In an effort to reach teen and young adult consumers where they are, many publishers have established an active presence across a variety of platforms, but PenguinTeen is the first to successfully capture and channel the energy of the new platform TikTok. Last week, the publisher posted a “book domino” video to the video-sharing social networking platform which went viral; as of press time, the video has reached 11.4 million views, 2.7 million likes, 12.8k comments, and 33.4k shares. Alex Garber, director of online marketing at Penguin Publishing Group, credits associate manager Shannon Spann with suggesting the idea of book dominoes and Felicity Vallence for spurring on the team. In the end, approximately 600 books were used to create a line of book dominoes that twisted and looped through Penguin’s offices. “Shannon spent a couple hours with staffers setting it up—it’s a miracle it didn’t get knocked down halfway through.” Finishing set-up after business hours, the team “tipped the first book and hoped for the best.”
Of course, creating and executing this wasn’t quite as simple as setting up a few books and hitting “record”; much forethought was required. The books used were mostly YA frontlist and backlist, but Spann mentioned that they “ended up needing every book we could get so there were also middle grade and a few adult trade titles in there too.”
They were smart in how they organized,” Spann explained. “They left little gaps, so anyone left in the office at night was able to get through without disturbing it. They worked on their blocking, walking the path, making sure that when they went to record there was no chance it wouldn’t be captured. We built it in sections and left breaks along the way so that if it started falling, we would only lose a small piece. We had one section of about 50 books fall, but otherwise no false starts!”
Though the video was filmed on a Thursday, the team held it for the weekend, uploading on Sunday. Later, after the original video began to gain in popularity, a “pre-game walk through for book dominoes” video was uploaded to the PenguinTeen account.
The publisher didn’t enter the new platform blindly. “With TikTok,” said Garber, “My challenge to my team was, if we’re going do this, we need to pick our time to enter the platform wisely. And to do that, we have to be ready and go big. TikTok is a mix of music, sound effects, on-screen text, humor, memes and trends. It’s not the place that you go to put your evergreen talking head author video; it’s the place you go to live in the moment, do something fun, and maybe be a little bit wacky.”
“We don’t see [TikTok] as a place for our younger books for the Penguin Kids channel; it’s not quite there yet. But teens? It’s totally where they are,” Garber observed. “It’s a new platform that’s still trying to figure out what it is and what its content type is, so it still has this kind of Wild West-feel where anybody can be there and take part in challenges and have the potential to go viral.” The predictability of more established platforms, like Facebook and Instagram, doesn’t exist on TikTok—and it’s populated by the demographic PenguinTeen is trying to reach: readers ages 13 to 25. “This is an emerging platform that people are coming to in droves,” Garber said. “We’re getting a lot of comments from people looking for recommendations or wanting to engage in bookish content.”
Garber noted that the publisher’s current challenge is to find ways to get its authors involved in TikTok content. “We’ve had a few of our heavy hitters on—Marie Lu, Tony Award winner Steven Sater, Adib Khorram, and Randy Ribay—and with everyone coming to town for BookCon, we’re trying to get our folks who have not only name recognition but recognizable faces to fans, letting them see their favorite authors in a way that they haven’t yet.” The new platform is forcing publishers and creators to think outside the box: “If we’re going to get an author on TikTok, we have to let them know, this is a place to let your hair down a bit. Be a little more playful and really lean into the joke and own it,” he said.
As TikTok rises in popularity, the PenguinTeen team is looking at which platforms they need to rethink. Garber mentioned that they are considering how those older platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have changed, how messaging needs to shift, whether the publisher is still reaching that audience, and, if necessary, whether to shift focus away from specific platforms. PenguinTeen cross-pollinates its accounts, showing TikTok clips on Instagram and other platforms, reminding current followers not to miss out on anything the publisher is doing. In terms of what doesn’t work, Garber mentioned Snapchat. “It’s never quite worked for us. I think that’s common across different industries, not just publishing. It’s peer-to-peer, it’s a little less visible, and harder to quantify. Something like TikTok is creating a fun alternative to get the younger audience.”
Prior to the video, the PenguinTeen TikTok had more than 24,000 followers, making it the largest account in publishing; post-video, it now has 117,000 followers. “It wasn’t just that people saw something and thought, ‘That was fun,’ ” Garber said. “They wanted more of that. We didn’t just do something fun; we did something right.”
Having achieved viral success once, Garber said the team is focused on doing it again. “We love to see if we can top ourselves. So, how do we do this twice? Can we catch lightning again?”