BookTok, a TikTok community of readers, reviewers, and authors, has redefined publishing’s relationship with book content creators. Since its rise in popularity in 2020, the group has been directly responsible for millions of book sales, hundreds of trending conversations around new releases, and an organic word-of-mouth marketing structure that has publishing entities desperate to get a piece of the action. White romance authors in particular, like Ali Hazlewood, Sarah J. Mass, and Taylor Jenkins Reid, have become (or remained) industry giants because of BookTok support — in 2022, BookTok darling Colleen Hoover even outsold the Bible by at least 3 million units. But a new wave of growth from BookTok has seen less prioritized issues like compensation, diversity, and collaboration with publishers become major sticking points. Yet BookTok creators say that while the community continues to have a bigger footprint in the book world, a failure to diversify could mean its eventual downfall.
Marines Alvarez, a creator who has been focused on the book world for almost 12 years, describes BookTok as a wholly unique venture for book creators — one that uses discoverability and community interactions to set itself apart from other iterations like Bookstagram and BookTube.
“It’s so interesting to be involved in a community that’s more or less nascent,” Marines says. “[BookTok] is growing up a bit in terms of the discourse and conversations that we’re having, about like consumership and responsibility to an audience. It’s really exciting to see a community find its feet in that regard.”
While BookTok as a community has been around for a couple of years, it’s only recently that the group has been recognized for its tangible impact on publishing. In November, FutureBook, a publishing trade conference, named BookTook as its Person of the Year, noting that creators’ passion for books has directly impacted millions in sales. Kevin Norman, a creator who focuses on LGBTQ+ works, says a staying power of BookTok is that it’s easy for creators to tailor their content to a specific niche or subset of books — which can often push already-published books back on top of best-seller lists.
“In the beginning, you did see a lot of the same books, and very heteronormative straight white authors,” he says. “And then BookTok grew, so now more diverse creators are promoting books and it’s created this nice space where stories that normally aren’t told are finally, finally getting pushed out.”
But even with a plethora of users pushing and promoting diverse reads and diverse authors, white romance novels still dominate BookTok. Almost all of the major authors who can directly link sales to BookTok support — like Hoover, Hazlewood, and Mass — are white women, who usually write about other white women. Madi Lim, a 23-year-old BookToker who posts mini-reviews, book-related memes, and has a BookTok news segment, loves celebrating diverse books on her TikTok account. But she says it can be frustrating to push for new and diverse works, only to see the same 10 novels on the BookTok tables at stores.
“Contemporary romance and fantasy romance are really big hitters,” Lim says. “There are subgenres and niche groups, but those are usually the books that really blow up on there. So the main [issues] are how white BookTok is, how so many white creators get a platform, get the book deals, get the ads, get paid correctly.”
Creators aren’t the only book entities worried about compensation. Since Nov. 10, at least 250 workers at the HarperCollins union have been on strike, demanding a minimum salary of $50,000 and a push for more diversity in the organization’s workforce. According to Marines, BookTok’s dependency on the publishing industry means the community is fighting problems that existed before they began.
“A lot of the problems with BookTok are mirrors of problems, not only in publishing but that we’ve seen in absolutely every other book community,” she says. “We’ve always had racist algorithms. We’ve always had a majority white publishing industry. These are publishing issues.”
When reached for comment, HarperCollins said they are in active negotiations with the union: “HarperCollins has been negotiating in good faith for more than a year with the United Autoworkers Union and has agreed to numerous proposals that they are seeking to include in a new contract,” read the statement. “We remain ready to continue our negotiations with the union and to reach agreement on a contract that is fair to both employees and the company.”
Carmen Alvarez, a Latinx BookToker, says that the HarperCollins strike has brought up major issues in the creator community about how to avoid crossing the picket line while also fulfilling past contracts.
“As content creators, we get free books through publishers. A lot of people consider that compensation,’” Carmen says. “These corporations are much bigger entities than individuals who are creating content, and people feel like they will lose access. But the union has asked for us to hold our reviews and our posts containing [HarperCollins] books.”
Since the HarperCollins strike, dozens of BookTok creators have voiced support for the union, withholding reviews or posting about how to help the striking workers. But as compensation also becomes a major consideration for BookTokers, some users say the publishing industry could do more to pay BookTok creators for their impact.
“The book community right now is center stage,” says Tishni Weerasinghe, a South Asian BookTok creator. “BookTok has become a factor of what books get published and what books get turned into movies. We are the first stepping stone in the success of selling a book.”
But Carmen says the decentralized aspect of BookTok means it’s hard for creators to agree on what fair payment looks like. Each of the creators who spoke to Rolling Stone had vastly different ideas about what would constitute adequate compensation. Marines think the problem lies in TikTok’s creator fund, which gives out sparse payments per viral video in comparison to YouTube or Twitch’s pay scheme, while Norman and Lim say the answer is for BookTokers to charge as much as beauty influencers for brand deals. But Carmen believes that BookTok’s current model acts like free marketing for publishers — and wants publishing houses to acknowledge the creators that helped save their fiscal year.
“A lot of people aren’t here to be compensated because it’s their passion or hobby,” she says. “We’re not paid employees of a publisher,” Carmen says. “But as publishers acknowledge the power and the strength of us on social media, compensation should follow suit. Because we do help Colleen Hoover sell more than the Bible.”
For many creators, promotion of diverse books is a major reason why they continue their work. “The only thing that we can really control is that we’re promoting and diversifying and decolonizing our own shelves,” Marines says. “And when we can show success for those titles and for these conversations — as much as we’ve promoted straight authors and blown them up — I think publishing will probably notice.”
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And in the meantime, creators are determined to do as much work as possible to celebrate and support the young readers they used to be.
“I want my page to be home to people,” Weerasinghe says. “We’re all just doing this because we love reading and it’s given us some platforms that we never thought imaginable. I don’t see BookTok disappearing anytime soon.”