Nowadays, it has become less and less uncommon to come upon a bookstore section labelled “trending on #BookTok”. Platforms such as TikTok accumulate a certain readership, usually young and new adults, who recommend, critique, and comment on literature, generally novels. That is the reason for the merging of the noun ‘book’ and the platform’s partial title; other variations are Bookstagram, Booktwt, and BookTube. The latter is where this literary behaviour appeared. Common readers started to post videos on Youtube in the early 2010s recommending and showing several novels to their viewers. With the appearance of other platforms, many booktubers and other book influencers transferred such trends to shorter videos and instant photographs. Furthermore, a whole jargon has been developed exclusively for the book community. Simply put, “in many ways, content within BookTok is a digital book club for teens, by teens” (Jerasa & Boffone, 2021, p. 221)
The emergence of BookTube has grown out of the contribution of many, particularly that of Cristine Ricci (@polandbananasbooks), who still posts weekly videos about books. However, since the gigantic impact of this visual book club after the pandemic, concern has spread about the advantages and disadvantages of these communities. On the one hand, it is argued how BookTube and its variants have influenced and motivated many young people to read, creating a common unprecedented identity and sense of belonging. On the other hand, it is also discussed that the diversity of topics, books, and genres, and the commercialisation of many booktubers to publishing houses demonstrate the limitations of the book community online. It also fosters the fomenting of competitions between readers to determine who reads more, who owns more books, who has the best criterion, and others. Moreover, many doubt whether those books that are being hugely recognised and even considered booksellers reveal BookTok’s lack of critical thinking and in-depth analysis. For this reason, this article attempts to present several of the main arguments regarding the topic to decide on the position this community has acquired.
It cannot be denied that these communities are already well installed, and with the predominance of social media, they appear most unlikely to fade away any time soon. Certainly, these book-related online discussions have benefits. As mentioned, many young people have been introduced to the act of reading for pleasure because of social media. As Merga (2021), senior lecturer at Edith Cowan University with a specialisation in librarianship, literacy and higher education, maintains, “these videos developed the idea of the reader as attractive. They suggested a common identity […]. The reader community and identity theme delineated a common reader identity or plurality of permissible identities” (Merga, 2021, p. 6). Nonetheless, these permissible identities are restricted to certain categories. For instance, the genres most discussed are those of romance and fantasy, specifically within the Young Adult genre, although Romance has also branched into more adult tropes. The former is dominated by authors such as Colleen Hoover, whereas the latter is by Sarah J. Mass, both authors having penned multiple New York Times bestsellers. Yet, profiles of readers who might dislike or might not be attracted to read their work find it difficult to find peers sharing their opinion, considering that a large part of BookTok is presided over by their fans.
Similarly to readers of classic novels, they are both perceived as elitist due to the academicism behind the novel’s prestige and also as marginalised due to the dominance of genres such as young adult and new adult romance. As Dorothee Birke, associate Professor in English Literature at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, explains, this trend towards academicism is related to the fact that “BookTubers tend to see criticism and reviewing as gatekeeping activities, as jobs that entail exclusivity in two senses: they are reserved for people with a particular kind of education and training, and they are about pronouncing authoritative judgments of quality” (Birke, 2021, p. 160). Therefore, what appears at first glance as an all-inclusive community actually has some gaps or distances online networking cannot cover. That is not to say that these conducts should be generalised. Notwithstanding, BookTok has in fact contributed to the appearance of certain discourses that intersect with education, economic power, and even in some instances age and gender.
All four of those aspects are closely connected to one another. The education an individual can receive hugely depends on their economic capacities and even their gender. In addition, economic power plays a role separately from education in this topic’s point. Firstly, the access, specifically economic, to books and reading is debated regarding BookTok. Two of the most known trends in the book community, Book Hauls and Bookshelf Tours, usually show a copious number of books, generally bought, or provided by publishing houses. As a result, the number of books owned by a reader and how they are presented carry “the participatory pressure to buy and arrange aesthetically pleasing book displays [which] is interrelated with the culturally formed design literacies of BookTubing. Yet, it can also be an economic barrier to entry into the BookTube community or at least becoming a big-name Booktuber” (Ehret et al., 2018, p. 156).
Secondly, the type of booktubers or book influencers mainstreamed are usually white females. Even if there are some renowned male Booktubers such as Jack Edwards (@jack_edwards), the gender gap in the reading population is alarming when discussing whether reading is gendered or not. Correspondingly, the community is fairly racialized with mainstream white influencers, while POC influencers struggle to establish a fellowship. Accounting for the population in BookTok and BookTube, “there is an acute awareness of the potential uneasy position of the young female reader and an assertion of her right to claim practices of reading for herself. It could be argued that, in this sense at least, the typical BookTuber is an heir (or heiress) of Austenian ideals of reader sociality” (Birke, 2021, p. 168). Although reading has ceased to be the acutely private practice from Austenian times, the notion that fiction and romance might be directed towards the female reader and non-fiction and fantasy to the male reader is circulating among some circles of the community again. Therefore, despite the positive effects BookTube and BookTok have had on the reading experience, there are some dangers to be contemplated that might separate certain groups according to their gender, socio-economic status, and reading achievements.
Furthermore, the online book community promotes non-critically acclaimed works, usually in the Romance and Fantasy genres or a combination of both (these also include other genres such as Dark Academia, Young Adult, and Dystopia). In other words, texts belonging to these categories have not been critically analysed by experts, apart from journalists who follow the developments of BookTube and its ramifications. Consequently, because their success is due to a young mindset, the quality of the texts should be questioned in regard to their contribution to current literature beyond the basic plot line. Therefore, it should be of pressing need to at least understand and discover the attraction these plots have on young readers. Obviously, most of the texts must be a door to the discourses imagined by the upcoming generations that find pleasure in these reads.
Overall, the BookTok phenomenon is an example of “TikTok practices as authentic examples of reading engagement and literary communities. […] it reveals the power of reading, the power in community, and the power that teenagers have to imagine new worlds where literature is central to their identities and day-to-day lives” (Jerasa & Boffone, 2021, p. 225). Hence, this article has strived to present both the positive and negative consequences BookTube and BookTok entail as the result of a young population involved in literature and the impact of their opinions and behaviours online. It has been proposed that this section of social media transcends literary criticism but intersects with social issues, such as the economy, gender, and unhealthy competition between emotionally developing individuals. Thus, further research and analysis regarding the topic should be carried out in order to contribute to current literature studies and theory so as to include a younger population in critical thinking. Finally, the significance of BookTube and others have on new trends of literature must be acknowledged and improved with the goal of encompassing a larger diversity of discourses and social groups.
Birke, D. (2021). Social Reading? On the Rise of a “Bookish” Reading Culture Online. Poetics Today, 42 (2), 149-172. https://doi.org/10.1215/03335372-8883178
Ehret, B. Boegel, J. & Manuel-Nekouei, R. (2018). The Role of Affect in Adolescents’ Online Literacies: Participatory Pressures in BookTube Culture. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 62(2), 151-161. https://doi.org/10.1002/jaal.881
Jerasa, S. & Boffone, T. (2021). BookTok 101: TikTok, Digital Literacies, and Out-of-School Reading Practices. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 65(3), 219-226. https://doi.org/10.1002/jaal.1199
Merga, M. (2021). How can BookTok on TikTok Inform Readers’ Advisory Services for Young People? Library & Information Science Research, 43(2), 101091-. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.lisr.2021.101091
Cover image. Retrieved from https://www.covertocover.blog/books-ive-bought-because-of-booktok-3/
Figure 1. Bookstore stand with books trending in BookTok. Retrieved from: https://lomabeat.com/booktok-takes-ya-literature-by-storm/
Figure 2. Some TikToks about Colleen Hoover. Retrieved from: https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/stephaniemcneal/colleen-hoover-booktok-bestsellers
Figure 3. Jack Edwards is one of the few male recognised booktubers. Cover image of one of his videos. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ezDOLO2Fk5I