The following article first appeared in my paid newsletter, The Hot Sheet, which covers book publishing industry news and trends for authors. Learn more.
While book sales were down in 2022 compared to 2021, they’d be down much further if it weren’t for TikTok. In fact, the growing sales of adult fiction since 2020 can be credited partly to TikTok’s influence as well as to Colleen Hoover, who is active there. NPD BookScan’s Kristen McLean has noted in particular, “When we looked at romance author sales earlier this year, it was clear that BookTok is contributing to the most romance gains and helping to create a new romance fan base among young readers. … This truly is a whole new group of readers coming to this genre.”
Consequently, more authors than ever are wondering if they ought to join for the sake of book marketing and promotion. While there isn’t a right answer for everyone, late last year the Women’s Media Group hosted a panel on how to tap into the power of TikTok; it featured two successful self-published authors and a social media manager at Barnes & Noble.
Poet and author Shelby Leigh built her TikTok presence by creating engaging content for people dealing with mental health issues. When she first joined, she had self-published two poetry books; her bestseller of the two was re-published by Simon & Schuster in July 2022 because of her sales track record. She has a third book on the way and left her corporate job to pursue writing full time—and she says no one in the world believes her when she says she’s a full-time writer of poetry books. (Her success feels reminiscent of the success of Rupi Kaur and other Instapoets, who began using Instagram to share poems in the early 2010s and went on to commercial stardom.)
When she joined TikTok, Aparna Verma knew that she wanted to target South Asian readers with her Indian fantasy novel, The Boy with Fire. “One of the pitfalls as authors is we tend to make videos that are writing advice,” she said. “But you have to talk to the people who are going to buy your book, and those are readers.” Her book hit number one on Amazon in its category and was featured on NBC News. It will be republished as The Phoenix King next year by Orbit, a division of Hachette.
Both authors needed some time to warm up to TikTok and be convinced of its value. Leigh said, “It was nerve-wracking and challenging,” and very different from the type of content she was posting on Instagram and Tumblr. Verma was convinced to join by her younger brother, who told her it wasn’t just people dancing. And while B&N social media manager Livy Oftedahl joined TikTok in 2017, it wasn’t until 2020 that she landed on BookTok, where she rediscovered her love for books: “I found this beautiful community of people just talking about genres I really felt attached to.” She now plays a key role in developing Barnes & Noble’s social media content and strategy, particularly its TikTok account, @bnbuzz.
What makes a good BookTok video: Leigh said one of the most important things is hooking people in the first second. “You have to move fast and show your audience something engaging,” which might mean showing something visually interesting or adding text overlay that people will read. That text needs to hook people with a single line. The good news for time-strapped authors: You can use the same format once you’ve found what works. For Leigh, that’s reading poems and doing page-flip videos where you flip through the book, with text overlay and calming music. For nonfiction authors, Leigh recommends speaking directly to the audience related to your nonfiction topic, rather than general BookTokkers. She targets an audience interested in mental health, not poetry lovers. Research other nonfiction writers and readers in your category and see what they’re posting—what style of video. That’s the best way to see what works, she advised.
For novelists, learn the popular BookTok tropes and point to them in your work. Examples of such tropes include the meet-cute and enemies-to-lovers; the best way to learn about such tropes, said Verna, is to simply take a month or more to consume BookTok content and learn about them firsthand from community members. (That said, here’s a list to expedite the process.) Verna will show a quote from her book tied to the trope, then pair it with a Bollywood song or tune to appeal to her audience of South Asians; she knows her audience and what they want to read and calls it out explicitly.
Oftedahl says there are two main video types she uses for Barnes & Noble’s TikTok account. One is a transition video, which is useful for her because she’s working with a lot of books at once. So even if she’s trying to sell a particular title, she will put it next to others. “See this book? These are the rest of them I want you to buy,” is how she described the approach. The other type of video is audio-driven based on TikTok trends. The latter type of video, however, requires consuming a lot of TikTok content so you know what people want to see and hear, then twisting the trend to fit the book you want to put in people’s hands. (Oftedahl mentioned spending hours each week just scrolling through TikTok to absorb trends.)
Engage in the comments for your own videos and on others’ videos. Leigh recommends putting the name of the book in the comments and where to find it—especially if there’s any doubt the video is about a book (rather than, say, something in real life that happened to you). Usually she will add a question to get the audience engaged. Verna said she has created meaningful visibility for herself by commenting on other people’s videos in addition to engaging on her own. It demonstrates to others that she’s an invested member of the community. She will also sometimes post a video reply to a great comment, which TikTok might send out to a totally new audience, alerting more people to her book.
But what about the time sink? Or preparing to look good on camera? It might not be as burdensome as you think. Editing videos on TikTok has become very easy; no third-party apps or fancy tech is required. In fact, getting fancy is antithetical to the point of the platform, where authenticity is prized. “People don’t want to see professionally made videos,” Leigh said. “You can be dressed down. You don’t have to look a certain way. Don’t let that hold you back.” In 90 percent of her videos, Leigh does not show her face; she shows the book. While Verna typically shows herself—a format that works for her, especially since she sometimes wears traditional dress and jewelry—she’s had clients who’ve succeeded with TikTok videos that are very audio focused.
Once you make something and it does well, you can re-purpose or re-use it in many ways. Verna said, “It’s the same content, but just repurposing it by changing one or two things—the text, the song, the intro clip—that’s where you can get really creative. You’re not reinventing the wheel.” If you want to see explosive growth, Verna recommends posting three videos a day to help ensure that at least one breaks out. “It’s very much a numbers game,” she said. But once you find a format that really works for you, things become much easier. Today, someone like Leigh can get a meaningful video up in five minutes. And don’t assume that longer is better; Leigh typically produces content that’s less than 30 seconds, with seven to 15 seconds being a common recommendation in the community.
While TikTok is characterized as a young people’s platform, it has more than a billion users and encompasses people from all ages and walks of life. “There are going to be readers for you on TikTok,” Leigh said. “It’s just down to content. I’ve seen authors of all genres succeed.” However, for better or worse, the general BookTok hashtag has become overused, and it’s tough to research and understand the community from that alone. “What you really have to do is find something a lot more specific to the audience you’re looking for,” Oftedahl said. Then, once you’ve found your community, interact with them as much as possible. “No one wants an idol they look up to. They want a person they can talk to.”
If you’re interested in learning TikTok, join me and Rebecca Regnier in March for the online class TikTok Basics for Writers.
Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has nearly 25 years of experience in the media & publishing industry. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.
In addition to being a professor with The Great Courses (How to Publish Your Book), she is the author of The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), which received a starred review from Library Journal.
Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as Digital Book World and Frankfurt Book Fair, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.