On May 24, a panel of industry professionals convened to discuss the rise of TikTok and its literary subcommunity BookTok, which has transformed the app into one of the most powerful digital marketing tools in publishing. The panel, moderated by Fauzia Burke, owner of the digital PR firm FSB Associates, featured experts with varied but complementary perspectives: Shannon DeVito, director of books at Barnes & Noble; Ariele Fredman, deputy director of publicity at Atria; Kendra Keeter-Gray, BookTok influencer; Alexandra Hoopes, manager of social platforms at St. Martin's Publishing Group; and Jessie Stratton, marketing assistant at Penguin Press.

Panelists agreed the genres that have gained the most traction on BookTok are romance, romcom, fantasy, and YA. Fredman said she has found BookTok to be especially effective for women authors, with Burke noting that TikTok's demographics skew heavily female. Sales trends seem to confirm this: "A lot of the books that are moving and what a lot of our booksellers seen rending are escapist," said DeVito, with narratives that offer escapes into love stories and fantasy world.

But DeVito also warned against painting BookTok with too broad a brush stroke: "There is no 'mainstream BookTok," but rather a collection of "niche communities," she said, citing a growing cadre of male sci-fi book reviewers on the app. Keeter-Gray, whose account @kendra.reads has more than 123,000 followers, mainly reads romance and fantasy, and agreed that BookTok is surprisingly vast and diverse. "Every day I'm discovering new people with hundreds of thousands of followings," she said, "but who are in a totally different genre than me."

Panelists agreed that it is important to be mindful of these varying genre preferences among different BookTok influencers when pitching titles. Stratton said she always makes sure that a BookTok influencer is already "enjoying and reviewing the kinds of books that I'm pitching them." When Keeter-Gray herself is pitched titles to promote, she said, she is more likely to work with a publisher or author demonstrating familiarity with her content and catering their pitches to her specific interests.

Keeter-Gray discovers most of the books that she promotes through word of mouth and recommendations from other BookTok influencers whose tastes she trusts and opinions she values. Paid advertisements from influencers, she says, undermine the authenticity that BookTok is built on, and tends not to fare well. "A lot of sponsored content doesn't do well on TikTok," she said. "TikTok sees the 'sponsored' hashtag and suppresses it." Organic engagement and genuine enthusiasm, rather than targeted ads or sponsorship, have been behind many of BookTok's biggest hits.

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Word of mouth on BookTok, as well as what several panelists referred to as a "snowball effect," have fueled the belated but massive success of many backlist titles, especially those by author Colleen Hoover, whose 2016 novel It Ends with Us and 2018 novel Verity have exploded in sales over the past two years. Fredman has been working with Hoover at Atria since 2013, long before Hoover's star rose astronomically in 2020 thanks to BookTok. Hoover is active on TikTok, and has gained admirers by being her "own authentic self." Many publishers and authors have tried to replicate Hoover's viral success to no avail. "The best thing to do is be yourself and see what catches on," Fredman said. "You can't force it."

All panelists agreed that trying to "force" buzz—whether as a publisher, author, or bookseller—is never a good idea. Keeter-Gray stressed that authors don't need be active on TikTok, like Hoover is, to find success, noting that she has seen some authors engage with BookTok "in a way that hurts more than it helps." Many authors, such as Ottessa Moshfegh, are not on social media at all, and this absence has actually become part of their persona—or, as Stratton put it, it has become Moshfegh's "trademark."

Moshfegh's 2018 novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation has also garnered renewed interest thanks to BookTok. Stratton said it has been a challenge for Penguin, which mainly publishes literary fiction and nonfiction, to navigate BookTok due to most users' penchant for genre fiction. But several literary fiction titles, My Year of Rest and Relaxation among them, have found large audiences. Stratton first posted on the Penguin TikTok account about the novel last summer, and soon saw interest in the title "snowball" among BookTok influencers. Now, she is harnessing that momentum in anticipation of Moshfegh's forthcoming novel Lapvona, out next month.

From the bookselling perspective, DeVito said she that she first noticed BookTok's real-world influence in the summer of 2020, when two backlist books—Madeline Miller's Song of Achilles and Adam Silvera's They Both Die at the End—saw sales skyrocket. Now, she said, BookTok has transformed many of Barnes & Noble's physical stores into gathering places for communities of readers. "People are coming to our stores, filming content, meeting booksellers," she said.

Most of Barnes & Noble's BookTok-fueled sales, DeVito noted, are happening in physical bookstores and in a physical format. "What's happening on the app is not about staying on the app," she said. "It's about then going to the store, meeting people, building reading groups, and so on." She is eager to preserve this momentum organically by gauging trends in real-time and on the local level. "We don't want to corporate-ify it," she said. "so we really lean on our booksellers." And it is those expert booksellers, she said, who "can be physical versions of the algorithm."

The actual TikTok algorithm remains "a grand mystery to all of us at St. Martin's Publishing Group," said Hoopes, but she has found the best approach for the publisher is to be "nimble" in stoking existing hype rather than trying to manufacture it from scratch. Publishers, she said, should join the ongoing conversations already happening on BookTok instead of actively "trying to be the person who gets the snowball rolling." Users are usually quick to spot a lack in authenticity and sales ploys. "First and foremost," Keeter-Gray said, "BookTok is a reviewer's platform."