The writing of this column took a major detour while I was watching HBO, specifically the new series The Staircase (the last episode of which will land on June 9). I discovered that this fictional account is based on a documentary that aired on Netflix in 2018 (though large parts of it were first broadcast in 2005). Not being an aficionado of true crime, I’d missed it when it first appeared, and missed the Netflix version. It’s a stunner—a wonderfully constructed documentary carefully plotted over 13 episodes. That got me checking what else I’ve been missing, leading me to two other recent Netflix programs: American Murder: The Family Next Door and the three-parter Don’t F**k with Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer.
Meanwhile, I was working on my column for Publishers Weekly. The theme: influencing readers—beyond BookTok. I certainly didn’t expect to find a point of intersection with these two shows. Did I? Bear with me.
BookTok, though just over two years old, is taking the publishing world by storm. Obscure backlist titles are being thrust into the spotlight, generating sales of hundreds of thousands of copies. Every chain bookstore now prominently displays BookTok titles, pushing Oprah’s selections back to the next table. While the vast majority of the top BookTok books are YA, the phenomena is beginning to spread beyond YA’s borders—Alex Michaelides’s The Silent Patient is currently on Barnes & Noble’s BookTok bestseller list, as is Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Kristen McLean at NPD Group is quoted as saying that Book-
Tok’s influence is spreading both to adult fiction and nonfiction. All the large publishers now recruit and cultivate book influencers—not just those using BookTok. A Google search of “book publisher influencer programs” provides links to Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster, as well as to several smaller houses.
From here I want to segue to Netflix and to American Murder and Don’t F**k with Cats. They’re very different programs about very different stories, but they share deep roots in current internet culture. Let’s be clear: I’m not comparing the BookTok community to criminals. This is about the online experience. Examining the appeal of these documentaries illuminates the appeal of BookTok.
Don’t F**k with Cats falls into a category labeled internet vigilantism—per Wikipedia, “the act of carrying out vigilante activities through the internet.” Instead of trying to use online media to share a (usually positive) message, vigilantism seeks in part to shut down the messenger and their messages. Don’t F**k with Cats is intriguing in that it shows, in detail, how to use the internet to catch a killer (initially of animals, later a human). The tools used include Facebook, Google Maps, YouTube, email, and texting. The initial crime is broadcast as a YouTube video in 2010—it might well have appeared on TikTok today. The vigilante group is eventually successful in physically locating their suspect and notifies the Toronto police (who, unfortunately, take insufficient action and fail to prevent a murder).
American Murder: The Family Next Door is extraordinary in its use of social media to tell its story. The documentary unfolds without a narrator, and without the usual talking heads to tell viewers what they should be thinking and feeling. Instead, there’s lots of footage from Facebook, numerous text messages, and videos from smartphones. This is supplemented by police body-cam footage and video of the suspect in the interrogation room and the courtroom, much of it made available via Freedom of Information Act requests and posted online.
I was startled as I watched it. Of course, choices are made in the editing, but I was left largely on my own to assess the characters and to draw conclusions. (It helped that I had somehow missed the original media circus, and—spoiler alert—actually wasn’t sure who the killer was until the interrogation room reveal.)
With its heavy reliance on internet-enabled media, American Murder, as a documentary, is very much a product of the same internet culture that delivers TikTok and YouTube influencers. I’d argue that we’re not yet fully appreciative of the extent to which our lives are mediated by an image-saturated ecosystem of online media, most of it social media. BookTok is powerful. It’s visual. It’s immediate. It’s emotional. The content is delivered in short snippets on personal devices held inches from our eyes.
Harnessing the power of BookTok and its siblings demands a deep understanding of the media in which they thrive. Surely this is the future of book marketing. Books are full of text and static images, but marketing books increasingly involves eschewing text and embracing emotions expressed through motion and sound, delivered on social media. It’s no crime.
Thad McIlroy is an electronic publishing analyst and author, based on the West Coast and at his website, The Future of Publishing. He is a founding partner of Publishing Technology Partners.