From book talk to BookTok


Nabil Tahir


November 27, 2022


Relaxation and leisure has different meanings for everyone. While some of us become couch potatoes and watch TV, others glue their eyes to their smartphones and float into their world of newsfeeds, CandyCrush, and Game of Drones. Then there are those who open a big, fat book and drift into their chosen escape from reality. Reading is a big part of book lovers’ lives and something that they love to do at bedtime, on vacation and simply wherever and whenever they find the time.

Defying common belief that social media killed our love for books, just the way Video killed the radio star [remember the 1980 song by The Buggles], the emergence of communities such as Bookstagram on Instagram in 2014, and Booktube in 2010 on Youtube tells a different story. Ofcourse, people had more leisure time during the pandemic, but in 2021 when the pandemic was waning, over 825 million print books were sold in the US (an annual increase of 9%).

This winter’s hottest pastime is reading, thanks to BookTok, a subculture on TikTok, the popular social media platform for entertainment enthusiasts. Globally launched in 2016, it has more than 1.2 billion active users, despite the flak it gets for its ‘cringe’ factor, including complaints such as ‘The audience is too young’, ‘TikTok is just for lip-synching and dancing’, ‘it is a fad’ and ‘it is not serious’. Quite popular in Pakistan, TikTok often makes news headlines for some interesting as well as some unsavoury reasons, mostly to do with its content or users.

But people who find it difficult to believe that millennials read or that Tiktok, a social media platform for short and light-heart videos can actually encourage an activity like reading which requires deep concentration, are in for a big surprise.

TikTok’s BookTok community was formed in 2020 and the trend has exploded with a growing number of readers who post book reviews and engage with authors, while the latter use it to promote their work.

In September, this year on International Literacy Day, TikTok launched their trend #BookTok in Pakistan, with an aim to uplift a growing community of readers and to revive the love of reading, literature and poetry. Since then, the trend has attracted book lovers and publishers, many of whom have showcased their books and promoted authors on this platform.

BookTok for authors

Reading is a habit we generally pick up as children. When we grow up and as responsibilities set in, other forms of entertainment and mainly social media steals most of our leisure time, so we don’t get to read as much.

TikTok’s trend #BookTok is a global campaign to encourage the love of reading, learning and literature and has garnered 90.4 billion views worldwide. Since book lovers in Pakistan have a historical affinity for literature and poetry, the local campaign focuses on young adults who share book recommendations, thereby facilitating a cross-pollination of readers, and creating more visibility for this new book community.

According to the data provided by TikTok, #BookTok has created 298,000 videos from readers, publishers, known and self-published authors, viewed 925 million times since its launch in Pakistan.

Maryam Arif is the youngest self-published author in Pakistan. The 18-year-old uses a variety of social media platforms and advertising sites, including Facebook and Instagram Ads, Amazon Advertising, KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) Select and giveaways, Guest Post and TikTok to market her books. TikTok, Arif believes is one platform where she not only gets free promotion of her books, but can also reach out to more like-minded people.

“I have been making BookToks for a while now,” says Arif, whose TikTok handle @itsmaryamarif has an estimated three million views. “TikTok has created BookTok, a popular place for those interested in reading and writing books, and it has helped increase my audience.”

Arif’s self-help books are among the most viewed on BookTok. “I usually share a couple of things from my books and people love that,” she says. “My website is linked to my TikTok account, and the attention and visibility my books get is directly converted into sales,” says Arif, who also uses #maryamarif in her videos that have been viewed 2.7 million times, while her hashtag has been viewed 271,000 times.

Initially, she posted for fun and shared her favourite books on TikTok, but she noticed that the views increased steadily. It was during lockdown, when one of her videos got over 10,000 likes in a day that she decided to post content daily.

“How you deliver your content on TikTok matters because that is what ultimately generates sales,” she says, discussing marketing strategies for the app. “Many people approach me at my university, simply because they have seen my content on TikTok, through which they found out what my books are about. This is how I discovered that TikTok actually helps to sell books.”

Last May, as a panelist on the Digital Marketing Consortium, at the Comsats University, Islamabad, Arif discussed the effectiveness of BookTok and how BookTokers are a growing community online, even though compared to other TikTok trends, fewer people BookTok in South Asia.

BookTok for readers

Millions of readers post about what they have read and share their reviews, and recommendations on BookTok. When authors promote their books, readers watch their videos and buy books based on their recommendations. TikTok has an option where publishers can add books, readers can discuss the book and add the publisher’s book link in their video. This way, a separate page is created for a specific book that carries its description and readers’ reviews.

Nameera Humayun, a 22-year old book enthusiast was casually scrolling TikTok one day, when she came across a girl talking about books. Intrigued, she studied the girl’s profile and content only to discover the world of BookTokers. “I discovered millions of BookTokers around the world,” says Humayun. “It’s crazy how we are all connected through books that we love. And the creativity that BookTokers use to talk about books, through in-app filters, is astounding.”

While exploring BookTok, Humayun kept adding books to her ‘To Be Read’ list. Since her TikTok account was all about book content, she decided to make her own BookToks. “I started reviewing books and made videos for book recommendations, book trends, guessing the book title, etc,” she explains with joy and enthusiasm. “I use BookTok to show my love for books, have made many new BookToker friends and I post content daily.”

BookTok has something for everyone. Some look for book recommendations and reviews, while others like Humayun like to step out of her comfort zone to explore different book genres.

New or old, everything is gold on BookTok

“Out of the millions of users on TikTok, someone starts talking about an old and forgotten book, others join in, and it starts trending,” says Humayun, explaining how books read in the past and forgotten, outdated books or ones that did not become popular at the time of publishing are also seeing a revival on BookTok.

Sameer Saleem, who heads Liberty Books, agrees. “BookTok has given a new life to books that were published over a decade ago but had not become popular at the time,” he says. “People discover them on BookTok and suddenly they are asking for those books.”

Humayun says that some books published ten years ago became popular again because of BookTokers promoting them. “Some publishers had to reprint 10,000 copies a month to meet the sudden demand,” she shares. “Authors who promoted their debut novels on BookTok also sold well.”

BookTok for publishers

BookTok trickled down to book stores, taking the shape of specialised #BookTok and #TikTokMadeMeBuyIt booths. As part of the stores’ promotional activities for publishers, through these booths, Liberty bookstore not only found a large group of book enthusiasts under one roof, but also got to know their opinions on specific books without having to conduct a survey to find out what genres interest them.

“During the pandemic, we came across BookToks and started making videos of the books available at our stores,” says Saleem explaining his company’s motivation for the booths. “Soon we started getting book requests from customers and we found out that the books they wanted in stores were TikTok recommendations. It was interesting to note that these book lovers buying books from BookTok shelves are 15 to 27 years old.”

The book requests were listed, scrutinised, and included in a special section in-store and online for people to buy. “Other social media platforms are also popular for book recommendations,” says Saleem. But TikTok has more traction and the added benefit is that people get to know where to buy books from,”

Arif believes that BookTok offers an easier and faster marketing strategy that publishers should opt for instead of organising traditional book launch events. “It is a brilliant way to help people find their next read, because it tells you about recent releases and what the hype is all about on TikTok,” she says.

Future of BookTok in Pakistan

In less than three months after its launch in Pakistan, BookTok is rapidly becoming popular as readers, authors and publishers discover new ways to use the platform.

“Book piracy is a huge issue in our country, and we have been talking about it on many platforms,” says Saleem, discussing his company’s plan to educate readers about the demerits of book piracy on BookTok. “Hopefully, we will talk to a larger audience here that a pirated book is cheaper, but has missing or swapped chapters, missing text, print errors, and that it damages authors’ royalties.”

Since BookToks are short and fun, it is an exciting way for readers to pick books. “TikTok provides attention to new and old writers and attention is the new currency,” says Arif who plans to create as much TikTok content as possible to help provide value and knowledge to the younger generation that dominates TikTok.”

Humayun wants to take BookTok to the next level by testing her potential with it. “I plan to upload BookToks every day, develop a larger audience and connect with them,” she says.

Even though, only a few Pakistani publishers are on TikTok. Once they get their books on TikTok, use book links and videos links and create dedicated book lists, it will not only boost their low-selling books, but will also serve as a free marketing tool for those who cannot afford to get their book published and marketed otherwise. The immense potential of this trend is yet to be explored in our country, but BookTok can’t stop talking about books, and is here to stay.

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