PUBLISHED NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2021
by Alexa Bigwarfe
, the founder and creative director, Write|Publish|Sell --
The social media platform has entered as a gladiator in the book marketing arena.
- TikTok is a social media platform in which you can create and share videos that other people can watch, share, and even use to recreate their own videos.
- The playing field of TikTok is relatively even. You don’t have to be famous or throw a ton of marketing dollars at it to see success.
- There is a robust community of voracious readers using TikTok to discuss books and authors. The largest community is currently #BookTok.
TikTok can be a very powerful tool for both authors and publishers, but it requires an investment of time to learn how to use it well. This includes building relationships with other users to amplify your success and creating an effective marketing strategy.
I originally had a strong aversion to using the app, but I started paying more attention when my team member Cayce LaCorte (@bookmama
) went viral. Her account grew to over 40,000 followers (from about 10,000) in under two days. Around the same time, I noticed #BookTok also showing up on Instagram (my primary social media tool).
Still, I was reluctant to add another social media platform to my list. I created a TikTok account about a year ago in a training session, but I hadn’t done anything with it other than one little video, and I dreaded the idea of committing to it. However, my gut instinct told me this was something I needed to pay attention to, so I started slowly by adding #BookTok to the content I follow on Instagram. I was scrolling through my feed on Instagram one afternoon and saw a post on the #BookTok feed that literally stopped the scroll. It was a picture of a #BookTok table at a Barnes & Noble store. My mind was blown that a major retailer like B&N was including a big table prominently featuring the books that are trending the highest in the #BookTok community on TikTok. Now this was something worth taking note of.
FYI, it’s not #BookTok on Instagram that is taking the retail world by storm. It’s TikTok that is causing a frenzy around some books and authors. This social media tool is now unequivocally driving book sales in a way that’s been hard to measure from other social media outlets. TikTok has entered as a gladiator in the book marketing arena.
A little more research showed me that Bookshop
, Barnes & Noble
, and many more book retailers are now curating online shopping lists under #BookTok and displaying #BookTok books in their stores. It doesn’t matter if these books are published by the trade, small or large houses, or are from self-published authors. What matters is that they are getting all the buzz on TikTok.
TikTok 101: What Is TikTok?
TikTok is a social media platform in which you can create and share videos that other people can watch, share, and even use to recreate their own videos. The ability to recreate videos is one of the most powerful features of TikTok, as the "dueting" and "stitching" features allow users to take clips from your video and respond to it in their own way.
TikTok, which currently only allows for videos, is focused on community building. Unlike other social media platforms, where people basically only see your content if they are following you or a specific hashtag (like #BookTok) you’ve used, TikTok has an incredibly smart algorithm that works hard to make sure other people who have the same interests see the most buzzworthy content. The algorithm monitors the user’s activities and serves content that it thinks the user will like, even if you are not following that person on a particular hashtag.
How it Works
As LaCorte explained in a recent workshop, TikTok operates in a balloon effect. When you publish a video, it first serves it up to the people who follow you and any of the hashtags you’re using. If your followers engage and respond, it starts to show it to a few more people. If those people continue to engage and respond, share, and use the TikTok tools, it shows the content to even more people.
The dueting and stitching features allow content to have a massive reach when the right people share to their own communities. As more people engage and respond, TikTok rewards this by putting the video front in of more and more people. Unlike other tools where it has to be shared by someone (or to use a hashtag) that you’re following to see it, TikTok will show you content just based on your interests and activities. This is delivered in the “For You Page” section of your account.
The videos that are getting the most attention will show up on the For You Page, which is content that TikTok believes you’d be interested in, even if you aren’t following those accounts, based on your activity. Therefore, it’s easier to go viral on TikTok because the app actually helps share videos for you.
Why the Sudden Rage?
Simply put, it’s driving people to purchase books in an enormous way.
The truly exciting part about #BookTok is that the playing field of TikTok is relatively even. You don’t have to be famous or throw a ton of marketing dollars to see success. It’s where the non-famous people go to become famous. Yes, some well-known authors are getting a massive boost from being on TikTok, but unknown authors are seeing a good deal of success, too—all stemming from the actions of ordinary people creating an extraordinary phenomenon.
This is one of many examples we could share. Madisen Kuhn is a young poet who suddenly saw her poetry anthologies go to their highest rank ever on Amazon this past January. She credits this to one of her readers making a TikTok video that was one of her poems set to music. That video went mega-viral and exposed her to an audience that never would have found her. And they didn’t just buy one of her poetry books; they bought all of her books, going all the way back to her 2015 self-published debut.
The biggest success comes from the content showing up in front of the right communities, as demonstrated by Kuhn’s success. Some of this is just plain luck: the right person taking your content and doing the right thing at the right time with it.
So, what does it take to create content that has a better chance of going viral?
Find Your ‘Communities’
TikTokers unite around just about every subject known to man. The “communities” aren’t separate groups that you have to join to be a part of, but rather are curated with the users who participate in content creation, viewing, and reactions to content organized by hashtags. TikTok users refer to the hashtags as “communities” because that’s how they know how to find the content they want and interact with it. The focus on community is a big part of the growth potential. While other social media tools have hashtags and sharing functions, TikTok is designed in a way that rapidly disseminates content that is getting a lot of engagement.
There is a robust community of voracious readers using TikTok to discuss books and authors. The largest community (at the time of the writing of this article) around book discussions is #BookTok.
Find your people! Beyond #BookTok, you’ll want to find the other communities on TikTok where people share similar interests to your target readers. It’s in these more niche communities that your content will be seen and shared.
When you decide to use TikTok, you have to understand that it’s more than just posting content to have success. As a user, you have to also spend some time watching and engaging. The algorithm learns by your activity how to not only give information to you, but how to position your content for other people who behave in a similar way.
Like all social media, TikTok rewards active and engaged users.
How You Can Use it as a Publisher
Find your readers! Find the communities and the people who love the topics that you’re publishing about. You can use TikTok as a publisher, creating fun content around your books and your authors. These can be lovely videos of books, the interiors, bookshelves, videos of your authors at signing events or their books in bookstores, etc. Be mindful of your audience. If you’re looking to use TikTok to sell your authors’ books, gear your efforts to the readers and reviewers of those books. If you’re looking to use it to recruit authors, focus your efforts primarily on the work that you do for authors.
Encourage your authors to get on board. If video scares them, rest assured, there are many ways to use TikTok without ever putting your face on video. You can film your bookshelf, still images set to music with text, and even create your own reactions to other people’s content—also without putting your face in the video.
Obviously, just posting a video on TikTok, without doing it strategically, may not be terribly effective.
Spend some time studying the tool, how people are using it, and its different functions. Find the right hashtags and optimize your account to be as visible as possible in front of your target audience. You can search the biggest hashtags in the search tool—around reading, authors, publishing, or the specific topics of your books. Save those to your favorites, and the content will show up in your For You Page section of TikTok.
Making the Shift
There’s no magic fairy dust that will magically make you famous or make your books sell just because you posted a video and used #BookTok. Like anything else, you have to learn and use the tool effectively and get your books in front of the people who will talk about them. Everything I know about TikTok I learned from brand strategist Socially Nina, my team member Cayce, and by spending hours as a spectator on the app. I also want to credit my team for the research conducted by studying TikTok and #BookTok, speaking with representatives from Barnes & Noble, and reviewing the news happening around TikTok.
Create a strategy that focuses on interacting with the rabid readers of #BookTok. It’s a solid growth strategy that builds long-term brand awareness.
- Download the TikTok app from your preferred app store.
- Set up your account.
- Search relevant hashtags and add them to your favorites.
- Browse the content and follow the accounts that are most relevant.
- Engage with and observe those accounts.
- Start creating your own content.
- Spend some time lurking: Watch videos, engage, share, and see what others are doing. This not only helps the TikTok algorithm get smarter about your account, it will help you come up with ideas on how you can use your account to grow readers.
- Visit bookstores and see which books they have featured on their #BookTok table. Follow and watch those accounts.
- Check out the workshop “TikTok Basics for Authors.”
- Have fun marketing your company and books!
Alexa Bigwarfe is the founder and creative director of Write|Publish|Sell, a company dedicated to helping authors succeed in publishing quality indie books and marketing with success. She is flanked by a dedicated team of incredible women.