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The Quad: BookTok brings back print books, builds ‘tight-knit communities’

(Isabella Lee/Illustrations Director)

By Riley De Jong

May 17, 2023 3:50 p.m.

This post was updated May 23 at 9:53 p.m.

Did you know books can be used for more than decoration on your TV stand or to steady your wobbly dining table? BookTok did.

Print book sales have been in decline for years, with many people turning to social media platforms to fill their free time. However, the growth of online literary communities has made reading a trending topic and books hot, new commodities.

This growth can partially be attributed to the popularization of online communities of book lovers. According to Forbes, U.S.-based publishers sold more than 825 million print books in 2021, an almost 9% increase in sales compared to the year before, demonstrating how people are rediscovering their love and interest in fiction and nonfiction alike.

Third-year economics student Anna Williams said assigned reading in high school drained her motivation to read for pleasure. It wasn’t until recently that Williams said she decided to give the hobby another go, with a little encouragement.

“This past Christmas, she (my mom) bought me the book (“The Light We Carry” by Michelle Obama) and I was like, OK, I’m going to read it because, you know, I feel bad if I don’t,” Williams said. “And so I read it and I was like, ‘Wait, this is actually really enjoyable.’ I kind of forgot that you can just read for fun.”

BookTok, BookTube and Bookstagram refer to the groups of people promoting and reviewing books on the social media platforms TikTok, YouTube and Instagram, respectively. These communities influenced dramatic growth in book sales throughout the pandemic. According to Vox, the book market grew 21% between 2019 and 2021; in previous years, growth was closer to 3% to 4%. Book sales across genres fell by 1% at the beginning of 2023, with the exception of authors who were popular on TikTok.

Jenna Neumann, a third-year English student, said she frequently uses communities such as BookTube to hear new perspectives on books that she has read recently, in addition to discussing them with her friends.

“I think there’s a desire to read and people are re-realizing that they actually do like to read,” Neumann said.

According to HootSuite, social media users engaging with content in online reading communities have become increasingly active, with reading-related videos on TikTok amassing more than 29.1 billion views.

Stay-at-home mom Cloe Beane’s Bookstagram account, @readingwith_cloe, has more than 10,000 followers, all of whom look to Beane for book reviews and recommendations. Beane said in an emailed statement that she recalls being an avid reader from a young age, at the encouragement of her mother.

“I remember being in third grade and constantly having a book in my hand,” Beane said. “I loved going to the school and public library and picking out new books each week!”

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Beane created her Bookstagram account. Throughout her three years in the online reading community, Beane said she has noticed that particular genres and themes have become popularized. Readers have begun to speak about their preferences more freely, with less fear of judgment.

“I’ve noticed a lot of fantasy and romance books have become more popular,” Beane said. “And not just your common romance, but ‘smut’ romance if you will.”

Stephanie Gray, a speech-language pathologist whose Bookstagram account, @stephonashelf, boasts more than 25,000 followers, said in an emailed statement that she has seen an increase in reading and the ability of smaller authors to gain readership.

“I think it’s so cool that just people who are passionate about reading are inspiring other people to read more or guiding the types of books that get exposure!” Gray said in the emailed statement. “It’s given more highlight to indie authors I think to expand their brand.”

According to the magazine L’Officiel, some publishers and booksellers have begun adding special-edition stickers to books that have gained popularity on TikTok.

Additionally, many bookstores have started arranging novels made popular by BookTok, BookTube or Bookstagram on tables or in windows at the front of the store for easy access, according to Bloomberg. Barnes and Noble also has a page on its website dedicated to books popularized by TikTok.

For some, these flourishing online reading platforms have created tight-knit communities, providing social media users with a place to share their passions and thoughts about their recent reads with their peers.

“It reminds me of how excited kids used to get when we would have book fairs in elementary school,” Neumann said. “And that reminds me of how fun it was to get books there and then talk about what you were reading with your friends. It’s sort of mirroring that in our older years.”

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