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Why You’re Seeing the Same Handful of Books (and Authors) on BookTok

Let's fix readers' broken FYP!

Eight common recommended books on BookTok 2020-2022. Image: Alyssa Shotwell, ByteDance, and various publishers.

In the last year, TikTok has rapidly become one of the most influential social media platforms. The platform has also influenced publishing—mainly through the community known as BookTok. BookTok consists of booksellers, authors, publishers, and (mostly) readers making videos about reading. After creators featured They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera, sales of the book rose by 900%. Barnes and Noble began setting up #BookTok tables (and store TikTok accounts), and self-published books starting getting picked up by major publishers (like Olivia Blake’s The Atlas Six, acquired by Tor).

Back in September, when I first covered the BookTok phenomenon, I pointed to the feedback loop from readers, then stabilized by (already super-acute) algorithms, that results in hyping up a bestselling book. When booksellers like Barnes & Noble construct these “I saw it on #BookTok” tables and pull from these lists, that increases the chances people will buy them. Then, readers go and engage with the same kind of content that convinced them to buy it, fueled by algorithms. Rinse, and repeat.

I’m not criticizing because these books are popular. I’ve read and enjoyed a handful of these authors and have some of the titles on my TBR list. Do I have a problem with them? Sure, some. Do I think there is an oversaturation of a handful of them in greater book discourse? Absolutely. Some of the obvious gaps are that the list is overwhelmingly (racially, not ethnically) white, and there is a gender disparity between fiction and non-fiction.

Which books get attention, and why

Authors who wind up promoted by these BookTok echo chambers often include the likes of Sarah J Maas, Holly Black, Holly Jackson, Tracy Deonn, Delia Owens (a whole mess), Madeline Miller, E. Lockhart, Leigh Bardugo, Emily Henry, and Taylor Jenkins Reid (especially her first two novels.) Non-fiction (if you even come across these videos) doesn’t fare much better. They’re (also) New York Times bestsellers from names like Bob Woodward, Robert Acosta, Malcolm Gladwell, Yuval Harai, and Robin Di Angelo.

Sometimes authors (both traditionally published and self-published) will get a boost from social media because of good luck, work ethic, and privilege. The privilege comes from the resources of being social media savvy or deemed attractive by a narrow window of white-centered beauty standards. However, many books that oversaturate BookTok are already supported by traditional publishing—an industry with these same barriers (except maybe luck), is less involved. This structure extends into film/TV adaptations, book subscription boxes (like Illumicrate, Owlcrate, and Book of the Month) and celebrity book clubs (most influential to TikTok being Reese’s) that work with publishers.

The people that get the most views, attention, and engagement are also creators from a place of privilege. In the past, TikTok has admitted to suppressing the reach of “those susceptible to bullying and harassment” such as fat, queer and disabled creators. However, unconscious bias on the individual leads to people staying within their group. and their For You Page (FYP) ends up looking a lot like the people who look like them. The algorithm has everyone ending up at different lunch tables recommending the same books to the same people. People with similar interests and life experiences (including nationality) will already have similar books in common.

How to fix your FYP

Good news for viewers at home! There is an easy-ish fix to this. Follow, engage, and “like” more videos by marginalized creators. Yes, many will still lust over a few of these titles, but they also center non-white, non-“Western” books in their lists and round ups all the time. For example, Black and brown creators don’t wait until some viral act of racism or brutality happens to share books by these communities. And, when they do share Black books, they aren’t solely highlighting books centered on Black pain. This applies to many BookTokkers of color, marginalized religion (within the U.S.), gender, and sexuality.

Another group worth mentioning is the examination of books by male readers, especially for fiction. As much as I’ll eye-roll and cringe at the more viral TikToks of men (particularly in the man-o-sphere and podcast land) talking about books, I’ve also had great luck following some. If they mention Jordan Peterson, Robert Greene, any philosopher or dating book, take a quick left and reread the instructions because I said fiction. (There are always exceptions to this rule of course because, #NotAllMen.) If there is a particular trend based on an audio feature from a sub-community (based on a trope, genre, etc.), check there.

Speaking of this audio feature, please use it. It’s not just for creators but also for viewers to find other videos. Some audio trends later emerged to kinda counteract these same authors being passed around, so use it! One of the many BookTok specific ones includes the tag “A Book You Have Not Seen.” These interactions will help your FYP give new suggestions pretty consistently.

(image: Alyssa Shotwell, ByteDance, and various publishers.)

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(she/her) Award-winning artist and blogger with professional experience and education in graphic design, art history, and museum studies. Starting as an Online Editor for her college paper in October 2017, Alyssa began writing for the first time within two months of working in the newsroom. This resident of the yeeHaw land spends most of her time drawing, reading and playing the same handful of video games—even as the playtime on Steam reaches the quadruple digits. Currently playing: Baldur's Gate 3, Apex Legends, and CS:GO. Still trying to beat Saxon Farm on RCT 3 (so I can 100% the game.)