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#BookTok: How creators are challenging the publishing industry to promote diversity

Though TikTok is best known for viral dances and sound clips, its impact on the publishing industry has not gone unnoticed. In a niche corner of the app, BookTok – a community of TikTokers who review books and give recommendations – has exploded since the start of the pandemic. While users discover a wide range of new reads, the authors of the books highlighted have seen a massive increase in sales, some even ending up on the New York Times bestseller list. As of May 2022, #BookTok has amassed over 56 billion views and shows no sign of losing momentum. It opens up a realm of opportunities for publishers and writers to find new audiences and publicize their works, making it an extremely useful tool for promoting diversity and inclusion.

So how does BookTok work?

To discover how BookTok can help promote diversity and inclusion, we first need to examine the facts and figures. Colleen Hoover’s It Ends with Us is often mentioned as an example of books that have gained most of their popularity on TikTok. In December 2020 it sold 1,600 copies a week. In November 2021, after weeks of TikTok hyping it up, that number grew to 21,000 copies a week. The same phenomenon can be seen with The Song of Achilles, a retelling of the mythical story of Achilles that links him romantically to his companion Patroclus. Almost a decade after it was first released in 2011, sales went from 1,000 a week in April 2020 to 11,000 a week in April 2021.

Perhaps most interestingly of all, the increase in sales after a book goes viral on TikTok tends to be lasting. Pauline (@thebooksiveloved) made four videos on the app in November 2021, raving about Love and Other Words by Christina Lauren. Each of them had up to a million views. Sales rose from 600 copies a week to 2,500 in the week after the videos first appeared, and as of May 2022 the book is still selling 1,500 copies a week, more than double the figure for before the TikTok effect.

Shifting the narrative

While BookTok is revitalizing publishing, it is also mirroring the industry in some ways, including one of its biggest problems: a lack of diversity. This corner of TikTok seems to be an echo chamber, where the same sorts of books are recommended time and again – books by writers who happen to be predominantly white, straight and non-disabled.

But creators on the app are starting to shift the narrative. Readers who don’t recognize themselves in the books being recommended are taking matters into their own hands and saying, ‘Hey, do you feel underrepresented in literature? Here are some books that are going to make you feel represented.’

Azanata Thakur (@azantareads) is one of them. As a Muslim woman of colour, she makes videos supporting Muslim authors and recommending lesser-known books not just to the niche of female Muslim readers but to anyone who stumbles across #BookTok. In March 2021 she went even further by founding a virtual book conference called BookTalk. Its mission is to connect with authors, publishers and other creatives in the book industry in order to inspire critical approaches to reading and raise the profile of marginalized voices, thereby highlighting the importance of equitable representation in storytelling.

Diverse books do sell

According to an academic study from 2020 about diversity in trade fiction and the publishing industry, there is a fear among publishers that diverse reads are too niche and will not appeal to their core audience. (Read our article on the study here.) BookTok, however, has shown that this is not the case. There is an increasingly diverse audience that not only wants more representation but is actively searching for it.

Moreover, BookTok has had a massive impact on sales, which casts doubt on the prevailing notion that diverse books don’t sell. The same 2020 study shows that publishers tend to think there is a tension between the ethical principle and the economic imperative. They fear that including the voices of marginalized sectors in the books they publish will not be profitable enough in a financial sense. But clearly many readers are actively looking for books with greater diversity, and their activities on BookTok have shown how much such readers can help increase book sales. It is undeniably profitable to tap into this audience.

The rise of a more diverse community on the app is already having an effect on the publishing industry. Brands and publishers are increasingly partnering with BookTokers, including those who focus on diversity. This creates a great opportunity to promote the works of authors who might not otherwise succeed simply because traditional publishing and promotion have failed to make space for them. When looking for new and innovative ways to promote diversity in literature, TikTok is a tool that can no longer be overlooked.

Creators who help promote diversity and inclusivity

Countless BookTokers are making it their mission to bring diverse reads into the mainstream. Here are a few examples.

  • Kaley from @chronicallybookish is a book lover with a chronic illness. She uses her first-hand experience to read, review and recommend books that represent people with disabilities.

  • With over 123,000 followers, Kendra (@kendrareads) uses her platform to promote books with people of colour in the central role. @Mychal3ts is a librarian who makes BookTok videos as a hobby. He recommends diverse children's books like ‘All bodies are cool!’

  • @readwithsyll ‘recommends a lot of unpopular books’, as she puts it. Her seven-part BookTok series, for instance, gives her recommendations for the best books with stories about mental health.

  • @Cherishandfavor makes TikTok videos about her life as a mom. She has a series on her account where she recommends ‘the dopest kids’ books’ to help your child understand and embrace diversity.

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