The bookselling power of TikTok

The impact of TikTok has been a major development in the book industry over the past couple of years and a frequent feature in recent analysis we’ve done at Nielsen BookData (not least of which because I find it fascinating!). BookScan, which tracks UK print book purchases, allows us to measure the sales boosts that popular titles have experienced, while our Books & Consumers survey helps us to explore the consumers behind those purchases, in terms of demographics, social media use, book discovery and wider reading and leisure habits. With all this data, there are plenty of angles we can use to examine the TikTok trend, so for this piece I’ve focussed on who is using TikTok among book buyers and how it fits into their book discovery.

Books that proclaim ‘TikTok made me buy it!’ or use TikTok/BookTok in the keywords collectively sold 2.9m physical copies in the first five months of 2022 in the UK, as measured through BookScan. Colleen Hoover’s It Ends With Us leads the fiction chart for the year, joined by Ugly Love, Verity, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid and The Love Hypothesis by Ali Hazelwood all within the top ten, while They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera sits at the top of YA and Why Has Nobody Told Me This Before by Dr Julie Smith ranks second in non-fiction. Of course not every purchase will have been influenced by TikTok, but all of these books had their recent popularity kickstarted on the platform, turning into bestseller chart appearances and further discovery and sales.

Bar graph showing the percentage of book buyers using TikTok with each age band in 2020 and 2021. The highest peak is for the 16-19 age band.

For those purchases that are influenced directly by TikTok, they’ll likely be made by younger consumers, with under 25s still the largest user base among book buyers. The video sharing app became more popular across all ages in 2021, though, growing from 12% of book buyers aged 13-84 in 2020 to 18% for the latest year. Older teens surpassed 50%, while 20-24s increased the most year-on-year, from 30% to 43%, as shown in the graph. If we look at share of books bought by TikTok users, 20-24s take the lead, at nearly one in five books, with more than half bought by under 30s altogether; however, that’s down from 60% in 2020, as older groups join the TikTok base.

Graphic showing type of discovery by age of buyer, and the percentage of purchases made for that type of discovery (2021).

Results from our Books & Consumers survey show that book buyers did increasingly discover books via social media and video sites in 2021, leading to 5% of purchases, so still a relatively small share overall. That naturally becomes more pronounced for age bands where usage is higher, at nearly 9% for 13-24s and 7% for 25-34s. Even looking at discovery methods more broadly by age, shown in the graph, the sentiment behind TikTok discovery is echoed in other factors: 13-24s, and to a lesser extent 25-34s, are more likely to discover books via bestseller lists and adaptations, while 25-34s are the most likely to discover via general word of mouth, so all these point to embracing the books and conversations of the moment, certainly something TikTok has a growing hand in.

Graphic showing the percentage of purchases discovered by social/video sites (2021).

The TikTok helping hand will of course be more pronounced in specific genres, and our first post on the platform’s impact looked at which genres TikTok users tend to read, especially those under 25. Now that we’re further along in the BookTok era, we can narrow down to which genres book buyers say they discovered via social media/video sites in 2021, and how that differs by age. While for overall book buyers, self-help/popular psychology benefitted the most, for 13-24s, one in five romance books were discovered on these sites/apps in 2021, ahead of the overall market stat of only 6%. Which brings us back to those bestsellers at the start: 28% of Colleen Hoover books were discovered on social/video sites, and nearly 70% of her sales came from 13-24s last year, although early 2022 data points to that extending into older age groups, showing that shift into more traditional discovery and wider readership.

TikTok is surely a welcome addition to the collection of tools at your fingertips, and a multi-faceted one at that. Videos can deliver insight into what booklovers want to read and what they like about these books, alongside driving that elusive word of mouth to put more books into readers’ hands. And speaking as one of those readers, I’ve enjoyed seeing books that I read years ago get a boost in popularity, and I’ve also picked up books that may not have been on my radar otherwise…although admittedly, I’m more of the second wave of consumers that’s more likely to see a viral book featured through a bookseller or bestseller chart rather than from an actual TikTok video. How about you, have you explored the bookish side of TikTok, or is there another niche community on the platform that you think everyone should check out?

(Based on data from Nielsen BookScan (to 28th May 2022) and Books & Consumers (to end of 2021). For more information, please contact [email protected].)

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Jaclyn Swope joined Nielsen BookData in 2013 while completing her Master’s degree in Publishing at Kingston University. She is currently a Senior Account Manager on the Research team, where she works with a variety of publishers helping them to understand and utilise both retail sales and consumer data, through training sessions, presentations and bespoke analysis of book industry trends.