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Has TikTok ever inspired you to read a book?
How do you decide what culture or entertainment you want to dig into next — whether it’s a new TV series, an album or a video game? Who do you trust in your circle of friends and family, or on social media, to give you the best recommendations?
In “How Crying on TikTok Sells Books,” Elizabeth A. Harris writes about the growing influence of “BookTok” videos — on readers, publishers and best-seller lists:
An app known for serving up short videos on everything from dance moves to fashion tips, cooking tutorials and funny skits, TikTok is not an obvious destination for book buzz. But videos made mostly by women in their teens and 20s have come to dominate a growing niche under the hashtag #BookTok, where users recommend books, record time lapses of themselves reading, or sob openly into the camera after an emotionally crushing ending.
These videos are starting to sell a lot of books, and many of the creators are just as surprised as everyone else.
“I want people to feel what I feel,” said Mireille Lee, 15, who started @alifeofliterature in February with her sister, Elodie, 13, and now has nearly 200,000 followers. “At school, people don’t really acknowledge books, which is really annoying.”
Many Barnes & Noble locations around the United States have set up BookTok tables displaying titles like “They Both Die at the End,” “The Cruel Prince,” “A Little Life” and others that have gone viral. There is no corresponding Instagram or Twitter table, however, because no other social-media platform seems to move copies the way TikTok does.
“These creators are unafraid to be open and emotional about the books that make them cry and sob or scream or become so angry they throw it across the room, and it becomes this very emotional 45-second video that people immediately connect with,” said Shannon DeVito, director of books at Barnes & Noble. “We haven’t seen these types of crazy sales — I mean tens of thousands of copies a month — with other social media formats.”
The Lee sisters, who live in Brighton, England, started making BookTok videos while bored at home during the pandemic. Many of their posts feel like tiny movie trailers, where pictures flash across the screen to a moody soundtrack.
The vast majority of BookTok videos happen organically, posted by enthusiastic young readers. For publishers it has been an unexpected jolt: an industry that depends on people getting lost in the printed word is getting dividends from a digital app built for fleeting attention spans. Now publishers are starting to catch on, contacting those with big followings to offer free books or payment in exchange for publicizing their titles. (The Lee sisters have received books from authors but have yet to be contacted by publishers or paid for their posts.)
The article points out a few qualities that some popular BookTok videos share:
Many popular TikTok users have strategies to maximize views. They might use background songs that are already doing well on the app, for example, use TikTok’s analytics to see what time of day their posts do the best and try to put up videos on a regular schedule. But it’s still tricky to predict what will take off.
“Ideas that take me 30 seconds to come up with, those do really well, and the ones I work on for days or hours, those completely tank,” said Pauline Juan, a student who, at 25, says she feels “a little older” than many on BookTok. “But the most popular videos are about the books that make you cry. If you’re crying on camera, your views go up!”
Most of the BookTok favorites are books that sold well when they were first published, and some are award winners, like “The Song of Achilles,” which won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2012, a prestigious fiction prize. The novel retells the Greek myth of Achilles as a romance between him and his companion Patroclus. It does not have a happy ending.
“Hey, this is Day 1 of me reading ‘The Song of Achilles,’” Ayman Chaudhary, a 20-year-old in Chicago, posted on TikTok, holding the book next to her Burberry pattern hijab and smiling face.
“And this is me finishing it!” she bawls into the camera, the onscreen captions helpfully describing “dramatic wailing & yelling.” The video, which has been viewed more than 150,000 times, lasts about 7 seconds.
The #songofachilles hashtag has 19 million views on TikTok.
Students, read the entire article, then tell us:
Before reading the article, did you know about BookTok? What appeal, if any, does finding book recommendations on TikTok hold for you? What about recommendations for other forms of culture and entertainment?
Have you been reading more books for pleasure during the pandemic? If not, what activities have been your favorite pastimes lately?
The teenagers behind @alifeofliterature use the tagline “convincing you to read books based on their aesthetics” and eschew speaking about the books. The article’s author compares their posts to “tiny movie trailers.” Why do you think so many people like the posts and go on to purchase the books themselves? Why is @alifeofliterature’s approach effective, in your opinion?
Do you post videos on TikTok? If you do, have you ever suggested books to read or TV shows to watch, or made any other recommendations? If you haven’t, does anything in the article make you more interested in sharing things you like or dislike with the world? Explain.
According to the article, posts about books that made the recommender cry are widely popular. Why do you think that is? Are you drawn to works of art that stir up strong emotions?
Another recent article, “Kaia, Kendall and EmRata Are Taking a Page From Oprah,” reports on the success of online book clubs hosted by well-known actresses and fashion models. Does a celebrity endorsement make you want to read a particular book? Do you gravitate to books that are currently trending? Would you want to join a virtual book club?
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Students 13 and older in the United States and the United Kingdom, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.