I have an American friend who loves reading, but is clueless about technology. The last time I visited him he was still using Internet Explorer, which even Microsoft has given up on. My friend was puzzled when he walked into his local bookshop and was met by a table of books with the sign ‘#BookTok made me read it’. Soon afterwards I received a bewildered WhatsApp message: ‘What is BookTok?!’
Until recently, I didn’t know. Before the pandemic, I was a working stand-up comic. I’ve never been on television and you probably haven’t heard of me, but I was happy. I worked six nights a week, made enough to pay the bills and was recognised occasionally by someone in Tesco. And then came lockdown.
The life I had grown accustomed to vanished practically overnight. I handled it poorly. I don’t know if you’ve ever been around a comedian who can’t perform, but I’ve been told it’s like spending time with a toddler who isn’t yours — cute for a bit, but soon tiresome, and then insufferable. A friend gently suggested I needed an outlet. I joined TikTok and started writing a novel.
One of those things is easier than the other. To join TikTok, you simply install the app and sign over your data to Xi Jinping. You then land on the FYP (For You Page). Here you see one-minute videos featuring, for example, male voice choirs, a physicist talking about antimatter, and a nice young lady selling tubs of her bath water to her ‘simps’ (a TikTok word for men who dote on girls on the internet). Your engagement with each video — how long you watch it for, whether or not you comment on it — teaches the AI what you’re into. In time, TikTok will know you better than your own mother. Former Obama speechwriter Jon Lovett once commented on how terrifyingly quickly his FYP became the home of hot guys and grilled cheese recipes. He didn’t know that’s what he was looking for, but TikTok did.
I became hooked on #BookTok, a community of booklovers on TikTok. This community shares commentary about literature in one-minute videos. These can take many forms, from the basic ‘Books on BookTok that are actually worth the hype’ to the surprisingly effective ‘Convincing you to read my favourite books by just telling you their first line’.
#BookTok became a part of my lockdown routine. I’d wake up, write 1,000 words of my own book, attempt some exercise, abandon the exercise and start scrolling. I was inspired to re-read old favourites — I took down my copy of The Silmarillion from the top of my bookcase for the first time in years to argue better with TikTok Tolkien theorists over whether Orcs are Chaotic Evil or Neutral Evil. I’ve also made new discoveries. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller was mentioned on my FYP so many times, I had to see what all the fuss was about. The TikTok algorithm had decided what would interest me — and it was right.
#BookTok is a force to be reckoned with. At the time of writing the hashtag has more than ten billion views. This audience has revived lost classics and created bestsellers. The publishing world has been forced to take note. Some one-minute literary review videos can get millions of views, and popular users are now paid by publishers to promote titles.
Like many other communities, #BookTok is not immune to culture wars. Videos in praise of the Harry Potter series always receive ‘J.K. is a transphobe’ comments. You may inadvertently learn that your childhood favourite is now ‘problematic AF’. The trick is not to hate-watch these videos, as tempting as that may be. Swipe away quickly and you’ll soon get back to ‘Books I would sell my soul for to read again for the first time’ and the often hilarious — if painfully accurate — ‘What your favourite author says about you’.
When I saw the passion that people on #BookTok have for stories, I was more motivated to get on with my own. I finished my novel, Evergreen, late last year. I have decided to ignore traditional publishing routes and make my work available online. As well as releasing chapters of my book in podcast form, I’ll be posting minute-sized instalments on TikTok. Users will be able to listen to Evergreen as a playlist, and it will also be available for ‘stitching’ and ‘dueting’ (TikTok functions that let you splice someone else’s content with your own) so my work can be judged in other users’ videos.
Fantasy is the genre of choice on #BookTok, so I hope that my tale of ‘Biblical Adam living through history to rescue Eve from a judgy God’ will appeal. I’m putting my faith in the internet — and the #BookTok community. It may sound bonkers, but on TikTok all things are possible (except criticism of the CCP).