In the past few years since TikTok exploded in North America, its lottery-like influence has touched every part of the book industry. BookTok, the corner of the network dedicated to literary content, has sufficient real-world power that one viral recommendation can pluck a debut author out of anonymity or boost the sales of a years-old backlist title. For readers, the notoriously specific algorithm might serve them something they’ve never heard of that aligns perfectly with their tastes. For writers brave enough to hawk their own wares, the platform offers a seductive, if capricious, avenue of self-promotion. For publishers, it is both threat and opportunity.
Book promotion is generally a stratified affair. Publishing houses pick lead titles—likely the ones on which they’ve spent the most money acquiring and for which they expect a large audience—and allocate enough marketing and publicity resources to solidify their success, leaving other titles largely to fend for themselves. Social media gives readers and authors a way to upend this system. Writing for Catapult, Cecilia Beard described BookTok as a democratizing force in an industry notorious for gatekeeping; the community, Beard explains, “makes it possible for people outside the traditional delineation of the publishing industry to propel any book to success”—a selection, she added, that seemed to include “more diverse authors, books, and creators . . . than any other bookish platform” she’d ever seen. Beard says that one of her own TikToks, in which she mentioned Michele Filgate’s anthology What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About, was viewed so many times that the book sold out on Amazon in seventy-two hours—more than two years after its initial publication. The gulf between the simplicity of the tools and the capacity for disruption was staggering: to rewrite the bestseller lists, you didn’t need a six-figure marketing budget. You theoretically didn’t even need a publisher. All you needed was a TikTok account.
The publishing industry is speckled with efforts to bottle TikTok’s lightning: walk into a big-box bookstore and you’ll probably see a shelf of volumes—maybe even an entire table—displayed because they’re trending. Ditto these stores’ e-commerce. In a different crossover, some BookTokers take on paid partnerships to promote titles to their audiences, and publishers themselves even joined the platform to market their books, though BookTok users are known to be adept at sniffing out (and duly dismissing) anything that scans as corporate or inauthentic. The methods can feel clunky, but in various ways, TikTok has been at least partially digested by the book world.
Now, the platform may become an even more transformative force in how people find and buy books. On April 20, a subsidiary of TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, filed a trademark for a publishing company. Called 8th Note Press, the proposed entity seems to sit at the intersection of a major publisher and a site like Amazon or Goodreads, but with a social media twist. The trademark filing covers book publishing in print, e-book, and audio formats but also mentions downloadable software “for use in connecting registered users to virtual communities to participate in discussions, consumer reviews, and social networking.” On ByteDance’s website, a job posting for the “Online Publishing Lead”—which isn’t explicitly listed as part of 8th Note Press but seems to overlap with its objectives—gives a taste of the power this outfit might wield in the literary ecosystem: “We use not only our data strength but also our promotional advantages to help writers find their target readers and make their books viral both online and offline.”
The relationship between TikTok and the publishing industry looks poised to come full circle. The app has grown from a guerrilla democratizing force to a proper establishment player, with a power base—150 million users in the US, by their own count in March—that its competitors may find harder to siphon off, let alone stand up against. Though little is known about the company’s plans for acquisitions and distribution, the “promotional advantages” coyly cited in the job posting represent a legitimate threat to the bookselling market. “[Publishers’] concern is that ByteDance could put its thumb on the scale in favor of its own projects,” Elizabeth A. Harris and Alexandra Alter wrote in the New York Times. If the TikTok algorithm prioritizes videos that feature the books from its sister company, then it narrows the already slim chance of an under-the-radar title going viral organically. Conversely, if a book by a self-published author is already garnering attention, then 8th Note could have the advantage over traditional publishers, who might also be interested in scooping the author up and capitalizing on their existing audience. Readers accustomed to surfing an algorithm built on genuine enthusiasm may find themselves confronted by video after video that rings false and be unable to do anything about it.
All of this might sound like fighting over scraps. But that’s the sort of logic the Rube Goldberg machine of publishing can sometimes rely on. As former Penguin Random House CEO Markus Dohle quipped on the stand, during the trial for the thwarted merger between that publisher and Simon & Schuster: “Everything is random in publishing. . . . Success is random. Best sellers are random. So that’s why we are the Random House.” Take that with a grain of salt. But it’s true that the majority of authors don’t earn out their advances. The kind of return on investment a viral TikTok might offer—say, a book by a self-published writer that’s garnering an audience but hasn’t yet been signed to a press—looks like something worth batting for.
The 8th Note Press news seems more ominous coming at a time of declining book sales, publishing layoffs, and crumbling social platforms. In the first half of 2023, book sales were down 2.7 percent compared to the same period in the previous year, according to Publishers Weekly. Earlier this month, it was announced that a group of long-time editors accepted buyout packages from Penguin Random House, while an unconfirmed number of other staffers were laid off. With the closure of outlets that offer books coverage, social media has become an even more important way for readers to learn about new titles. But social media’s become less reliable, too, and not just because of the potential threat to BookTok: on Twitter, which writers rely on as a critical tool for sharing their work and building their platforms, people are defecting in response to the site’s failing functionality and right-wing drift, even as they lament the loss of the audiences and communities they built there.
As the gap narrows between social media and traditional publishers, between building a platform and publishing a book, the already difficult task of reaching readers is at risk of being corrupted even further. TikTok’s pivot to publishing might be a threat to publishers, but it also cheapens the sparkling, subversive potential that made BookTok itself so compelling in the first place. What began as an unruly force, in which readers championed the books they authentically loved, is being turned into another tool for profit. There can be no grassroots thrill of discovery, no sleeper hits outside the allotted publicity window, no passion-driven community of readers, if the only books people hear about are ones that the algorithm has decided to force in front of them.