In June 2020, author Emily Lockhart got an unexpected text from one of her children. It linked to a TikTok video of a reader talking about her 2014 bestseller We Were Liars. Now a YA classic that influenced many other authors writing for teens, the book, nonetheless, had been out for six years—eons in a category in which books come and go at lightening speed. Lockhart says the video stood out from others she’s seen because of the reviewer’s tears. It was “a different kind of book conversation than what I’ve seen on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter.”

The following month, We Were Liars was back on the bestseller list, a rebound almost unheard of at the time. “I was shocked,” she says. The TikTok she’d viewed was just one of many We Were Liars videos that came out on BookTok that month, driving the book’s resurgence.

Lockhart isn’t the only YA author whose backlist titles have gotten new life through the platform. Adam Silvera’s 2017 They Both Die at the End; Leah Bardugo’s Six of Crows series, which debuted in 2015; and Victoria Aveyard’s Red Queen books, also released in 2015, are among the other books getting a second life and multiple new printings thanks to oh-so-brief BookTok videos that have gone viral. Adult author Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles got a two-million-copy bump 10 years after it was released, believed to be driven by teen BookTokkers. Publishers remark that these sales resurgences aren’t blips on the screen but are sustained over months or even over a year, another surprising outcome.

For authors, BookTok appears to offer tantalizing access to readers. The platform has helped launch new careers. Books going viral aren’t necessarily debuts or A-list books from big publishers. Highly anticipated releases aren’t typically the books reaching peak sales.

Best known for this kind of unexpected midcareer success is adult romance author Colleen Hoover, whose sales have skyrocketed thanks to BookTok. Alex Aster’s middle grade Curse of the Night Witch released in 2020 to modest success, but her August 2022 YA release Lightlark hit the BookTok jackpot. “TikTok has changed my life,” she says. “It helped Lightlark sell nearly 25,000 copies in its first week.”

A little more than two years since the #BookTok hashtag gained traction, TikTok videos have, in some cases, impacted book sales much more than traditional reviews or promotion on other social media platforms. They have had a marked impact on in-store sales and paperback sales for retailers as well.

TikTok’s vast reach—more than a billion users—and its unique algorithm have created an environment where reading communities flourish. There’s no need to search by subject—booklovers get recommended videos right in their For You page. Some communities are centered on a genre, but others focus on a single book, a theme, a trope, or even an emotion. “Many of the books that found big audiences in 2020 were books that made people cry—even though their genres were wildly different,” Lockhart says.

That outcome gets at the heart of what some call BookTok’s secret sauce: emotional engagement. Videos are brief, seemingly unrehearsed, and appear to come from the heart. TikTok isn’t follower dependent, so anyone has a shot at going viral. BookTokkers can sell out a title both online and in brick-and-mortar stores within days of a seconds-long video. There’s no need to search for content; the app’s For You page delivers what users say are spot-on recommendations. The platform is credited with hooking nonreaders and making them into readers, restoring a love of reading for some of those who’d lost it, drawing in teens from diverse backgrounds, and producing crossover hits.

Given that kind of dramatic (and unpredictable) success, it’s no surprise that TikTok has begun to affect many aspects of publishing, from acquisitions to marketing. Publicity departments are increasingly looking to the platform for insight into what readers and reviewers want. Publishers and authors alike wonder how the buzz achieved by the biggest BookTok hits can be replicated.

The answer is that it can’t be, at least not reliably. It’s an organic, reader-driven platform over which top-down marketing efforts seem to have questionable influence. This reality has inspired enthusiasm and sown frustration across the industry. While no one objects to surprise hits, trying to anticipate what’s next has become a major preoccupation for industry professionals. And for authors, “how to make a book go viral on TikTok” has become a common search term.

A community of readers

While Twitter remains the platform on which authors and publishing professionals talk shop, in recent years YouTube has solidified as a site for reviewers and Instagram as a place where both authors and readers have connected through hashtags like #bookstagram. But each platform has its limitations and detractors.

Authors link to their books in their bios and push sales on Instagram, but some say that leads to authors having overly curated presences on the platform. For reviewers to have influence on Instagram, they need a robust number of followers, which can take significant time to develop. Many have commented that TikTok feels the way Facebook did 15 years ago and Instagram did 10 years ago—new and full of promise.

“On Instagram, some of us just share our recent reads, cats, or book tour outfits—and let me tell you, even that takes significant time every week—while other authors really use it as a creative outlet to excellent effect,” Lockhart says. “On TikTok, I think the writers who are creating content that stems from genuine engagement with the platform are seeing loyalty from readers.”

Bestselling YA author Tiffany D. Jackson, whose fifth novel, The Weight of Blood, came out last month, had a similar journey from Instagram to TikTok. “I’ve actually been on TikTok for a long time,” she says. “But mostly to watch kids just be their silly, joyful selves, especially during the early days of the pandemic. It made me so happy. Then a friend’s teen daughter encouraged me to start posting. It took a while to get the hang of it and now I love it. It reminds me of the early carefree days of Twitter.”

For Aiden Thomas, whose 2020 YA novel Cemetery Boys was longlisted for the National Book Award, TikTok is a natural fit. “TikTok is probably my favorite platform because it’s so fun and chaotic, and I am also fun and chaotic,” they say. “Most of the time I spend on TikTok I’m actually watching videos made by readers and commenting on and sharing them, even ones that aren’t about me or my books. I also think it’s a great tool for authors who don’t know what the modern teen is like or what they think is funny. Because of the sheer number of users, I absolutely interact with readers the most on TikTok. Not only that, but it’s a platform for young adults, so it’s my target audience.”

Aster shares Thomas’s enthusiasm. “I show my personality a lot more on TikTok,” she says. “Whether it’s documenting a day in my life, using a trending sound to showcase my book, highlighting a big moment in my career, or posting bookish thoughts I have as a reader, I try my best to show my sense of humor or my genuine excitement for things that are happening.” Unlike other platforms, she notes, “TikTok does feel like more of a conversation between me and readers. I try to respond to the first 100 comments, and readers can tag me in videos they want me to see. I’m also able to duet their videos, or respond to a comment with a video, which is a fun way to engage.”

Authors: “Give us a break”

But while BookTok has been a place for some books and authors to thrive, for many others, the industry’s fervor to crack the BookTok code has exposed the increasing promotional demands publishers are placing on authors.

“You have one book or author go viral and hit the bestseller list because of BookTok and suddenly there’s the potential that any book can do the same,” says Jenny Elder-Moke, who debuted in 2020 with the historical YA fantasy novel Hood. “Which is not really true, as we’ve seen play out, but that’s the perception of it.”

Emma Berquist, who made her YA debut in 2018 with the dystopian alternate history Devils unto Dust, says, “Some authors do genuinely enjoy TikTok and the reach it gives them, and they have the personality and temperament for it. Personally, I’m not super comfortable with being on camera. I’d much rather be behind a computer screen, which is why I became an author to begin with. So, for me, it feels like a burden. I think an audience can tell when you feel that way, so I don’t use it. But then I also feel guilty for not trying harder, because I could be losing out on book sales. For me it feels like a lose-lose situation.”

Jackson urges authors to resist that sense of obligation. “If you don’t feel up to it, don’t do it,” she says. “Despite what publishers say, TikTok is not for everyone. I have a hard rule that whenever you’re forced to do something, it ultimately shows. I’ve seen countless authors try and they just look painfully uncomfortable. Some are straight-up cringy and corny. Stick to your strengths and your craft, beloveds.”

Thomas agrees. “People can always tell if you’re being disingenuous on social media—especially young adults,” they say. “You’re going to spend so much time promoting your books, and if it’s on a platform you don’t like, it’s going to be torture for you.”

Even if making videos is fun, mixing it with commerce isn’t for many authors. “I don’t enjoy promoting my book on TikTok,” says Xiran Jay Zhao, whose sci-fi fantasy Iron Widow was a bestseller in 2021, with much of its success credited to their social media platforms. “I’d rather make TikToks that amuse myself. If you see me promoting my book, respect the hustle. It’s tough out here for a queer Chinese author writing very queer Chinese books. I feel like I get named as one of the prominent examples of ‘TikTok authors’ and used as a case study for why authors should put more effort into social media. But that is publishers learning all the wrong lessons from my case, and it frustrates me deeply. I happen to have the right skill set to do well on social media because of years in the cosplay and fandom communities. This skill set has nothing to do with my writing, and therefore most authors don’t have it. If they’re expected to lipsync to random sounds on TikTok for sales, that’s just cutting into their precious writing time. The real lesson from my case should’ve been, don’t be afraid to acquire a book just because it’s in a genre that hasn’t been selling well, even though your editors loved it.”

Elder-Moke says the misalignment between reality and publishers’ expectations about authors’ social media presence is all the more stark considering that “we all know how little authors can actually impact their sales in a significant way via social media.” The primary role of writing rightly leaves little time to devote to the extras that seem increasingly to fall to authors, who “don’t have the time it takes to learn and invest in being really good at every platform,” she adds.

“I’m lucky to have a team at Feiwel and Friends that really supports my social media style and helps me generate graphics and content for events I’m doing and for my books,” Thomas says. “But I know that isn’t the same for everyone.”

Elder-Moke says that much of the work of publicizing and marketing books has been “offloaded” to the writers. “Authors have to be available online somewhere, and social media can be a powerful tool for authors to keep interested readers updated. But it’s also not really what social media is for. Social media is to socialize, not to sell. The people who have learned to take advantage of these platforms for sales are dedicating their entire existence to it—like social media influencers—and that’s not who authors are.”

Berquist says, “Publishing in general has such a problem with expecting unpaid labor from everyone involved, and it’s only going to get worse as houses keep consolidating. It feels like authors have no choice but to take on responsibilities that aren’t ours. I hope we’re reaching a breaking point where there’s some pushback, but it’s so difficult because of course we want our books to succeed, and most of us are willing to do anything that will move that needle.”

For authors of color, the uphill road to BookTok success seems even steeper. In a widely shared tweet, romance author Rebekah Weatherspoon wrote, “I don’t care about Colleen Hoover. Like sell your nine billion books, girl. I care that publishers, especially for adult romance, handed their marketing efforts over to the collective will of TikTok. So many debut authors of color didn’t stand a chance.”

Even for those who are successful, there’s toxicity to contend with. “When you have a big platform, people tend to treat you like you’re not human anymore,” Zhao says. “It’s exhausting. I’ve enjoyed making friends all across the world and am extremely grateful for the opportunities I never would’ve had without a big platform. But I would shut down all my accounts if not for those friends and the messages from the Chinese diaspora telling me they’ve felt more connected to our culture because of my content.”

Book bloggers and reviewers are feeling the BookTok effect as well. Briana of the review blog Pages Unbound, who prefers not to use her last name publicly, says, “I’ve been blogging since 2011, and there is a real feeling among bloggers that publishers have moved towards prioritizing influencers on other platforms, especially TikTok. Some publishers don’t even include an option to say you’re a book blogger if you’re filling out their forms to request ARCs.” She argues that bigger is not always better. “Book blogs simply don’t have the same numbers in terms of followers and views as BookTok, but it doesn’t mean bloggers have no reach. BookTok is great for reaching a large audience, including people who might not even describe themselves as readers, but there should be some thought about engaging all the super readers who are not on the platform but very ready to spend money on and promote great books.”

Focusing on the work

While it’s tempting to view the dazzling results some authors have seen through BookTok as a path to success, for now at least the platform remains primarily a spot for readers to share books they love outside the highly curated bounds of Instagram and the ad-driven sphere of YouTube.

“BookTok has publishing in such a death grip that there’s this expectation from publishers for every author to become a TikTok star, which I vehemently disagree with,” Zhao says. “It makes no sense that authors, of all people, should be expected to become influencers to succeed in publishing, especially traditionally published authors. Publicity is our publishers’ job—they should be the ones putting in the work. Or why are they making all that money from our books?”

And authors need a place to unwind just like everyone else. “TikTok is my happy place and I refuse to use it just for business,” Jackson says. “We can’t make everything about work. We all deserve to let loose and have fun.”

Besides, Elder-Moke says, the readers are the stars of the platform, citing that BookTok’s most popular videos are always made by the readers, not the authors. “I think it’s far more important for authors to reach those passionate readers, to build a strong readership base, than to dance to coordinated videos hoping they’ll go viral. I’ve gone viral on Twitter before, and I promise it’s not the life-changing experience you would think it is. It turns out I still had to just write the next thing no matter how many likes and retweets I got.”

Ultimately, many in and around publishing feel that BookTok is a place for the readers, and that while some authors have had success with engagement and selling books, the magic happens when readers make connections with each other. “We can do our part, but it’s a rare novelist who wants to be a video star, and an even rarer one who is especially good at it,” Lockhart says. “I think it’s beautiful the way readers are finding each other and discussing literature on global social media platforms that engage their creativity the way that TikTok does.”

Joanne O’Sullivan is a journalist, author, and editor in Asheville, N.C.