We Were Liars was released in 2014 and when the book’s author E. Lockhart saw it was back on the bestseller list last summer, she was thrilled. And confused.
“I had no idea what the hell was going on,” she said.
Lockhart’s kids filled it out: It was because of TikTok.
TikTok is an app known for delivering short videos on anything from dance moves to fashion tips, cooking guides and fun skits. TikTok isn’t an obvious target for book totals. But videos made mostly by women between the ages of teenagers and 20 are dominating a growing niche under the hashtag #BookTok, where users recommend books, record time-lapses of themselves reading, or openly facing the camera after an emotionally suffocating ending sob.
These videos are starting to sell a lot of books, and many of the creators are just as surprised as everyone else.
“I want people to feel what I feel,” said Mireille Lee, 15, who founded @alifeofliterature with her sister Elodie, 13, in February and now has nearly 200,000 followers. “In school, people don’t really recognize books, which is really annoying.”
Many Barnes & Noble locations in the US have set up BookTok tables with titles like “Both Die in the End,” “The Cruel Prince,” “A Little Life,” and others that have gone viral. There is no corresponding Instagram or Twitter table, however, as no other social media platform seems to move copies like TikTok.
“These creators are not afraid to be open and emotional about the books that make them cry and sob or scream or get so mad that they toss them across the room and it becomes that very emotional 45 second Video that people instantly connect to, “he told Shannon DeVito, books director at Barnes & Noble. “We haven’t seen these kinds of insane sales – I mean tens of thousands of copies a month – with other social media formats.”
The Lee sisters, who live in Brighton, England, started making BookTok videos while feeling bored at home during the pandemic. Many of her posts feel like tiny movie trailers in which images flash across the screen to a moody soundtrack.
For “The Cruel Prince” you see the book cover, then a woman riding a horse, a bloody mug, a castle in a tree – each for a split second, while the Billie Eilish song “You Should Be Me in One.” See crown “plays in the background. No need for a spoiler alert: it’ll be all over in about 12 seconds and you have the feel of the book but little idea what’s going on in it.
The video they created, entitled We Were Liars, has been viewed more than 5 million times.
The vast majority of BookTok videos are organic and posted by avid young readers. It was an unexpected jolt for publishers: an industry that relies on people getting lost in the printed word is getting dividends from a digital app designed for fleeting attention spans. Now publishers are starting to catch on, reaching out to those with a large following to offer free books or payments in exchange for having their titles published. (The Lee sisters have received books from authors, but have yet to be contacted by publishers or paid for their contributions.)
Many popular TikTok users have strategies for maximizing views. You may be using background songs that are already working well in the app. For example, use TikTok’s analytics to determine what time of day your posts are working best and try to make videos on a regular basis. But it’s still difficult to predict what will take off.
“Ideas that need 30 seconds for me, that work really well and that I work on for days or hours, that are completely full,” said Pauline Juan, a student who said at the age of 25 she felt “a little older” than many on BookTok. “But the most popular videos are about the books that make you cry. When you cry in front of the camera, your views rise! “
Most of the BookTok favorites are books that sold well when they were first published, and some are award winners such as The Song of Achilles, which won the 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction, a prestigious fiction award. The novel tells the Greek myth of Achilles as a romance between him and his companion Patroclus. It doesn’t have a happy ending.
“Hey, this is day 1 of mine reading ‘The Song of Achilles’.” Ayman Chaudhary, a 20 year old in Chicago, wrote on TikTok, holding the book next to her Burberry pattern hijab and smiling face .
“And that’s me who ends it!” She yells at the camera. The captions helpfully describe “dramatic wailing and screaming”. The video, which has been viewed more than 150,000 times, lasts about 7 seconds.
The hashtag #songofachilles has 19 million views on TikTok.
“I wish I could send you all of the chocolates!” said Madeline Miller, the book’s author.
“The Song of Achilles” was released in 2012 and sold well, but nowhere near as good as it is now. According to NPD BookScan, which tracks printed copies of books sold at most US retailers, The Song of Achilles sells about 10,000 copies a week, roughly nine times what it did when the prestigious Orange Award was presented. It ranks third on the New York Times bestseller list for paperback books.
Miriam Parker, vice president and associate publisher at Ecco, who published The Song of Achilles, said the company saw sales increase on Aug. 9 but couldn’t figure out why. It was eventually traced back to a TikTok video titled “Books That Make You Sob,” posted on Aug. 8 by @moongirlreads_. Today this video, which includes We Were Liars, has been viewed nearly 6 million times.
Ms. Miller, who described herself as “barely functional on Twitter,” said she knew nothing about the TikTok videos until her publisher pointed out. “I feel best speechless,” she said. “Could there be anything better for a writer than seeing people take their work to heart?”
The person behind @moongirlreads_ is Selene Velez, an 18-year-old from the Los Angeles area who joined TikTok last year while finishing high school at Zoom. She said she made the “Books That Make You Sob” video because a commenter asked her about recommendations for tearing.
“I thought we’ll see how that works,” said Ms. Velez. “I’m not sure how many people want to hear how much a random girl cried over a book.”
So she posted the video and went out to lunch with her family. When she checked TikTok again a few hours later, the video had 100,000 views.
Ms. Velez, who has more than 130,000 followers on TikTok, said publishers are now sending her free books before they hit the market for her to post about, and she has started making videos that she’s also used to create Publishers are paid. She and about two dozen other BookTok developers are constantly chatting on Instagram about which publishers have reached out to them and what they are asking for. Fees range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars per post.
John Adamo, director of marketing for Random House Children’s Books, said it now works with around 100 TikTok users. As soon as a title is published on TikTok, the publishing machine can be behind it: large retailers can discount it, a publisher could place ads, and if a book becomes a bestseller it also leads to more sales. But without TikTok, he said, “We wouldn’t talk about it at all.”
Jenna Starkey, a Minnesota high school student who writes under the name @jennajustreads and has more than 160,000 followers, said she was also approached by publishers and even a writer who offers free books. One big house said they would pay her for a job, but the agreement had structure and deadlines, and she was concerned that this would fit into her homework and school schedule.
Right now: “I film two Saturdays, two Sundays and two Wednesdays, so I pre-filmed the ones I can post while I’m actually in class.”
Some BookTok users say the app did more than just pass the time during the pandemic, it brought them a community.
“I don’t have many real life friends who actually read,” Ms. Juan said. But she and Ms. Velez both live in the Los Angeles area, and they’ve talked about it, maybe when it’s safe to talk about books in person. “I am always like this when the pandemic is over and we are both vaccinated,” said Ms. Juan, “I will come to visit you.”
Taylor Lorenz contributed to the coverage.
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