How TikTok is changing the book industry and creating word-of-mouth sensations

Publishers are partnering the social media app to reach readers.

Michelle Obama’s follow-up to Becoming reveals her feelings  about “the burdens of representation and the double standards for excellence that steepen the hills so many of us are trying to climb." (Photo: Penguin Random House)

What Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club did for titles such as The Secret (Rhonda Byrne’s 2006 self-help hit about the law of attraction) and Leila Mottley’s Nightcrawling (longlisted for the 2022 Booker and the prize’s youngest ever nominee) — increase sales and catapult their authors to fame — TikTok is doing by selling new releases directly to users.

Authors who have benefited from discussions, reviews and recommendations on #BookTok, a subsection of the app dedicated to books and reading, include Colleen Hoover and Taylor Jenkins Reid, whose It Starts with Us and The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, respectively, made the 2022 Top 10 lists of various publishers. When Hoover’s sequel to her 2016 romance novel It Ends with Us was announced last February, it reportedly became Simon & Schuster’s most pre-ordered book of all time. Reid’s historical fiction centres on an ageing and reclusive Hollywood movie icon who reveals secrets behind her glamorous and scandalous life.

TikTok has partnered with publishers, such as Hachette, HarperCollin UK and Bloomsbury, to sell their releases via its online marketplace. And BookTok, named the FutureBook Person of the Year in November, now serves as a “digitised word of mouth” giving new life to backlists and seeing the titles it suggests taking the prime spot in store displays. 

So, what were some of the best reads  last year? Hoover’s name popped up everywhere: She held six of the top 10 positions on The New York Times’ paperback fiction list and was simultaneously on various other bestseller lists with her “high-voltage emotional dramas”.

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin was a Goodreads Choice Award winner. It examines the nature of identity, disability, failure and the human need to connect: to be loved and to love. Spanning three decades, it follows college friends Sam and Sadie, who are often in love but never lovers, as they become creative partners in an intricately imagined world of video game design.


'Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow' by Gabrielle Zevin was a Goodreads Choice Award winner (Photo: Penguin Books)

Other authors who scored highly with readers and in sales numbers included Barbara Kingsolver, with Demon Copperhead (which reimagines Dickens’ David Copperfield in modern-day rural America, and whose narrator is the son of  a drug-abusing teenage single mother); The Book of Goose by Yiyun Li; and Vladimir by Julia May Jonas. The last two are on the Times’ list. Goose dissects the friendship between two childhood best friends. When Fabienne dies, Agnès goes back to how her friend wrote a fictional account of their experiences but published it under her name. The fame that came from the ploy changed her life forever. Vladimir zeroes in on a professor who has to deal with the public fallout of her husband’s past affairs with students at their college, while having an affair of her own. The couple have an open marriage.

The editors of The New York Times Book Review were asked to name the 10 best books of the year. Among their picks were Trust by Hernan Diaz, about an American family’s rise to fortune at the turn of the 20th century and the secrets they harboured along the way); The Furrows: An Elegy by Namwali Serpell, which opens with a drowning and is wrapped around grief, time and loss; and Claire-Louise Bennett’s Checkout 19, a coming-of-age story about a writer’s fervid encounters with writing, her own and that of others.

Among the literary delights released in 2022 were Cormac McCarthy’s brace of The Passenger and Stella Maris, his first books since The Road in 2006. The Passenger is about college dropout Bobby Western, who races cars until a crash in 1972 lands him in a coma. Awakened to a world of grief in 1980, he works as a salvage worker, haunted by memories of his sister Alice, who killed herself. Stella Maris is the name of a psychiatric institution into which mathematician Alice checked herself in 1972 as Bobby lay unconscious. The book transcribes therapeutic conversations between her and her psychiatrist as she contemplates suicide.

In the Light We Carry,  Michelle Obama’s follow-up to Becoming, reveals her feelings  about “the burdens of representation and the double standards for excellence that steepen the hills so many of us are trying to climb. It remains a damning fact of life that we ask too much of those who are marginalised and too little of those who are not”.

Ian McEwan’s Lessons, touted by some critics as a memoir of the life he might have led, and his best book since Atonement (2001), is an intimate story about love, regret and the search for answers across generations and geography. It follows one man’s search for meaning in his relationships and in art as his path intersects with historical events from the Cuban Missile Crisis to the Covid-19 pandemic.


Ian McEwan’s Lessons is his best book since 'Atonement' (Photo: Ian McEwan)

Annie Ernaux, 82,  the first French woman to win Nobel literature prize and the 17th woman since it was first handed out in 1901, said it is an institution “for men”. 

“It manifests itself by this desire for tradition. Being bound to traditions is perhaps more masculine, it is a way to transmit power to each other.”  The Swedish academy responsible for choosing the laureates in literature cited the “courage and clinical acuity with which Ernaux uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory”.

So, what can readers expect this year?

Salman Rushdie’s new epic novel, Victory City, is expected to hog headlines on Feb 13. It will be his first release after his on-stage attack at an event in New York state last August. The book is built around a young girl who becomes invested with the powers of a deity after a battle between two long-forgotten kingdoms in 14th century India. Pampa Kampana becomes a vessel for a goddess who speaks out of her mouth, telling her she will be instrumental in the rise of Bisnaga, a “victory city”.

Two-time Academy Award winner Tom Hanks, who earned three Golden Raspberry Award (which “celebrates” the year’s worst films) nominations for his role as the latex-laden Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis Presley’s exploitative manager, will soon have something else for critics and fans to talk about. His first novel, The Making of Another Major Motion Picture Masterpiece, due out on May 9, tells the story of the chaotic making of a fictional war movie. It comes six years after his debut collection of 17 stories, Uncommon Type, which was lauded for being “funny, wise, gloriously inventive and humane”.

This article first appeared on Jan 30, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.


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