"I have only the vaguest understanding of what TikTok is,” said Ann Patchett, owner of Parnassus Books in Nashville. So she still doesn’t quite grasp how savvily Sarah Arnold, Parnassus’s marketing manager, has leveraged the platform to promote the bookstore—or what a microcelebrity Patchett herself has become on the app.
When Arnold took over the @parnassusbooksnashville TikTok account in January 2022, she was excited to have a new tool for connecting with readers. “One of the best parts of working at an independent bookstore is getting that face-to-face interaction with customers and talking books with them,” she said. “TikTok quickly became a way we could take those interactions and recommendations online and get them to more readers.”
Arnold credits a former coworker with starting the account in October 2021, just as the power of BookTok, the literary corner of the app, was becoming apparent. But since taking the helm, she has implemented her own vision for the account that has clearly resonated with TikTok users: as of this writing, @parnassusbooksnashville has more than 37,000 followers. (For reference, New York City’s renowned indie bookstore the Strand has 3,100 followers.)
Part of the account’s appeal can be attributed to its recurring video series. Arnold does a program called “Rapid Recs,” where a bookseller pulls a slip of paper with the name of a genre written on it out of a Parnassus-branded mug and then has to recommend a book in that genre on the spot. Arnold recently invited Dana Schwartz, a visiting author, to participate in the series, and says she’d love to have more authors get in on the fun. The account also posts a “New to You” video every Friday, in which Patchett or a Parnassus bookseller recommends a backlist favorite.
“Other videos happen when inspiration strikes,” Arnold said, mentioning a recent one that showed a day in the life of writer Maggie Smith. “It’s fun to capture the behind the scenes.” After much trial and error, and more than 260 videos, she’s learned that “sometimes the simplest ideas are the most successful.”
But the videos starring Patchett, who is also a popular novelist, draw most viewers to the Parnassus account. Clips of Patchett sharing her reading recommendations “are pretty much an instant hit,” Arnold said.
Patchett only started appearing on Parnassus’s social media after the pandemic began, but she quickly proved to be “a natural.” Now she’s a fixture of the TikTok account, where she offers her recommendations for all kinds of literature, such as her favorite works of Irish fiction, favorite books about pirates, and favorite novels by Edwidge Danticat and John le Carré. One video of her recommending books by brothers Geoffrey and Tobias Wolff has garnered more than 346,000 views.
“What’s funny is that Ann doesn’t have a social media presence of her own, nor does she have any interest in starting one,” Arnold said. “She doesn’t even have a phone!”
Much of Patchett’s popularity can be explained by her authenticity—her approach to content creation is guided by her genuine interests. “I usually go through my bookshelves at home and find something I love,” Patchett said. “Sometimes it’s connected to a book that’s about to come out—for example, Andre Dubus III’s upcoming Such Kindness made me want to talk about my favorite Andre Dubus III book, Townie. It also has to do with what’s in stock at Ingram. It’s very common that I have a great idea for a backlist video—say, Ruth Reichl’s memoirs, starting with Tender at the Bone, such a wonderful book—only to be told it’s out of print.”
Despite her lack of familiarity with social media, Patchett is happy to support Arnold’s vision for the store’s TikTok presence. “I’m good at reading; I’m good at talking about books,” she said. “If Sarah tells me we’ll sell more books, and bring more attention to overlooked books, because I talk about them while she makes a video, I’m all for it.”
Parnassus isn’t the only store to carve out a niche on TikTok, of course. More and more booksellers are getting in on the app; Arnold particularly admires the TikTok accounts run by booksellers at Chapters Books and Gifts in Seward, Nebraska; The Dog Eared Book in Palmyra, N.Y.; Little District Books in Washington, D.C.; and Novel Neighbor in St. Louis. Combined, the four stores have more than 290,000 followers.
Arnold couldn’t say for sure if Parnassus’s popularity on TikTok has directly translated into sales for the store, but she feels that BookTok has generally been a boon. “The books that blow up on TikTok sell in a big way here at Parnassus,” she said, citing titles by such BookTok favorites as Colleen Hoover, Emily Henry, Taylor Jenkins Reid, and TJ Klune. “I think BookTok has played a significant role in getting folks who haven’t stepped through our doors before to not only come see us but get excited about coming to a bookstore.”
Ultimately, Arnold sees TikTok as an ideal marketing tool for bookselling. “TikTok is fantastic for doing what booksellers already do all day long: talk about books,” she says. “You can organically build an audience of fellow book lovers by talking about the books and authors you care about, and in the process you’ll be getting your store’s name out there.”