‘It’s surreal’: Five-second book reviews go viral on TikTok | Books
FFifteen seconds is enough. Point your phone’s camera at a shelf and hold your favorite book, or three. Add a trending soundtrack, a caption, some hashtags – #BookTok #FYP. Throw a pandemic into the mix and you have the formula: you can make a book review go viral.
Stuck indoors during the Covid lockdown in Sydney, I fell into the endless TikTok abyss, where I found BookTok: the app’s reading nook that amassed over 26 billion views.
There, I spent more time watching people talk about books than reading books myself. One such person is Cait Jacobs, a New York-based blogger.
Jacobs joined BookTok under the handle @caitsbooks in December 2019. Three months later, she began posting content to a small number of 100 subscribers. That number has since skyrocketed to over 240,000.
His videos oscillate between 10,000 and more than 1 million views. One on LGBTQ+ representation in books has been viewed over 8 million times.
“I really thought when I started that no one would see my videos,” she tells me. “I’m introverted – I have social anxiety going to the grocery store. So connecting to so many other readers is a shock.
On a platform like YouTube or Instagram, you should actively search for book-related content. On TikTok, he may have come across it. “Videos filter seamlessly to the For You page,” says Jacobs, of the assemblage of new TikToks users who scroll as soon as they open the app. “And the audience it reaches is not just readers.” Hence the staggering numbers.
Behind the ambiguity of the TikTok algorithm hides a sense of organic growth, stronger than that of any other platform. My For You page is filled with a mysteriously curated mix. It’s individualized – perfectly aligned with my interests, and slightly terrifying if you think about it too deeply.
Audiences scrolling past the FYP – via BookTok accounts and tags – will pick up the models. Many videos follow “formats” that are likely to go viral.
Recommendation lists are a basic example, where the emotion of a popular song on the app is carefully matched with recommended books. A stack of novels featuring “an agonizing romance between enemies and lovers” would be perfect for the punch of Olivia Rodrigo’s Good 4 U, for example. Or, a selection of “books guaranteed to make you cry” listed in his heartbreaking ballad Drivers License.
One of my favorite video formats is less popular and involves a creator sharing the plot of a book as if it were their own story.
Elizabeth Cayoutte – alias @bettysbooklist – pioneered this. Looking down the camera barrel of her phone, she says, “Someone died at the school costume party. My friends and I take parenthood very seriously, and although we have our secrets, I assure you it was an accident. So why doesn’t anyone believe me?
After a tantalizing moment of shock and intrigue, the video cuts to the cover of Big Little Lies: Australia’s 2015 crime novel.
Other TikTokers such as Jacobs are jumping through different formats, from sharing guilty pleasure tropes and relatable bookish experiencesassuming what “his audience’s favorite book says about them”.
Leigh Bardugo’s young adult fantasy duology Six of Crows is often featured in her videos. It’s a series that I also call a favorite, so we share a little shoutout about it over the phone.
“Six of Crows always gets people talking,” says Jacobs. “I think it’s the mix of a rich fantasy world and a diverse cast of characters.”
While YA novels such as Six of Crows, We Were Liars by E Lockhart, The Selection by Kiera Cass, and anything written by Sarah J Mass thrive on BookTok, the broader genres aren’t forgotten.
“YA fantasy is a big one, but so are mysteries and classics.” Jacobs says there’s also a huge appetite for “spicy” and “naughty” books; books that are sensual, erotic or both.
“BookTok is a place where everyone is comfortable,” she says. “Because everyone is eager to share their reading, and to immerse themselves in what they expect from their plots, characters and universes. And all it takes is a short video.
These short videos have been noticed beyond the world of BookTok – 26 billion views of the BookTok hashtag means a five-second viral clip can impact sales worldwide.
The Guardian coined it the BookTok effect; where the books are trending on TikTok, and top bestseller rankings soon after. Jacobs says it’s so widespread she can “point directly to the videos” that have catapulted certain books to popularity.
“Selene of @moongirlreads boosted sales of Madeline Miller’s Chant d’Achille. And Ayman, of @aymansbooksmade it impossible for readers to get their hands on VE Schwab’s The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue after his video recommending him.”
Booksellers get it, with Barnes & Noble in the US offering a “discover popular BookTok books” category on their siteand display a BookTok table in stores.
“It’s surreal,” says Jacobs. “It’s special because BookTok has such a large reach and audience around the world, but it’s just a community that loves to read and talk about it.
“It’s something I never imagined could happen.”