The Problem With BookTok Isn’t the Pretty Influencers or the Fantasy Books

BookTok isn’t actually a community driven by fans, writers, influencers, or even publishers. All of those people are merely a smokescreen.

The Problem With BookTok Isn’t the Pretty Influencers or the Fantasy Books

This is the first installment of Fantasy Aisle, a monthly column from Jackie Jennings about everything related to horny dragon books

It feels like the debate over whether #BookTok is bad has been raging since the moment the term was first coined. Over the past four years, there’s been a flurry of essays on the subject, and now, in my inaugural books column for Jezebel, I’d like to throw my own hat into the ring—turn these flurries into a snowstorm, if you will. Because I’m starting off with a strong stance: BookTok is indeed bad. However. The problem with BookTok is not—as you might think—one of crappy books or bogus influencers.

The problem with BookTok is TikTok itself.

But what, exactly, is BookTok? People will invariably tell you that BookTok is, like everything else on Al Gore’s godforsaken internet these days, a “community,” but BookTok is actually just a hashtag on TikTok. (If you don’t know what TikTok is, I don’t know what to tell you.) Like all hashtags, it’s a tool used to organize posts and allow users to search for content relevant to their interests; creators may use it to signify anything from a review to a roundup of literary aesthetics. 

Like TikTok more broadly, BookTok’s popularity skyrocketed during covid lockdowns. It connected people, introduced them to new reading material, and gave its largely young female participants a platform to discuss the emotional experiences they had while reading a given title.  

The consequences were astounding. In 2021, demand for printed books rose so sharply, publishers literally couldn’t keep them on the shelves. One of the most influential drivers of demand was social media, and the popularity of books that caught the imagination of BookTok creators—especially those by Colleen Hoover (a romance and YA author), or titles like Fourth Wing (a page-turner about hot 20-somethings with dragons)—translated into impressive sales. 

So what is my beef? This seems objectively good; people are buying more books. They’re not highbrow literary fiction, but broadly speaking, reading is positive. As I’ve written before, no one is dumber for having read a fun book. The books are not why BookTok is bad. 

Now, you might think I have a problem with BookTok influencers themselves; plenty of people do. Many of them are young women with cool nails, enviable style, and flawlessly organized shelves. In short, they do not look, sound, or behave like book nerds, yet they’ve successfully commodified the identity of “bookish.” And I get why that stings: I have glasses, bangs, and had two rounds of Accutane in high school; I am a true nerd! But for all the ways profiting off an identity—even a low-stakes one like “reader”—feels uncomfortable, I don’t really care. Their shtick isn’t even that novel; they didn’t invent capitalism, after all. No, my problem is with Silicon Valley and the technocrats who run it.

Because despite the people-first veneer, BookTok isn’t actually a community driven by fans, writers, influencers, or even publishers. All of those people are merely a smokescreen for what BookTok is: part of a social media corporation, and controlled by the most mysterious, fickle god of all, the algorithm. 

Algorithms—and, crucially, the people who control them—underpin all of what you see and when you see it on every social platform. The people responsible for these algorithms would have you think they’re merely about “user experience”; they want to assure you they’re just focused on giving you a nice time in their corner of the digital universe. Besides, algorithms are just math and math can’t be good or bad. It’s math

But every time a social media company “tweaks” its algorithm (which, to be clear, is done entirely in service of its financial objectives and/or shareholder demands), it causes a panic. Sure, that may in part be because these tweaks can be annoying as hell for regular users like you and me—but the panic is also driven by influencers and other businesses that rely on social media for income. When the algorithm changes, so do the rhythms of their business.

Industries have already paid the price for relying too heavily on the whims of social media platforms. In a “pivot to video” that’s become the stuff of nightmares for digital media veterans, in 2015, Facebook told news outlets that heavily relied on its platform for traffic that its data revealed that users wanted just one thing: more videos. To comply with this allegedly data-driven directive, media companies fired staff and shuttered print operations to churn out video content. Then, after it caused a sea change in newsrooms across the country, Facebook revealed they’d made one little mistake: They fucked up the math. People weren’t actually watching more videos, Facebook had just made some math oopsies—or they had made some math lies, depending on what you think of the lawsuit that followed. Either way, the damage was done, and media companies (should have) learned a valuable lesson: You shouldn’t build your business on the back of someone else’s. 

You especially shouldn’t do that when that business has announced they intend to compete with you—which is exactly what TikTok told publishers in July 2023. After two years of promoting (and collecting data related to) the BookTok “community,” TikTok announced its own publishing imprint through its parent company ByteDance. Now, I know my romance tropes and I absolutely eat up a rivals-to-lovers plotline. But I also can smell a lovers-to-enemies theme a mile away. Readers are Feyre and TikTok is Tamlin, there I said it (IYKYK). 

Obviously, this is speculation. So far, BookTok has only helped books and the people who love them. Book sales are up. TikTok has partnered with Penguin Random House to allow for easier book sales on its platform. The algorithm has surfaced older, wonderful titles like Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles, bringing novels that were overlooked at their initial release back into the conversation. 

But BookTok has also given Silicon Valley an outsized level of control and influence in the publishing business. TikTok now has unfettered access to the tastes and buying habits of a vast swath of book buyers—while also turning itself into a commerce platform for those buyers. It has done all of that by giving users the illusion of community. But the technology is in the passenger seat, playing navigator for the technocrats behind the wheel. Publishers, writers and readers alike are just riding in the flatbed, praying that each oncoming swerve of the algorithm doesn’t throw us out onto the pavement—or even blithely unaware that it might.

The proliferation of the printed word is good. But at whose command? I wouldn’t trust Elon Musk, Zhang Yiming (the TikTok CEO) or any of their peers to organize an exhibit at the Met. So why would we trust them to pull the strings of the literary world? 

To be clear, I don’t want to discourage you from engaging with BookTok, at least as long as it seems to be genuinely benefiting everyone involved. But as you do, keep in mind that social media platforms are not actually governed by the influencers and writers whose work you follow, and the algorithms certainly shouldn’t have as much power as they do. Us book nerds know how stories about misplaced power always end. 

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