BookTok Fame Is a Lightning Strike

Nothing anyone has to say about TikTok is new. I have been grumbling about this for years, about each platform in its own time. But I didn’t get it together until I read Cat Valente’s Substack post: “Stop Talking to Each Other and Start Buying Things,” a polemic on the way social media is used versus how people would like it to be an engine of profit. On TikTok, just like on Twitter, we’re there to have a good time, and people will make it a bad time. People want to make money off us instead of letting us have a good time. TikTok is a little different in that at least it’s always been honest. It offers no illusion that I can just be the dork that I am and connect with people. TikTok, and particularly the subculture of BookTok, is always screaming sell sell sell! And I hate it.

I’ve never been put under direct pressure to get on TikTok. No agent or editor has ever told me BookTok will make me a star or a bestselling author. That’s a good thing—I’m naturally rebellious, and anything someone tells me I’ve got to do, I’m not going to do. Occasionally, other authors I know who believe that BookTok is the next big thing tell me I gotta do this. I don’t think that’s how it works.

How I think it does work is a little bit of discovery. Mostly the writers I know who use TikTok are there to be enthusiastic about their genre and their book. They talk about their opinions, share the great books they’ve read. They may talk about their own books for sale, but those are far in the background. Texas-based speculative author and climate activist Sim Kern (Real Sugar is Hard to Find) shares their wide-ranging and in-depth research, and produces fiction based on that science that’s both pessimistic and optimistic at the same time. They often share on TikTok about what they are researching for their next book—and I’m totally going to buy it. I love that TikTok lets me get behind the scenes, seeing a little bit about how a book is coming together. This is a place where I can find an author who’s really after my own heart. Imagine a short video that begins with a wide grin and the question: “Guess who spent the whole day in the university library?” They are my people! That video turned me on to their work, and I might not have found them any other way.

Aside from encounters like these, I find BookTok overall to be mystifying. When people hold up examples of genre authors who have been hit by that algorithmic lightning of going viral (Naomi Novik, Colleen Hoover, Sarah J. Maas) my follow up question is simple. Were they nobody from nowhere and then became stars? In most cases, no. BookTok notoriety is just another layer of the same phenomenon where those who have, get. Those who don’t brush up on their dances. I have bad knees and bad balance. I’m not gonna do that.

What I am gonna do is keep talking to people. BookTok has been good for getting to know other writers. It’s an interesting place to build community and to make new friends. One of the things I’ve seen work beautifully on TikTok is that it’s a highly accessible network of information. People ask questions, and other people can stitch the original and respond. Newer, greener writers often ask questions about publishing and royalties, and I’ve been happy to respond. That’s the real utility of an online community, that’s what’s reliable in it, not book sales. Don’t get me wrong—I’m going to brag about my books. But that’s not the real utility.

Considering the direction Twitter is headed, I’ve thought that TikTok might take the place that Twitter currently holds for writers. I built most of my audience there, from a small but engaged following to a bigger and bigger list over the years, and I think most authors have doggedly done the same. But TikTok aggregates more slowly because it lacks the critical mass of writers. Imagine what TikTok would be if Brandon Taylor or other writers like him adopted it. But he never would. It’s too performative and nakedly commercial; that ever-present sell sell sell vibe too transactional. It’s really hard to make that look cool.

Despite its essentially obvious nature, other parts of TikTok are amazing to me. You can find very old people and very young people sharing their experiences, talented people showing off their sports, crafts, and art, registered experts talking about mental illness—there are so many people doing interesting things. We can all learn something new there, maybe something about ourselves. I prefer to concentrate on what I know it can do. When I try to sell my book, I’m doing a chore that I don’t like. Just let me be a dope.

Being a dope doesn’t begin to achieve the alchemy of TikTok fame. Colleen Hoover allegedly makes money hand over fist because of BookTok, because the right users shared the lead of her work until it turned into gold. It’s alchemy—I don’t know how it happens. Nobody does, that’s the trouble with it. No matter how hard you beat the lead, there’s no math to this process. It’s magic. You could design a fourteen-point marketing plan, but who got into this business to do that? I want to make pancake mix in a jar and ride my scooter around town. I want to show people pretty sights or chat real quick about something I’m interested in. I don’t want to make endless content about how you should buy my books, even though you should definitely buy my books.

Examining why I feel this way, it occurs to me that part of my resistance is that I’m Gen X. We learned about the emotional manipulation of advertising very early in our lives, and that knowledge makes us hostile. It makes us very aware of when we’re being sold to, and I learned this in grade nine, in school, with a group assignment and a test. Maybe younger folks didn’t learn it the same way we did, but they know when they’re being sold to, and it’s terrible, but it just feels a little embarrassing.

In the end, I want the books I want because I want them, but I won’t discount the need to know what all the shooting’s about when a book breaks out. Gideon the Ninth was a category five hurricane on Twitter and everywhere else, you couldn’t go anywhere that people go to talk about books without hearing the rattling of those bones. And then Tamsyn Muir, a savvy soul, noted the hurricane and said, “Oh, you liked that? Good, I’m going to do it again.” A following like that, a chatter that doesn’t die down, comes from a book that fit perfectly to what readers wanted, or to a book they didn’t know they wanted until they had it.

What I didn’t know I needed has found me on BookTok. BIPOC romance writers who publish independently have brought me so much happiness after I discovered them there. I think I might have found them anyway, and I’m not sure that TikTok does a good job of increasing the reach for people of color. There’s a noticeable pattern to me of which writers of colors you see and which you do not. The hierarchy of racism is highly noticeable and not everybody gets seen. But their imitators often do.

Because of flaws like these, I think what’s going to happen to BookTok is ultimately what’s happened to Book Twitter: death by discourse. Bad actors make everyone edgy. Everybody has an opinion, and once a week someone who maybe made a mistake is buried literally under the weight of the world.

In the meantime, when BookTok is good, it’s very good. It’s Mary Robinette Kowal walking through the woods telling me what I needed to hear. It’s Emily Thiede doing the heavy lifting dispelling myths about traditional publishing. It’s L.P. Kindred taking apart the concept of the literary canon and encouraging people to become the writers they always needed to read.

The best use for TikTok to sell books is done by people who actually get paid to sell books—booksellers—to use it to sell books! Bookstore and bookseller TikToks are the best. Merrowchild is a bookseller and forthcoming author who has a wonderful presence based entirely on telling an audience charming stories about working in a bookstore and which books are awesome. Main Street Books in Monroe, Washington makes videos where they go up to an employee of the store and ask for their last five-star read. The bookseller walks the viewers over to the book on the shelf and gushes about it. That’s so much better than writers trying to do the alchemy, fake the dance steps, invite the lightning to strike right here, right now.

A lot of people who think that BookTok will solve all the complex problems of book marketing need to look hard at probability and really think about the math. BookTok breakouts are a lightning strike. Virality is alchemy. These are goals that we have no control over whether or not we achieve. The best advice I can give to everyone, on TikTok and in real life, is that you should try to have more fun than goals.


C. L. Polk

C. L. Polk (they/them) wrote the Hugo-nominated Kingston Cycle, including the WFA-winning Witchmark. The Subjective Kind of Chaos Award-winning The Midnight Bargain was a Canada Reads, Nebula, Locus, Ignyte, and WFA finalist. Their latest novella Even Though I Knew The End is out now. Mx. Polk lives in Calgary, on Blackfoot Confederacy, Tsuut’ina, Îyâxe Nakoda, and Métis Nation land.

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