There always seems to be a main topic of conversation at every book fair, which comes up during every meeting, whether it is with distributors from the Far East, booksellers from Turkey, or wholesalers from Germany.
In 2011 it was the erotica craze, where I would flash a silver-grey cover with a shiny motif and my customers would sigh and begrudgingly confirm they would order it because, well, it would sell. In 2015, it was the adult coloring book trend that took the world by surprise—no one really understood why, but like all great booksellers they identified the trend and stocked up. And then there was the Aussie Noir fever—The Rosie Project, The Dry, Big Little Lies, to name a few—all made their way to the bestseller lists across the globe.
In addition to these collective trends, there have been individual books and authors that have meteorically captured the attention of readers across the globe—Girl on a Train, Sally Rooney, Gone Girl—all of these books have created such a buzz, that you would inevitably find copies in even the smallest English book section, anywhere in the world.
International booksellers of English-language titles have always kept a very close eye on trends—whether it’s books that feature on the New York Times or Sunday Times bestseller list, prize-winners, or film tie-ins. Trends are hard to predict, but if you keep your finger on the pulse they are easier to spot.
But no one could have predicted the impact of the latest craze. At the London and Frankfurt Book Fairs last year, when I asked what was selling well in their markets, every single customer I spoke to, from across 20 countries, said BookTok. It is no great surprise as we have all seen the dramatic rise of Colleen Hoover over the last couple of years. But this trend feels different. Perhaps it’s because it is not just one book, one author, or one genre. Perhaps it’s because the titles that have taken off are almost exclusively influenced by young women, or perhaps it’s because it feels like it is making reading cool?
The eye-rolling was kept to a minimum and the only real complaint was that they wished the popular titles on BookTok were a little more wide-ranging, although it’s important to note that it is not always the same books that resonate in each market. Colleen Hoover’s It Ends with Us took the bestseller spot in Ireland, Australia, and Brazil in 2022, while Atomic Habits was India’s overall bestseller in the same year.
Attracting Young People
But there is one thing that everyone agrees on—BookTok has made reading fashionable, and young people are flocking to bookstores in a way that they haven’t since Harry Potter entered the global consciousness. And the numbers don’t lie: the U.K. Publishers Association says export sales in 2022 increased by 8% to £4.1bn, with BookTok playing a key role.
It was very clear to me that whatever criticisms may be aimed at BookTok, the beauty of it is that it is created by and for people who love books. And our job as publishers and booksellers is to react, respond, and listen. It is not for us to harness the social media platform to buy books—like anyone who had a backlist coloring book back in 2015—it is for us to hope we are lucky enough to have the right book at the right time for the right readers.
Despite working in international sales for many years, I always find it fascinating that in our global community, what people are reading transcends borders and creates a truly collective passion. Even in countries where TikTok is not available, my customers said that the books find a way through, whether via an alternative social media platform, like Instagram or Reddit, or through blogs and word of mouth.
No one knows if the significant impact of BookTok will end abruptly or if it will slowly fade out and something will come along and take its place, but what we do know is it has had a profound impact on the reading habits of young people, and their relationship to bookstores, and that can only be a good thing.
Gemma Davis is international sales director, Atlantic Books / Murdoch Books.