Arts & Culture Books

TikTok has become a Best-Selling machine, surging book sales

The success of Cain’s Jawbone, Iron Widow, and the author Colleen Hoover can be credited to Booktok.

Booktok is a tag and community on Tiktok where countless booklovers discuss, recommend, review and critique books, and as an avid reader myself, being on it is a must for discovering new books and authors. 

Before the Booktok community was formed in 2020, there was never a specific place where I could get my book recommendations from, always having to search for them myself. I constantly googled “Best Romance Books,” or “Best Fantasy Books,” but the websites that popped up always recommended the same books. However, ever since joining Booktok, the variety and diversity of books I have consumed have increased dramatically. In fact, almost all of the 30+ books I have read and bought in 2022 have been from Tiktok, and one of my favourite authors, Ana Huang, was actually introduced to me through a Tiktok urging me to read her books. 

And it isn’t just me. 

In fact, the social media platform Tiktok is accredited by Booknet Canada for a majority of the rise of book sales during the pandemic. From the lowest number of sales in September 2019 to the highest number of sales in December 2021, that’s an increase of 2,166%.  With over 88 billion views, the tag has helped revive old and backlisted books and launch new authors’ careers and their books. 

Cain’s Jawbone, published in 1934, wasn’t being read much until a viral Tiktok post brought new attention to it. Written by Edward Powys Mathers, the book is a murder mystery about the death of six people. To solve the puzzle, the reader must identify the full names of all six victims and the murderer or murderers. The reader must also sort and arrange the 100 pages in correct chronological order, as they are printed in random order. However, as the book was written in 1934, lots of the language and subtext were near impossible to understand and decipher. To this day, only three people have solved the mystery.

The reason why Cain’s Jawbone resurfaced almost a century later can be credited to a creator on Booktok. In late 2021, TikToker Sarah Scannell posted about picking up Cain’s Jawbone at San Francisco’s Green Apple Books. Her video went viral, garnering millions of views. The novel was immediately sold out on the publisher’s website Unbound and Amazon, with orders in the US over 10,000 copies, and Canada with over 3,000 in just one week. Due to high demand, the publishers reprinted 10,000 copies, and yet even that wasn’t enough. Those copies also sold out, so Cain’s Jawbone was reprinted another 70,000 times. 

Iron Widow is another novel that became a big hit because of its popularity on Booktok. The novel is a mecha reimagining of the rise of Chinese Emperor Wu Zetian, who was the first and only female emperor of China. The book, written by Xiran Jay Zhao, was an instant #1 New York’s Times bestseller – despite it being their debut novel. To accomplish this, Zhao created videos on their Tiktok account showcasing and explaining the plot and story of Iron Widow, using keywords and terms that appealed to a large amount of Booktok’s audience. Terms like “enemies to lovers,” “childhood friends to lovers,” and “love triangle.” Zhao also jumped on Booktok trends such as “convincing viewers to read their book based on its aesthetic”. Zhao’s videos had a clear purpose, to attract and pull those viewers to read and pre-order their book. 

Those videos paid off, as pre-orders for Iron Widow, Zhao said, were up in the “five figures,” and that was when there were still two months left. Ten thousand is an insanely high amount of pre-orders, especially for a brand new author. It has now been over a year since Iron Widow has been released and the book has spent 41 total weeks on New York times bestseller lists, having also won the 2021 BSFA Award for “Best Book for Younger Readers”. 

Another success story is that of Colleen Hoover, commonly known on TikTok as the queen of Booktok, who went from an indie author to #1 New York Times bestselling author of 22 books. Hoover began as an independent published author in 2012. However, it wasn’t until 2021 when Colleen’s books exploded in popularity. In the span of 9 years, Colleen had written a total of 24 books, but none had stayed on the New York Times bestseller lists long, or got on them at all. After Booktoks’ creation, Colleen’s books rose to stardom, and held six of the ten spots on the paperback fiction best-seller list.

It Ends With Us, Colleen’s best selling book, first released in 2016, had 21,000 copies sold in a month, which flatlined afterwards. However, in 2020, sales started increasing exponentially. This was because of the major popularity It Ends With Us had on Booktok. Thousands of videos were made reviewing and sharing their opinions about the book. Due to it constantly being recommended by people on the #Booktok tag, the book has now sold over 4 million copies since its publication date.

Booknet Canada tracked the print sales of 20 backlist books that trended on Booktok, starting from July 2019, to June 2022. Over that time period, sales for the 20 books increased 1,047% overall, with It Ends With Us increasing 42,133%, and Cain’s Jawbone sales increasing 235,600% from late 2019 to June 2022. This data shows a clear correlation between Booktok’s growth and the surge of book sales. 

“BookTok makes glorious bookish noise, and it’s arguably the best thing that’s happened for readers — and writers,” said Chelsea G. Summers, author of A Certain Hunger. Summers’s novel was well-received and got the kind of reviews that debut novelists dream about, but unfortunately, good reviews don’t always sell out a book. 

Then, shortly after the debut novels’ paperback release, it started selling left and right and videos under the Tiktok tag #acertainhunger received thousands of views. 

“Getting great reviews from legacy media doesn’t ensure that your debut novel is going to sell,” Summers says. 

“BookTok does.”

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