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#BookTok: How writers can use TikTok to reach readers

Three authors share their experiences and tips for using the platform to reach readers.

Illustrated readers enjoy a variety of books pop out of a phone screen.
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Think TikTok isn’t worth your time? Think again. Videos from authors and reader/reviewers alike – especially when they’re tagged #BookTok – have catapulted authors onto bestseller lists for both new titles and backlisted work. The site has also provide crucial to reaching younger readers. Bookstores have taken note, too – Barnes & Noble features regular displays of books trending on TikTok.

 

When I first learned about TikTok from my teenager, I didn’t believe it could do anything for me, or I for it. I can’t dance to save my life, and the social media platform – on which users post short videos – seemed to me to be merely a pleasurable pastime replete with pop songs and enviable hip hop routines. How wrong I was.

TikTok, which originated in China in 2016, helps spotlight the creative work of an international cast of actors and singers, artists and writers, scholars, activists, and, yes, dancers. While Gen Z and millennials make up much of its user base, plenty of older people use it as well. (See veteran actor Mandy Patinkin, @mandypatinktok, twerking to get out the vote in October 2020.) 

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#BookTok serves as both a hashtag enabling authors to promote their work to readers on the platform and a landing place for book lovers to meet and get to know one another in a casual atmosphere that feels less formal and less inflammatory than, say, Twitter. The platform costs nothing to use, and it’s done plenty to launch the literary careers of debut authors, as well as boosting book sales for established writers. Below, three authors share their experiences and plenty of tips so that you can launch your own TikTok channel…no dancing required.

Caseen Gaines, author of Footnotes: The Black Artists Who Rewrote the Rules of the Great White Way, had no interest in TikTok despite encouragement from his wife to make an account with book promotion in mind. “I’d seen all of the dances and trends,” Gaines says. “And I was like, ‘I want absolutely no part of this.’”

But then his publisher, Sourcebooks, offered a webinar on how authors can engage on the platform. “There is a really wonderful community of people on TikTok who use the platform for information,” he says. “There are lots of amazing storytellers, and I don’t just mean authors. People are talking about politics and their kids, and whatever the case may be.”

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Gaines was so impressed that he made his first video directly after the webinar. Rather than use his account to post a series of commercials for his books, he decided to offer short videos devoted to little-known Black history and popular culture. “That’s what I write about a lot, and it seemed to work out well,” he explains. “My first video [about Black suffragettes, Aug. 18, 2021] had over 3,000 views. Once I got that immediate gratification, I was off to the races.”

Readers invest in authors, Gaines says, and TikTok has turned out to be an excellent way to reach people. “When you’re talking to a camera for a minute, viewers get a sense of your personality. TikTok is personality-driven,” he explains. “The people who do the best are those who are interesting to watch.”

Since he joined the platform, he’s noticed a discernible increase in sales, particularly when he makes a video related to something he’s written about. “For example, I did a minute-long TikTok on a little-known story about how [the TV show] Pee-wee’s Playhouse led to director John Singleton casting Laurence Fishburne in Boyz n the Hood,” he says. “It’s a story that’s also told in a book I wrote called Inside Pee-wee’s Playhouse, and when I saw all of these comments from readers, I was able to comment back and let them know about the book.” To date, Gaines’ TikTok titled “Boyz n the Playhouse” (Aug. 27, 2021) has 196K views. 

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