stopping someone from making a table or list of “BookTok trending” titles that just has random books on it that they want to promote? Is anyone even going to check that the title is (or was) really trending somewhere?
Certainly there must be some metrics there–for instance we can see that popular BookTok titles often end up on the bestseller list. But I am truly confused as to how it all works. Does one need to be on BookTok to “get” it? And if one does need to on BookTok to understand the trends and how they happen, why is the, “As seen on BookTok,” advertising necessary? Would not have one already…seen it trending on actual BookTok?
Maybe I’m just not cool enough to understand why saying something is trending on one particular platform should make me buy a product. To me, there are all sorts of readers with all sorts of tastes out there, even on BookTok and it seems weird to suggest that the platform is a giant, unified entity with curation criteria and skills, when it’s really just a collection of people who presumably have different opinions. Yes, if I see a book that everyone seems to be talking about, my interest might be piqued. But a little sticker on a book or a sign on a display table assuring me that a bunch of people out there, somewhere, are making videos about a book is not enough to make me spend my money on that book. I would prefer to see the actual reviews, and read the actual summary, and have a sense of what the book is about and why people like it. I don’t find it helpful only to be told that an unspecified number of people are talking about it somewhere online.
What do you think? Does the phrase, “As seen on BookTok,” mean anything to you? Do you pick up titles solely because you have been told they are popular on BookTok?