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Has TikTok Ruined Reading?

Leah Rachel von Essen

Senior Contributor

By day, Leah Rachel von Essen is the editor-in-chief of Chicago Booth Magazine at the University of Chicago. By night, she reviews genre-bending fiction for Booklist, and writes regularly as a senior contributor at Book Riot. Her blog While Reading and Walking has over 10,000 dedicated followers over several social media outlets, including Instagram. She writes passionately about books in translation, chronic illness and bias in healthcare, queer books, twisty SFF, and magical realism and folklore. She was one of a select few bookstagrammers named to NewCity’s Chicago Lit50 in 2022. She is an avid traveler, a passionate fan of women’s basketball and soccer, and a lifelong learner. Twitter: @reading_while

BookTok is selling books. That seems to be clear at this point. You’ve probably seen the table of BookTok sensations at your local library or bookstore or seen them pop up on your feed. But has TikTok ruined reading?

Some people certainly think so. There are many arguments that say BookTok is bad for the book world. Just a few: BookTok is more about the aesthetic of being a reader than it is about the actual reading. BookTok promotes the same 20 or so books and that they’re all fluffy nonsense. BookTok is all shallow, or that it’s all commercial. It forms a sort of gatekeeping, purposeful or accidental, that determines what a book lover should look like or how many books they should own.

One critique that I take very seriously is that BookTok is less likely to show creators and authors of color in feeds, and that BookTok reflects the publishing industry by promoting primarily white authors. It’s well-documented that Black creators are consistently frustrated with and exploited by TikTok. This leaves most of the BookTok space for white influencers and white authors, which leaves the “BookTok” recommendations shelf looking not all that diverse.

Still, I hesitate to condemn BookTok wholesale. There’s a tendency in our society, I’ve long noticed, to simply criticize what’s popular. For a while, those books made up of AIM messages or texts bore the brunt of the joke. Later, paranormal romance and Twilight did. Then YA dystopias did. People like to mock “chick lit” and romance, forcing generations of women to hide their romance novels under pillows or under book covers. When teens pick up comics or graphic novels, adults tell them they won’t count for their summer reading. Science fiction and fantasy books are pigeonholed into genre fiction, into sections for what’s merely “popular” and “entertaining” rather than “literary.”

Yes, there can be an over-emphasis on BookTok popularity. There’s pressure for authors to be on TikTok to get their books to sell — especially after some books have gone from being self-published to being in six-figure auctions after going viral on the platform. Many bookstores now have a table reserved for BookTok recommendations.

But here’s the thing. A recent Publishers Association poll found that 59% of 16–25-year-old readers said that BookTok “helped them discover a passion for reading,” and more than half said that they looked to BookTok for their recommendations — many of them said they looked to BookTok over family and friends. 49% of those polled also said they went to a physical bookstore to buy a BookTok recommendation. Data is emerging that has BookTok’s influence already diminishing, but frankly, it’s still a very strong phenomenon.

Teens are watching videos about books. They’re putting books on hold and buying books. They’re talking about, yelling about, crying over, and forming communities around books. (My fellow Rioter Addison Rizer wrote about how TikTok talks about books better than I could.)

How is that ruining reading, exactly?

BookTok is driven by young teen girls and their accounts, the most popular of whom are predominantly white. TikTok in the US is dominated by Gen Z female users. And there is a well-documented trend of people hating on things that teenage girls like and devaluing anything powered by teen girls.

When I first entered the book world, BookTube was all the rage. Bookworms, primarily young women, on YouTube channels shared their favorites, their recommendations, shared unboxings from big subscription companies or from publishers — but BookTube came under critique for promoting all the same books, for being too commercial, and for promoting a certain aesthetic of what a bookworm should look like. Sound familiar?

In short, has TikTok ruined reading? No. There are real concerns about BookTok’s diversity and the way Black creators are devalued on the platform, just as there are serious concerns about access and equity in the publishing world. If anyone wants to have a conversation about how the book world devalues authors of color and raises up white women, I’m all ears.

But I think that the crux of the issue people seem to have with BookTok is more about the domination of teen girls and the books that they end up squeeing about on the platform. Because the one thing people like more than griping about how kids don’t read these days is griping about what teenage girls are doing on social media these days or about what young people seem to think is literature these days.

In other words, reading isn’t ruined because young people aren’t reading the books you’d like them to read. They’re devouring books, they’re talking to each other about their favorites, and they’re buying books: reading is doing just fine.

Want to read more about BookTok? Check out some of the books that recently trending on TikTok, read about whether the BookTok reign might be letting up soon, and learn more about TikTok’s publishing plans.