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What One Author Learned by Touting Books on TikTok

By

LUKE EASTMAN
  • Luke Eastman

I knew I was in trouble when I found myself trying to render the lyrics from Regina Spektor's song "Two Birds" into American Sign Language. In my sleep.

I don't know ASL. I'm a casual fan of Spektor's at best. But I'm on TikTok, and "Two Birds" was trending over Thanksgiving weekend. Someone's attempt to sign the song went viral, provoking thousands of copycat videos and bemused corrections from the ASL-fluent community.

I know what you're thinking. What is a middle-aged person doing on TikTok? I resisted joining the video-based social platform for months because I'd heard all the same things you've heard — that it's addictive, that it compromises your privacy, that old folks don't belong there, that it rots your attention span.

And then, in early October, I opened an account for one simple reason: I write novels, and, counterintuitive as it may seem, there are readers on TikTok. A lot of them.

In March, the New York Times reported on how "'BookTok' videos are starting to influence publishers and best-seller lists." (#BookTok is TikTok users' preferred hashtag for everything book related.) Fan-created BookTok videos have put older novels back on best-seller lists and inspired Barnes & Noble to create special TikTok-themed displays.

"We haven't seen these types of crazy sales — I mean tens of thousands of copies a month — with other social media formats," Barnes & Noble's director of books, Shannon DeVito, told the Times. Those words were an irresistible lure to every author desperate for notice in today's crowded attention economy — including me.

I know what you're thinking: Jonathan Franzen and Joyce Carol Oates would never stoop to lip-synching pop songs on a tiny phone screen. Well, no — but they don't need to. These days, most authors do at least some of their own promotion. Why not try every possible avenue?

I write novels for teens, an obviously TikTok-friendly demographic. In Facebook groups for authors, I've seen people touting their amazing sales boosts from TikTok. I've even heard of publishers running workshops for authors on using the platform. My publisher doesn't do that, but it does make cool, teen-savvy TikTok videos to promote its books.

So I gave in. I became a BookToker. And I learned a terrible secret about myself: I love making TikTok videos.

BookTok is a gigantic virtual gathering of readers and writers eager to talk about books — their favorite, their least favorite and everything in between. Some people do earnest or witty reviews. Others weep on camera over sad endings. Others find visually clever ways to display their book collections, or they create games for other bibliophiles to play.

Bookstores, libraries and publishers are all getting in on the act. On the TikTok feed of Vermont chain Phoenix Books, you can watch "60-second book recs" from a masked bookseller named Sam who dashes around the store grabbing favorite titles from shelves. (Videos created in the TikTok app can't exceed 60 seconds — hence the name and the frenzied pace.) The Vermont Book Shop in Middlebury offers book recommendations from the owner and a tour of the store's Christmas supplies to a Nat King Cole score.

I was eager to get started and take advantage of TikTok's enormous music library, too. With its intuitive interface, the platform encourages learning by doing, so that's what I did.

My first video was a few seconds of my cat and a book, with some text slapped on the screen. It quickly garnered more than 400 views. So did my next video. My eyes boggled, until I remembered that social media platforms hook new users by rewarding their early efforts.

Sure enough, my next video — in which I daringly used the Green Screen effect — was a bust. Besides no longer being new, I'd committed one of the cardinal sins of TikTok: My video was long. I soon learned that between 10 and 30 seconds is the sweet spot, giving my effort a better chance to be elevated to the For You Page — TikTok's algorithm-curated feed, personalized to each viewer.

Since I'm a reviewer and voracious reader, I wanted at least half of my videos to be about the books I read — and, in a house overflowing with books, there's no shortage of material.

My first video with 1,000-plus views was an outdoor display of my favorite horror titles, scored to my own found sound — the creepy melody of a distant ice cream truck. A David Bowie-scored montage of books from my teen years quickly soared to 2,000 views, and strangers commented on their own favorite nostalgic reads.

These aren't remotely high numbers for TikTok, where popular videos routinely get millions of views. After the trickle of engagement I get on other platforms, though, the flood went to my head.

I was reaching readers at last. When I posted a video that compared one of my own books to the trending Netflix show "Squid Game," a few people expressed actual interest in reading it!

For a month or so, I became TikTok obsessed. Once I'd started to explore the app's myriad features — captions, filters, digital effects, the vast library of music and user-created sounds — I wanted to create more, bigger, better!

In the shower, I dreamed up new video ideas. Online, I pored over tips and techniques. Hunched over my phone, I experienced an addictive form of joy that I hadn't felt since I was a toddler with a box of 64 crayons, a stack of paper, glitter, glue and an appreciative parental audience.

Though I didn't allow TikTok to do push notifications, the urge to check the app still sometimes troubled my sleep. Whenever the almighty algorithm decided, in its inscrutable wisdom, to show one of my videos to thousands of people, I experienced a dizzy dopamine high followed by an inevitable crash.

I've had unhealthy relationships with social media before (hello, Twitter-induced stress). But it was TikTok that finally made me understand why people feed coins into slot machines, over and over. When a video did well, I felt like a star. When an elaborate video fell flat, so did my self-esteem.

TikTok rewards users who jump on trends — music, sounds, dances, hashtags — which makes it tricky to tout original work there. The more I posted about my own books, the less the algorithm liked me: From getting a few thousand views, I plummeted to around 200. For each video that unexpectedly took off, there were many more that didn't. Furthermore, while I was having a ball making video teasers for my next book, I wasn't seeing any increase in sales of the two that were already published.

My experience isn't universal. The fickle algorithm is a source of complaint for everyone who creates on TikTok. But some writers — particularly self-publishers — seem to have book promo on the platform down to a science, with sales figures to prove it.

In a Facebook group for authors using TikTok, I met New Hampshire resident Marcus Kusi, who writes contemporary romance novels with his wife, Ash, under the name A.M. Kusi. They've been on TikTok since mid-2020 and have more than 6,000 followers, who leave enthusiastic likes on videos that spotlight quotes and plot points from their books.

"Want to read a romance novel with a curvy woman who is confident, independent and runs her own successful business?" one video asks the viewer. "Can their marriage survive this?" another inquires.

Marcus Kusi wrote to me in a Facebook message that, on TikTok, "We've discovered new readers who love our books, and when a video about our books gains a lot of views, we can instantly see the sales of that book spike on our sales dashboard."

I have yet to witness any such sales spikes. But TikTok isn't much of an investment: I create most of my videos in 20 minutes using props I find around the house. Spending hours with third-party video-editing software would yield a more professional product, but TikTok's built-in limitations are part of the fun. And, as a theater kid who hasn't done theater in ages, I've rediscovered my love of hamming it up with the silly skits I do on camera.

So, yes, the platform hooked me — on creating, anyway. Unless I'm seeking inspiration for my next video, watching TikTok is something I can take or leave. To further safeguard my peace of mind, I've learned to check my notifications less often and steer clear of the madness of crowds — that is, following mega-popular trends that have zero relevance to my work.

So, with regret, I came to my senses and put aside any thoughts of signing "Two Birds." The song remains on repeat in my head, however, in the rare moments when I'm not hearing other TikTok earworms such as "Grace Kelly" by Mika.

Ring-light challenge, anyone? Oh, and please buy my books?

The original print version of this article was headlined "BookTok Boogie"