No one saw BookTok coming. The TikTok community dedicated to readers was an organic effort that seemed to explode overnight, creating trends and an entirely new way to promote books on digital platforms. Less than two years after its creation, BookTok has been credited for directly increasing print sales across the United States, leaving publishers desperate to utilize BookTok’s energy for new releases. But a wave of creators say a new feature between TikTok and conglomerate Penguin Random House doesn’t celebrate BookTok — it’s a first attempt to exploit it.
In September, publishing company Penguin Random House announced a collaboration with TikTok allowing users to link books directly in the app, with the goal of expanding the community’s reach. The new BookTok feature combines information on a book and all of the videos about it into one central location. Isaac Bess, a spokesperson for TikTok, tells Rolling Stone that the link aspect was created to “to take book discovery and content creation to the next level.” The problem? You can only link to books published by Penguin Random House, which many creators say will lead to more exclusion for smaller writers, and less pay for BookTok.
BookTok uses its titular hashtag to unite users obsessed with all things reading. But what started as TikTokers simply talking about their favorite (and sometimes most tearjerking) reads has involved into a robust community that includes skits, reviews, callouts, and lists enveloping all facets of the book industry. Unlike other influencers, BookTok creators rarely feature sponsored posts, as their popularity relies on honest reviewing. Many of the most popular creators operate as critics rather than promoters, leaving fewer monetization options.
Carmen Alvarez has spent seven years as a creator in book communities across multiple platforms, but says BookTok is entirely unique. The Latinx BookToker attributes the community’s success to TikTok’s algorithm and the pandemic’s sudden influx of free time, which she describes as a one in a million lightning strike. A major aspect of the TikTok community is its little regard for the publishing schedule, which means older books can, and often, have viral moments — shooting authors to best-selling lists years after their book was originally published. Alvarez tells Rolling Stone that in the past year, the community has seen an aggressive push by publishers who want a piece of the action.
“TikTok has capitalized on the fact that so many people search for information in a video format,” Alvarez tells Rolling Stone. “By default, the publishing industry really has pivoted. They’re partnering with influencers, doing this new feature now. It really seems like publishing is focused so much on TikTok because [the app] is the major place where people go to search out new reads.”
With only five major publishing houses in the United States, Penguin Random House’s attempted purchase of rival house Simon and Schuster embroiled the publisher in an intense battle with the Biden Administration over whether the purchase violates U.S anti-trust laws. TikTok creator Haley Thomas says Random House’s involvement makes her, and others on TikTok, both unlikely to use the new feature and actively concerned about how publishing companies might try to use BookTok creators without paying them. (Penguin Random House did not reply to Rolling Stone’s request for comment.)
“Initially, I thought this new [feature] could have some utility,” Thomas says “But then it felt scummy, like, not only is this giant trying to gobble up every other publisher, but now they want BookTok?”
During BookTok’s birth in 2020, the publishing industry underwent a massive reckoning over the lack of diverse employees, authors, and published works. BookTok was not exempt from the same critiques. Almost all of the app’s biggest writers — Taylor Jenkins Reid, Colleen Hoover, Sarah J. Mass, Madeline Miller, and Ali Hazelwood — are white women. While videos about their books often bring new readers into the fold, the constant promotion of white writers and white characters has sparked pushback from creators of color. Maya Bonner, a Black BookToker, says the new feature only exacerbates the existing problem in the community.
“There’s people that are very attached to the big books, which I understand,” Bonner tells Rolling Stone. “They’re fun to talk about and everybody gets the references you make. But when those big books are all by the same author, or they’re all by the same straight, white people, it gets exhausting to never see yourself in anything.”
Both Alvarez and Bonner say it takes active curation of your algorithm to get recommendations for diverse works. Alvarez says that while BookTok creators are willing to do the work to seek out independent books, collabs that highlight the biggest, and whitest works, could incentive publishers to keep funding big-name writers at the expense of potential new talent.
“There’s so much diverse literature that’s coming from so many publishers that aren’t Penguin Random House. But [the feature] is limited to the very few tiny percentage of people who get this traditionally published format,” Alvarez says. “There are a ton of authors that are self published or with smaller publishers that aren’t going to be featured on there. And you can see that in play in just the default screen you pull up to search for books.”
The new feature comes right as the BookTok community is enveloped in a larger discussion about how creators are compensated. While many BookTok influencers qualify for TikTok’s creator fund — an internal pay scheme based on followers and combined weekly views — some in the community are calling for payouts from the publishing companies themselves.
“All I want is to connect with people and talk about books they hold so close to their hearts. But people are getting discouraged and burning out,” Thomas says. “I struggle when it feels like these giants keep getting richer and richer on our backs. I would love to see some way to have better compensation for the people that are putting in so much love and effort and true labor into what they do.”
Despite the heavy promotion of the Penguin Random House collab, few big name creators have chosen to use it in their videos. In a post announcing the feature on the publisher’s TikTok page, almost all of the comments expressed ire at the exclusion of all non-Random House titles.
Even with the focus currently on Penguin Random House, creators are aware that most publishing companies are still setting their sights on the best way to capitalize on BookTok. And while the commodification of their community might be inevitable, they certainly don’t want to help Penguin Random House get there.
“I understand the attraction,” Bonner says. “From a business standpoint, as a publisher, how could you say no to BookTok? It’s been such a driving force in the changes in publishing and in revenue over the past couple years and I understand that. But I have no interest in engaging in that with them. I don’t need to support them. They’ll have enough money without me.”