The publishing industry has a long history of adaptating to changing technologies, but I think it’s fair to say that we’re not always the quickest off the mark – and TikTok has proved no exception to the rule. I first became aware of TikTok in late 2019, and made my first TikTok in Feb 2020, just in time to become fully addicted during lockdown, but despite two years of intensive scrolling I’ve only seen a small number of publishers really making the most of what TikTok has to offer.
Why is it important? Well, TikTok now has over a billion users – that’s a huge potential audience. And the reading community on TikTok is massive too. Just looking at hashtags will give you an idea of the level of book interest out there: #books has 11.5 billion views, and #BookTok has an astonishing 35 billion. So when I talk to people who are ambivalent about making short, engaging videos about their titles, the real question is: why wouldn’t you want to be on TikTok?
But does it sell books?
That’s the question on every publishing MD’s lips, and the short answer is yes. The longer and truer answer is yes, but not in a way that’s easy to predict. One recent runaway success is the 1934 murder mystery Cain’s Jawbone, which was published by Unbound in 2021. An American TikToker called Sarah Scannell made a video about her ‘murder wall’ strategy for solving the mystery, which went viral – and led to Unbound reprinting first 10,000 and then 70,000 copies of the book to keep up with demand.
Nobody could have predicted that one reader’s video about a decades-old book would lead to a tidal wave of demand: it’s partly thanks to the TikTok algorithm, which picks up on interesting, catchy content and shares it with people who don’t yet know that they want to see it, and partly due to sheer chance. Publishers can work with BookTokers to make sure their books are seen on influential TikTok accounts, but the true out-of-the-blue successes will most likely always be beyond our control. However, if you’re already on TikTok, then you’re well placed to capitalise on these moments when they occur – and you’re more likely to spot them quickly if you’re actually engaging with the platform.
It’s all about making connections
Although selling books is our key goal as publishers, to be successful on TikTok, as on any social media space, you need to build authentic connections with other users. So instead of focusing purely on marketing books, a publishing TikTok account needs to be entertaining, engaging, informative, personal and authentic. That will lead in turn to viewers connecting with you in new ways, whether that’s ordering a title through the website listed on your profile page, looking for your books in a local library, talking about them in their own TikToks, or simply deciding that your TikTok content is so good it’s worth coming back for again and again.
We’re lucky as publishers, because we have heaps of interesting information to share with our TikTok followers: the content of our books, interviews with authors, behind-the-scenes views into publishing life, content about being a booklover, visits to bookshops and libraries, videos from launch events, writing tips… the list of TikTok possibilities goes on and on.
And TikTok also offers lots of ways to interact with other creators’ content: you can stitch and duet other TikToks, you can respond to comments from your viewers with a reply video, and once you have 1,000 followers you can go live, so that anyone can chat with you in real time. The more you connect with other users, the more your community will grow – and as a result, your ability to reach users who will want to engage with your brand and your books will grow too.
How to get started
- Spend time on TikTok so you really understand how it works. You may start off feeling baffled, but soon you’ll see how creators put their own individual spin on trending sounds and concepts.
- Remember, your content isn’t just for today: TikTok will show your videos to people for as much as 90 days after posting, so it’s best not to refer to specific dates too much (as in ‘tune in tomorrow for a cover reveal’).
- Be authentic, be funny – and let your TikTok staffers express themselves. Being real is more important than being slick and professional – and being funny is a sure way to get views and follows.
- Engage with other users: answer comments, either with your own comment or a reply video. Duet other users who mention or show your books; or duet users who your books might help.
- Use the tools TikTok provides: effects, filters, stickers and more. But don’t let all the options overwhelm you – having a good idea is the most important thing, and some of the most viewed TikToks are ones with just a single person talking into the camera.
- Keep accessibility in mind: TikTok finally rolled out captions in 2021, and they’re easy to add and edit before posting your video.
- Finally, experiment! Don’t be afraid to try something new. You never know which of your videos will be a hit, and sometimes it’s the silliest ones that really take off.
Some great TikTok accounts to follow
And to widen the net a bit, some non-book accounts that make the most of TikTok:
Marks and Spencer Romford
Washington Post (and Dave Jorgenson who runs this account has written a helpful book to get you started on TikTok, called Make a TikTok Every Day)
The Black Country Living Museum
If you’re just getting started on your TikTok journey (and I hope you will be soon), say hello to me there at @stupidbookjokes, and drop your own TikTok account and links to your favourite bookish TikTokers in the comments below. And if you’d like to read some more detailed articles on how to create and edit TikToks like a pro, let me know!
Abbie Headon is a freelance editor and writer, and the editor of the BookMachine blog. She has held editorial roles at Oxford University Press, Summersdale, Duckworth and HarperCollins, working on a wide range of genres including popular science, memoir, fiction, narrative non-fiction, and gift and humour titles. Abbie is also the author of books including The Power of Yes, The Power of No, LEGO Build Yourself Happy and I’m Not Wearing Any Trousers and Other Working from Home Truths. You can find Abbie on Twitter at @abbieheadon.