Thanks to their undeniable ubiquity, social media impact every aspect of our lives. Between movies, music, TV shows, world news, and so on, they affect what we watch, what we listen to, and even what we think. But do they affect what we read?
In recent years, many users on online spaces have begun utilizing their platforms to share what books they are reading, as well as their literary recommendations and opinions. Several industry experts have taken notice of this trend, and sang its praise by saying how it is helping the book industry. On the other hand, others are saying that the impact social media has had on books is actually negative. But who is right? Let’s read and find out.
From Bookshop to ‘Booktok’ – How Social Media Is Impacting Book Sales
Let’s start off with the positives! That is – how is social media helping the book industry?
Well, for starters social media platforms are of massive help when it comes to boosting sales. In 2021, book consumption underwent many striking rises – young adult fiction sales increased 30.7%, adult fiction jumped 25.5%, children’s fiction rose 9.6%… I could go on for quite a while listing numbers, and all of them would be going up. According to industry experts, social media is the one to thank for these impressive figures.
TikTok has been one of the leading platforms in boosting book sales, particularly due to the emergence of a dedicated space named ‘#BookTok’. If you’re wondering what the hell that is, worry not – ‘#BookTok’ is a hashtag used on videos reviewing/recommending books to other users, by briefly explaining the plot and discussing the emotional reaction it had on the reader. This trend of launching bookish corners on a platform is not unprecedented by any means, as ‘#Bookstagram’ and ‘BookTube’ have been around for quite a while. But whereas these platforms require aesthetic and curated book recommendations, TikTok has a more approachable nature, and that’s why the latter has boomed like no other.
Several of today’s bestselling books can be linked to them going viral on ‘BookTok’. According to the UK Publishers’ Association, four out of five young adult bestsellers had their moment of going viral on the platform, and many titles in the top hits of the adult fiction section experienced similar buzz. Thanks to the word-of-mouth within this online literary circle, many authors were able to see their sales soar and their dreams come true.
And it’s not only books who can take advantage of social media platforms – authors themselves can go viral as well. Many industries are now beginning to devote more of their attention to online promo, and in recent years the book business caught up as well. After seeing the spectacular effect that word-of-mouth had on sales by promoting individual books, many authors decided to try it themselves and began to advertise their works on social media before their releases. As it turns out, that works wonders.
For instance, debut author Chloe Cong put her trust in TikTok’s algorithm, and self-promoted her own upcoming book These Violent Delights via the ‘BookTok’ hashtag. After its release, the novel skyrocketed in sales and became a New York Times bestseller. And according to Cong, that was all thanks to social media.
The best part about promoting your books on Internet platforms is that it basically costs nothing. Anyone can film and upload a TikTok or snap a photo for Instagram, and – if luck is on your side – anyone can go viral and enjoy the benefits of it. This is especially positive for small independent authors, who now have the possibility to promote themselves and gain an audience at the cost of zilch.
But as the saying goes, ‘Not all that glitters is gold’, and social media has impacted the book industry in various ways which are anything but golden…
‘Booktok’ Book Is the New Look – How Social Media Is Impacting Books
Although social media has had a positive effect specifically on book sales, it has had a rather questionable effect on books overall.
As we have covered above, the emergence of literary spaces on online platforms has impacted how authors promote their works, since more and more writers are now turning to social media to advertise their books. But while this has its good dose of pros from a monetary standpoint, it also carries quite a few cons in other realms.
In order to increase chances of going viral and capturing the attention of users (which is infamously short-lived), authors have to curate their works in order to appeal to the platforms’ audiences. On ‘Bookstagram’, this mainly translates to focusing on having the most visually pleasing cover, which is not negative per se (although what happened to ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’?). Whereas on ‘BookTok’, it forces writers to shape the content of their book according to the taste of TikTok users.
Aiming to cater to this audience and enhance the likelihood of going viral therein, writers have begun to try and force certain tropes into their works which make it easier to pitch to the users, and focus more on including “spicy” scenes and catchy one-liners that people can post on the platform. Rather than focusing on word-building and quality storytelling, increasingly more books are purposefully written as a checklist of popular tropes with the goal of ultimately going viral. So much so that nowadays, the term “‘BookTok’ book” is said with derision by many avid readers and writers, as the term has become synonymous with “Terribly-written book”. Basically, a ‘BookTok’ book is now seen as the equivalent of a Wattpad work by many (and no, that’s not a compliment).
Plus, for the sake of brevity and virality (as shorter videos tend to go viral more easily), the majority of ‘BookTok’ users limit their reviews to listing the tropes included in the book, without going into the plot in much depth. Unfortunately, this is a double-edged sword.
Despite increasing chances of popularity, these bite-sized reviews can actually be disrespectful to writers. Imagine you pour your blood, sweat and tears into your work and it gets trivialized to ‘#enemies-to-lovers’ or ‘#slow-burn’… I, for one, would be quite offended.
And to make matters worse, it can actually be dangerous to users. For instance, the award-winning book A Little Life by American author Hanya Yanagihara is one of the lucky beneficiaries of ‘BookTok’ fame. On the platform, the plot was described as a story of four friends who move from a small college in Massachusetts to New York, and face the adversities of life while hanging onto their friendship and ambition. Called “a heart-wrenching beautiful story”, that sounds nice, right? Well, as the book deals with ableism, child abuse, racism, rape, grooming, domestic violence, and list, ‘nice’ is not the first word that comes to mind.
Setting aside the quality of the book’s contents, having A Little Life go viral on a platform populated mainly by middle schoolers is a recipe for disaster. Many users saw the misleading reviews and went into the book not knowing that they were about to expose themselves to such distressing material, and ultimately suffered a negative impact on their mental health.
‘Celebritization’ Is Not Celebration – How Social Media Are Turning Writers Into Celebs
But that’s not all – the increase in the use of social media in promotional strategies for books is having ramifications in how we perceive authors as well. Having to maintain an online presence in order to gain readers is turning more and more writers into Internet celebrities, and that’s not always as good as it sounds.
Even though some authors are perfectly comfortable keeping an online presence and interacting with readers, there are many who absolutely do not. While the role of the writer used to represent a safe haven for those who preferred to be more private and did not want jobs which required having a public profile, this doesn’t quite hold up anymore since authors are being thrusted into the part of online celebrity.
This forced ‘celebritization’ impacts primarily small new writers, who are compelled to have a social media presence to garner readers, and no longer have the option to be non-public. More seasoned authors who already have an audience don’t need to succumb to social media yet, but we are already seeing a surge in published writers becoming active on Twitter.
And of course, pretty privilege plays a role here as well. Many studies have investigated how conventional attractiveness impacts one’s reach in online platforms, so it’s only logical to assume that it would affect how writers’ posts perform on social media. And (as we’ve said) since Internet popularity usually translates to sales and real-life acclaim, this means that conventionally attractive authors have better chances of selling lots of copies and becoming famous, no matter the quality of their material.
Social media has undeniably impacted every aspect of our lives, and especially what media we consume. So, it’s no wonder that it has had such a tremendous effect on books and their industry – in the digital era, even what we read is up for grabs.
All in all, deciding whether social media is helping the book industry is no easy task. Yes, virality on online platforms helps authors in selling more copies of their works, but it also turns the writer into a celebrity no matter if they want that or not. Yes, the emergence of online bookish corners like ‘BookTok’ is turning more people into avid readers, but it’s also tarnishing the content of books. Yes, social media are helping the book industry, but they also are not.
Edited by Patricia Beschea