For better or worse: TikTok and Instagram changing the literary world

Leslie Farwell, Contributing Writer

Popularized by the growth of the TikTok space in 2020, places like #Booktok and #Bookstagram are growing daily. These platforms have helped grow wider audiences and connect Millennials and Gen Z to the world of reading.

Tables labeled with “As seen on Booktok” or “Bookstagram favs: Enemies to lovers” tables are popping up throughout bookstores and on display at libraries with the well-known books of the moment. They have helped stores know which books to order and market to go with the trends.

For example, Adam Silvera, the author of They Both Die at the End, describes the sudden bump in sales years after publication to NBC News’s Connor Murray in the article “TikTok is taking the book industry by storm, and retailers are taking notice.”

“I kept commenting to my readers, ‘Hey, don’t know what’s happening, but there’s been a surge in sales lately, so grateful that everybody’s finding the story years later … then that’s when a reader was like, ‘I’m seeing it on BookTok’” Silvera said.

Currently, it’s the number one book on The New York Times Young Adult Paperback bestsellers list, but this isn’t unusual for books that have gone viral.

Getting a book published is like winning a lottery – one that many hopefully writers wish to achieve and something Chloe Gong was able to do. Gong is a New York Times Bestseller author and her debut novel These Violent Delights is a YA retelling of Shakespeare’s classic Romeo and Juliet. The novel is set in Shanghai in the 1920s with Roma Montagov and Juliette Cai being the children of rival gangs battling for control of the city. 

Gong joined TikTok to connect to the Gen Z community since they were her primary audience as her publication date neared, the New York Post shares in an article. The book has been credited as one of the best books from 2020 by Barnes and Noble.

Not all authors receive immediate praise for their work on these platforms, some find their flaws on public display instead. YA and middle-grade author Alex Aster is currently facing criticism for her newest novel Lightlark after her concept pitch went viral on TikTok in 2020. 

Throughout her journey of writing, she shared small segments of it in her videos, mentioning tropes and quotes that will be used, but when ARC readers received their copies some felt disappointed. They pointed out that many of the key aspects that drew them in through these sneak peeks got cut. Others voiced concern once news of her movie deal with Universal got out, questioning if she is an industry plant. Through all of the criticism, Lightlark currently has ~3.4 stars from almost 9,000 ratings on Goodreads.

While Booktok is marketing to Gen Z, many of the YA readers on these platforms aren’t the target audience the book was written for. Of course, non-teens can read YA, but to be upset when the books lack mature scenes and request more seems silly. NA (New Adult) is a genre that emerged around the same time that YA became popular offering books written in similar styles along with plot points/tropes with more mature content that YA can’t include. 

Sarah J. Maas is a prime example with her series A Court of Thorns and Roses. The first book is a YA retelling of Beauty and the Beast, but once book two was released in the series it became clear that the series has changed to NA. To this day A Court of Silver Flames, the newest release, is still marketed as YA in stores like Barnes and Noble, even though Maas herself has said it’s not and the content isn’t appropriate for younger readers.

While these changes can’t be attributed entirely to just TikTok and Instagram, there is a portion of truth in the idea that these platforms have contributed to the shift in the market.  Social media is neither good nor bad (just like the hashtag platforms found within them) as long as the user is choosing to abide by the rules of the spaces. In the future, as our society becomes more influenced by social media it will be interesting to see how Gen Z and #Booktok and #Bookstagram continue to redefine reading and success in the literary world.