I wasn’t surprised to discover that Barnes & Noble had created a BookTok page, encouraging readers to “discover the most popular books on TikTok.” If anything, I was surprised that more book retailers (and publishers and authors, for that matter) hadn’t yet tapped into one of the fastest-growing social media platforms.
I fell down the TikTok rabbit hole during pandemic isolation in May 2020, and for the next seven months I marveled at the creativity, humor, and vulnerability of the platform’s millions of content creators around the globe. But, as both a voracious reader and a creative strategist at a literary public relations firm, what interested me most was the BookTok community: hundreds of thousands of readers who dedicate their TikTok accounts to reviewing, recommending, and laughing and crying over their favorite books.
The more time I spent on TikTok, the more certain I felt about two things. First, the app created an immensely powerful opportunity for authors to connect immediately with a staggering number of highly engaged readers. And second, the tools for “success” on TikTok differ from those of any other social media platform.
A recent New York Times article, “How Crying on TikTok Sells Books,” explores in depth what makes BookTok unique: short-form videos that depict readers’ raw tears, anger, and delight over their favorite reads in one minute or less. One BookTok creator who was interviewed suggested that videos in which she is crying get more views. While this may be true, I’d assert that it’s not her tears that keep users watching. It’s the idea of authenticity behind those tears—viewers getting an unfiltered look at the creator’s emotions and thoughts, heightening their sense of connection to the creator.
Authenticity is TikTok’s greatest appeal, and its most powerful engagement tool. Users on TikTok are bold in sharing their opinions, emotions, vulnerabilities, insecurities, and imperfections. The content on the app feels more unfiltered, more raw, more real than content featured in other places. As a result, viewers aren’t just passively consuming TikTok’s content—they’re connected to it. Contrast this to Instagram, where heavily filtered, edited, and perfectly curated highlights have become commonplace—and, I would argue, increasingly passé.
So what do authenticity and TikTok have to do with authors? Simply put, authors who are able to authentically present themselves on TikTok will find a vast audience of highly engaged readers who are eager to connect with them and their work. Users on TikTok want to support creators—and they will, if given the opportunity to connect with them.
One of the incredible authors I had the privilege of working with and introducing to TikTok, J. Elle, has plenty of great content—but her reaction to unboxing her novel Wings of Ebony is by far her most popular TikTok video, with more than 25,000 views, 6,500 likes, and hundreds of comments (with most saying they’ve just added Wings of Ebony to their TBR or online carts).
Sure, there are tears. But it’s her vulnerability, her authentic love and pride for the story she created, that made her engagement and follower count explode. And for the record, Wings of Ebony was an instant New York Times bestseller.
My advice to authors (and other publishing professionals) who are interested in joining TikTok is this: leave your sales pitches at the door. Tell a story that demonstrates your sincere passion for your work. Be honest about your challenges with your writing. Offer writing advice and unique tips that only industry insiders would know. Celebrate your wins and share your vulnerabilities. Understand that TikTok’s algorithm is highly mercurial, meaning that while the “recipe” for going viral is shrouded in mystery, the opportunity to go viral is omnipresent.
And finally, to anyone in publishing who wants to understand TikTok, I would say, use the app! With more than 600 million users, the platform is growing and changing at an astronomic pace—to really “get it,” you have to use it. A new generation of readers is creating literary trends faster than ever. They are hungry for books, and freely and eagerly sharing what they love and want from literature. All you have to do is tune in.
Chelsea Apple is a creative strategist and content coordinator for Books Forward, a literary PR firm. She helps authors make the most of TikTok and other digital platforms. Learn more at booksforward.com.