TikTok has blown up over the years, especially before and during the pandemic. Within this vast and popularized network, there exists a niche focused on people’s passion for books and literature. Here, you’ll find a sub-community where people give book recommendations, record reviews, and share inside jokes about the characters and plot. These unlikely heroes saved several bookstores and many jobs in the writing industry. Videos with people creating fan casts for books, reading and annotating in timelapses, and fangirling over the same three male characters, all fall under the same hashtag with over 30 million posts and over 100 billion views: BookTok. 

When you walk into your nearest Barnes & Noble, the first thing you see will probably be the BookTok table. A table full of titles that went viral on the app—for instance, It Ends With Us by Colleen Hoover and The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. Thanks to BookTok, reading has become increasingly popular amongst users, ultimately leading to a boost in book sales. 

Pre-Pandemic Struggle Period

Before this level of success, bookstores were struggling. 65% of Barnes & Noble’s temporarily closed during the pandemic—over 400 of their locations. Due to strict health guidelines that restricted customers from lounging in reading areas or studying in the cafe, bookstores had to rely on online ordering and curbside pick-ups instead of in-person book sales. As a result, many saw a decline in market shares. Rival businesses to Barnes & Noble, like Border, closed down completely, and Waterstone saw similar downturns. Many had to turn to layoffs and reduced their store hours to keep the business afloat. According to the CEO of Barnes and Noble, James Daunt, “This is a devastating situation in which to find ourselves, and we understand the personal impacts of such action. When a closed store is permitted to reopen, we will do so, and we intend to rehire.” They did not have the resources necessary to continue paying employees as other companies (Apple, Nike, Patagonia, etc.) had promised. Many bookstore employees who were hired less than six months before were soon laid off, contributing to hundreds of thousands of layoffs and the 2000% increase in unemployment. Even while some stores remained open, many employees have chosen not to come to work and used available paid time off out of fear of contracting the virus. 

Authors also saw tour opportunities dwindle and experienced a hard time promoting. Madeline Miller, the author of Song of Achilles, thought she would have to go back to teaching during the pandemic. Many literary events were also canceled, such as the L.A. Times Festival of Books and other book conferences. Additionally, many colleges and school systems closed and went remote, so the purchases of textbooks and academic works declined as well. 

Why TikTok?

Although many other platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube have users who show appreciation for reading, no other online site has had this effect—let alone had whole sections in bookstores dedicated to their platform. Since TikTok has a special algorithm that caters users’ For You Pages to their interests, making their site much more appealing. The formula takes user interactions—videos a user liked, saved, commented on, etc—into account. Additionally, related captions, trending topics, and hashtags that users interact with when they come across a BookTok video will appear increasingly within said users’ content. Other platforms have people interact with accounts they already know, like Instagram and Facebook. However, on TikTok, there are many entertaining strangers on a user’s feed, some of whom make a following through their BookTok videos. Additionally, many subcultures like BookTok would congregate in hashtags, which also makes it easier to find content that falls under the same category.

A large part of the appeal is that through TikTok, many viewers can gush over the same characters and books together, making it feel like a large internet book club. Also, the fact that the videos are created by regular readers and not publishers or authors trying to advertise their books has established an intimate, authentic community of readers. However, many popular videos don’t offer proper reviews about the plot or writing and instead appeal to their audience by making content about the emotional journey of the reading, and other appealing aspects like book tropes, quotes, and character descriptions. Therefore, a major leading genre among the BookTok community is romance, especially in adult fiction. Even many classics like The Great Gatsby, Emma, and Little Women, have resurfaced due to their cultural impact. With popular reboots and adaptations like Little Women by Greta Gerwig and the TV series Bridgerton romanticizes period pieces, many readers found on BookTok are beginning to enjoy esteemed novels again. 

Many users are using TikTok to promote older books that have now resurfaced in popularity. In 2022, 30% of books sold were new releases while 70% were backlist titles, which is a 68% increase from the year before. For instance, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart was published in 2014, but made the best-seller list again in 2020. Colleen Hoover, another notable author, sold 14.3 million copies of her romance novels in 2022 thanks to TikTok and is now one of the bestselling authors in the country. Compared to the 1.88 million she sold the year before going viral, Hoover saw a 661% increase in book sales. Her current bestseller and most popular novel It Ends With Us was originally published in 2016 and had a significant comeback. With this popularity, the book is going to be adapted into a movie with an impressive cast, including Blake Lively as the protagonist. A similar author, Jenny Han, has also found immense growth in popularity due to movie and TV show adaptations of her novels. On Amazon Prime Video, the show The Summer I Turned Pretty was released during the summer of 2022 and debuted at No. 1 on the streaming service. The hashtag #thesummeriturnedpretty has over 6.8 billion views on TikTok and boosted the success of the series. This also goes for author Taylor Jenkins Reid with her Fleetwood Mac-inspired 2019 novel Daisy Jones and the Six, which became a TV show due to its growing popularity. The fictional rock band in the books has seen real-life success, where the show worked with Atlantic Records to create an actual album that includes the songs featured in the show and book. The album reached No. 1 on iTunes after the first three episodes were released and launched at No. 1 on Billboard’s Soundtrack chart. The album has sold over 21,000 units in the U.S. within the first two weeks of release. 

Beyond Barnes & Noble, many other bookstores have also caught wind of BookTok and incorporated it into their own business strategies. Many of these include Books-A-Million and Half-Price Books, whose websites now include pages that highlight viral BookTok titles and advertise through marketing emails. They have seen an increase in sales for books that are featured on the BookTok page. Barnes & Noble has an official TikTok account where workers make recommendations and discuss trends related to books. Bookstore owner of Golden Lab Bookshop, Adrian Cepeda, uses TikTok as a way to promote the books—when a BookTok video goes viral, it drives up the sales for certain books. Another bookstore called Second Flight Books has also seen success due to BookTok. Co-owner Laura Kendall says that after one of her videos gets over 40,000 views, she has seen increased store traffic. Many customers have confirmed seeing her store on TikTok and made a trip to go visit. Even during what used to be her slower seasons now have increased visitors.

Impact on the Economy

Recent months have brought an overall increase in book sales. Before the pandemic, US bookstores only saw a 3 to 4% increase between 2019 and 2022, and sales increased by 21%. There was a 14% increase in sales during 2020, and stores sold over 825 million print books in 2021. Even with the COVID lockdowns, e-book sales increased by 22%. Several bookstores have reopened after COVID—independent bookstores especially have had a huge revival, and the growing popularity of reading has offered stores a better opportunity for survival. Sales driven by authors with large BookTok followings have gained over $760 million in 2022. Barnes & Noble opened 30 new bookstores and renovated existing ones in 2023 and is starting to take over former Amazon bookstores. Barnes & Noble also saw a dramatic increase in stock prices between 2021 and 2022. According to Daunt, “Right now, we’ve seen – over the last two years – tremendous sales growth at Barnes & Noble. We could not be more optimistic. And I think it’s just that our stores are fun now.”

Photo Credit: Statistia

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There is also a growth in media consumption that is separate from book sales and driven by BookTok. Movie and TV show adaptations have led to substantial boosts in sales of their source material. Popular recent adaptations like Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Bridgerton, and Dune, have their fair share of views. Oppenheimer, alongside the success of Barbie, boosted the U.S. GDP by $3.5 billion from consumer spending. The Hunger Games: Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, the adaptation that took TikTok by storm, making over $44 million on opening weekend and grossing over $337 million worldwide. This prequel pushed the Hunger Games franchise to earn over $3 billion at the global box office. 

How lasting is this boost in sales?

Despite rapid growth, BookScan analyst, Kristen McLean, estimates that the percentage of book sales will slowly decrease after the 2021 hype. BookTok authors sold 13 million copies in 2020, and this amount jumped to 27 million the following year. Book sales catered to both adult and young adult audiences skyrocketed in 2021, but plateaued mid 2023. Sales have been steadily decreasing compared to when the TikTok subcommunity initially started, as many consumers are starting to read less after the lifting of COVID protocols. However, based on TikTok analytics, there is still heightened popularity for the usage of the hashtag #booktok—the peak of popularity being in 2024. Many new breakout authors like Carley Fortune and Rebecca Yarros are now thriving thanks to recent TikTok marketing. With the sustained popularity of BookTok, there is still an optimistic outlook for sales growth in the coming years.

Disclaimer: The views published in this journal are those of the individual authors or speakers and do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of Berkeley Economic Review staff, the Undergraduate Economics Association, the UC Berkeley Economics Department and faculty, or the University of California, Berkeley in general.

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