Authors Can Still Clock Huge Sales Thanks to TikTok’s Reader Community
In the past three years, TikTok, the wildly popular short-form video sharing platform, has become a powerful tool for authors to connect with bookish communities and establish their brand. Just as the platform itself has seen its popularity grow since the app became available for US users in 2018, the #BookTok tag, which came about nearly two years later amid pandemic lockdowns, has followed a similar upward trend. And neither shows any signs of slowing soon.
Indie Author Magazine has covered how authors can kick-start their TikTok success in a Ten Tips article (https://indieauthormagazine.com/ten-tips-for-tiktok/) written by Lasairiona McMaster, but for those still on the fence about using the platform, we’re exploring how TikTok can make a difference to those looking to grow their author brand.
How Important Is TikTok to Authors?
TikTok is arguably the most important promotional tool available to authors today.
According to an Exploding Topics article by Josh Howarth dated June 2, 2023, BookTok was TikTok’s number 2 ranked keyword, meaning that the keyword has had well over one hundred billion views.
And BookTok’s popularity among readers doesn’t just translate to more publicity. According to a Business Insider article dated May 18, 2023, “The BookTok phenomenon helped send book sales to an all-time high and reignite a love of reading.” And many authors’ individual sales numbers have proven it. Stone Maidens, a novel written by Lloyd Devereux Richards and originally published in 2012, sold more than one hundred thousand copies after Richards’s daughter’s TikTok about the book went viral earlier this year.
Says Lila DuBois, an award-winning author and TikTok expert, “TikTok is currently the biggest book platform, with Barnes & Noble even dedicating entire tables to BookTok-recommended books.” She compared these tables of books to the end caps dedicated to New York Times bestsellers. DuBois is a co-host of the TikTok module in the Self Publishing Formula’s Ads for Authors course alongside Jayne Rylon. “The app’s influence on book sales is significant, making it a crucial platform for authors to engage with readers.”
That said, a Publishers Weekly article dated August 18, 2023, indicates that, according to BookScan, “BookTok’s effect on sales is diminishing.” Sales for the 180 BookTok authors that BookScan follows dipped in July by about 4.5 percent compared with the prior year, the first time it has happened since 2019, according to the report. The trend matches numbers seen in the rest of the industry; according to Publishers Weekly, “Total adult fiction unit sales have fallen every week since late June and are now up only 1.4% through August 12,” and BookScan analyst Kristen McLean “explained that BookTok author sales couldn’t continue to increase at the rate they had when the platform started to become a major discovery engine in 2020.” According to McLean, consumers have been reading less since COVID-19 restrictions were lifted, which has contributed to the downturn, though she credits BookTok with being one of the industry’s most important platforms by which readers can discover new authors.
What Works, and What Doesn’t?
While Romance and Fantasy genres have seen a proliferation on TikTok, DuBois explains that BookTok represents a diverse range of genres, catering to readers of all preferences. TikTok’s visual medium has also contributed to the resurgence of the print book market, as BookTok creators enjoy showcasing physical books and building collections. Some indie authors are now even making special edition books for BookTok readers. For example, a special edition of Fourth Wing by Rebecca Yarros includes foil on the hardcover, dragons stenciled on the edge, and a reverse dust jacket. The books sold out in record time, and forthcoming books won’t have the stenciling.
To ensure your content reaches your targeted TikTok or BookTok audience, DuBois emphasizes the importance of training your algorithm. This involves following book-related accounts, engaging with book videos, and aligning your content with BookTok customs, norms, and trends. DuBois recommends dedicating time to training your algorithm before jumping into content creation. Attending live author events and interacting with the audience is another way to grow your following.
TikTok offers two account choices, personal and business. The choice between the two accounts depends on the individual author’s needs and understanding of TikTok’s terms of service. Authors should review the updated (as of July 2023, at the time of this writing) terms of service in order to make an informed decision on which account would meet their needs.
But I Don’t Want to Be On Camera!
While TikTokers appear to prefer authenticity and off-the-cuff content, DuBois suggests that being on camera isn’t necessarily a requirement for popularity. Authors who are uncomfortable on camera can still create engaging content and inform their audience about their books through other creative means. However, TikTok has a bias toward content created within the app, rather than imported from other sources. For example, book trailers pulled from another platform that have the black strip across the top and bottom of the video typically don’t get a lot of traction. In fact, book trailers in general don’t have a wide reach. (This author learned that the hard way.) BookBrush has a TikTok template, but keep in mind DuBois’s warning about TikTok’s bias.
Although not as popular as they once were, authors still use page-flip videos when they don’t want to appear in a live video. One great alternative to having your face on camera is showing off your book haul, book mail, and/or your favorite reads in a certain category. These are all done with the camera focusing on the books. Short quotes and snippets from books are good, but make sure you’re not just promoting your own book. This is a community of book lovers. If you’re always only providing content about your book, other BookTok users will quickly tire of that.
To avoid having all your videos be about people buying your book, recommend other authors’ books, talk about audiobook narrators you enjoy, interview your or another author’s characters, or compare a book you loved with its cinematic counterpart. Limit your hashtags. Dubois cautions that TikTok isn’t like Instagram where the more hashtags you have, the better. Using fewer, more specific hashtags is treated more kindly by the TikTok algorithm.
If you aren’t camera-shy but don’t feel you’re looking your best, there are plenty of filters that can make you look cute, weird, distorted, or downright creepy. While you don’t want the filter to be too distracting, the right one might make you feel more confident about appearing on camera, or it might enhance your brand in an Alice Cooper/rock horror sort of way.
Authors often record videos in front of their bookshelves. This is a strong visual cue to people scrolling through their feed that this person is an author or book reviewer and that this is likely a BookTok.
DuBois highlights the importance of utilizing TikTok’s unique features, such as duets and stitches, to enhance engagement with other users’ content. Duets enable authors to film themselves alongside another user’s video, while stitches allow the use of up to five seconds of another person’s video as a seamless transition into your own. Understanding how and when to use these features can greatly enhance your TikTok presence.
“Authors cannot afford to ignore TikTok and BookTok any longer,” says DuBois. The misconception that TikTok is primarily for kids is dispelled by the fact that the fastest-growing group of influencers on the platform is over the age of fifty. Authors should consider embracing TikTok as an essential part of their marketing strategy to connect with readers and expand their reach.
TikTok has become an indispensable platform for authors looking to establish their brand and connect with bookish communities. By training your algorithm, aligning your content with BookTok trends, and utilizing features like duets and stitches, indie authors can effectively reach their target audience and thrive on TikTok. As Lila DuBois suggests, it’s time for authors to recognize the power of TikTok and embrace BookTok as an integral part of their book marketing journey.
Good luck, and happy BookTokking!
In addition to hosting the Ads for Authors TikTok module, DuBois and Rylon offer a ten-day intensive workshop to authors looking to reach new audiences on the platform. Want to try it for yourself? Visit http://tiktoksellsbooks.com, and use code TTSBindie50 for $50 off an upcoming class.