The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

TikTok influences a new community of readers

In the modern literature landscape, many people find inspiration for their next read through TikTok. These “BookTok” influencers have even begun to affect marketing strategies and the creation of genres.
Shaely Odean
Photo Illustration by Shaely Odean

University of Iowa student Andi Pinkerman, a self-described bookworm, started watching videos on TikTok after completing a book report in her second year of high school. The social media app’s algorithm increasingly offered videos within the #BookTok hashtag — a sector of TikTok that serves a growing community of online book critics.

“I read ‘Twilight.’ And then I read ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘Percy Jackson,’” Pinkerman said. “After that, book videos started popping up on my phone. It was to the point where all I looked at was just book videos and book recommendations.”

For Pinkerman, the popularity of BookTok led her to find some of her new favorite novels. She also pointed out that the most popular literary genre promoted to her on social media was the romance genre.

The social media giant has reached users of all ages and backgrounds, and it continues to impact industries around the world. The app has become so influential that the U.S. government has stepped in.

Social media platforms that have user-generated content, and subsequently user information-based algorithms, have recently faced public scrutiny for fear that these platforms share user information for personal gain. The U.S. Congress’ most recent dispute arose due to concerns over data collection by TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, which is based in Beijing, China.

However, in the face of controversy surrounding data theft, the platform continues to spearhead the influencer career path. Content creators on the platform span all genres, including literature. TikTok has changed the way readers, as well as authors and publishers, try to adapt to trends in their marketing techniques.

This online community known as “#BookTok” serves as a marriage of social media and literary discussion. It is the primary virtual space where readers and literary influencers promote — or disapprove of — new book releases on TikTok that play into some of the most popular online trends.

The hashtag amassed a over 20 million videos on TikTok. For many TikTok users, the rapidly growing popularity of book discussions the app ignited their interest in reading in the first place.

“If you can write a good romance story, BookTok eats it up. As soon as ‘It Ends With Us’ came out, my whole school read it; I saw that book everywhere,” Pinkerman said.

UI second-year student Ainsley Menning has received several romance recommendations since she began to frequent BookTok six months ago. She cites the fantasy genre as another favorite of social media influencers, believing that an “escape from reality” is appealing to many people.

Fantasy and romance are not passing trends, however. Because of the amount of interest in these books, their popularity has begun to influence both the content promoted by publishers and the marketing strategies used by authors.

“Before, it didn’t matter whether books were on TikTok, but now I’ve seen authors on TikTok marketing their books, like Victoria Aveyard. She’s been talking about her books there,” Menning said.

While the online atmosphere of TikTok continues to promote certain types of books, the popularity of these writers has spread to some bookstores as well. Prairie Lights, one of Iowa City’s local bookstores, has felt this impact.

“[BookTok] hasn’t changed what we promote, but it has changed what we sell,” said Emma Bagnall, the social media and returns manager at Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City. “Our general audience is still made up of people who want various types of books. But people will also come in for Sarah J. Maas or Colleen Hoover, and we have to stock more of those books than we used to. We’re constantly reordering ‘A Court of Thorns and Roses.’”

Bagnall said when younger people who “don’t read much” enter the store and ask her for recommendations, she tends to point them toward the fantasy and romance genres due to BookTok’s influence.

Over the years, as BookTok grew more popular, Bagnall noticed a shift within the fantasy genre to include more romance. As a result, publishers have responded trying to hop on this trend, even going so far as releasing books with similar cover designs to other well-known novels.

“Fantasy used to be just pure fantasy, and now many people want it to be a mix of romance and fantasy. I think it’s a unique approach for the publishers that is working well — they created a new genre,” Bagnall said.

Despite the heavy influence of BookTok on writing, the social media platform is not the only inspiration for these types of books. Before TikTok’s launch in September 2016, literary enthusiasts convened on sites like Instagram, Vine, and Twitter years before the explosively popular
TikTok debuted.

“The book influencer truly started in that era,” Sam Helmick, Iowa City Public Library community and access services coordinator, said. “Social media shifted the way we discuss books and open the doors to discussion as a library because we aren’t the facilitators of that discussion.”

Helmick, the former president of the Iowa Library Association, was once an active participant in literary social media communities and noted a drastic change in how influential an online space can be.

“Literary influencers don’t just influence readers anymore, they guide publishers,” Helmick said. “What is of literary and artistic merit has changed. We’re opening our minds to the notion there will be our awards-winners and books that will be entered into the literary canon, but there are also books like beach reads romance novels, and guilty reads. We’re placing more value in these now.”

As books gain popularity on BookTok, they tend to sell better at physical stores and see more checkouts at libraries. However, because of how successful influencers are at promotion, publishers tend to spotlight a narrow kind of book.

Second-year UI student Madison Kelly — who enjoys downloading new reading material on her Kindle — considers the amplification of lesser-known authors and publishers as a benefit of BookTok.

“TikTok can help guide [authors], but it’s not going to be the determining factor in how they write, because, at the end of the day, they have their own voice and writing style,” Kelly said.

Although certain genres may be more popular among TikTok audiences than others,, it is difficult to determine whether publishers and authors are influenced by the trends on social media or just by what sells.

“There is a need [in Iowa City] to provide influencer books, the readership is very active,” Helmick said. “But then how do we continue to keep the shop open for those masterpieces that will change the canon, recognizing the fact that those criteria change as we change as a society?”

Embracing e-books may be the answer. As the literature world continues to evolve and move online, both libraries and stores have had to increase electronic output.

“The popularity of apps like Libby and Kanopy is great, it shows that there is still a hunger for substantial work. Our e-book program has been consistently successful, too,” Helmick said. “Folks want to engage in literature however they can.”

With a heavier reliance on electronic literature comes the influence of algorithms.

The TikTok algorithm, more so than the influencers themselves, dictates what trends take off. This invisible virtual influence is what excites some literature fans.

“Trends come and go in this industry. I was a part of the Harry Potter generation and as millennials got into their 30s and 40s, serial novels became the craze,” Helmick said. “In young adult fiction, we’re seeing a lot of queer and BIPOC stories finally reaching a wider audience because of TikTok.”

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About the Contributors
Charlie Hickman
Charlie Hickman, Arts Reporter
Charlie Hickman is a sophomore at the University of Iowa. He is majoring in English on the Pre-Law track with minors in Political Science and Cinema.
Riley Dunn
Riley Dunn, Arts Reporter
Riley Dunn is a first-year student at the University of Iowa majoring in English and Creative Writing and Journalism and Mass Communications. Prior to her time at the DI, Riley interned for Swimming World Magazine.
Shaely Odean
Shaely Odean, Photojournalist
Shaely Odean is a transfer student at the University of Iowa, currently in her third year. She is pursuing double majors in Journalism and Strategic Communications, as well as Sustainability Sciences. Shaely works as a photojournalist for The Daily Iowan, and her passion lies in environmental issues. Before joining the University of Iowa, she attended Kirkwood Community College, where she served as the photo editor for the Kirkwood Communique.