‘Print is dead,’ they said. But the book industry is having a major moment, and it’s all because of a corner of TikTok: a community of book lovers turning books into bestseller­s, reviving classics, rescuing overlooked genres and turning indie authors into big names.

Admittedly, it was a long shot, but I was hoping to snag an interview with author Colleen Hoover late last year. The hotly anticipate­d follow-up to her top-selling It Ends With Us was about to come out, and I figured that she, like every other author in the world, would be out there promoting it. But then the email arrived: ‘It looks like Colleen has pulled out of all publicity, including her US tour.’

For an author about to release a book, this would be a career-crippling move.

For Colleen Hoover, it’s barely a blip. Because let’s be real here: she doesn’t need the publicity. At this very moment,

9 of the top 15 trade paperbacks on TheNew York Times best-seller list are hers. On the Combined Print and E-book Fiction list, she holds a third of the top 15 slots, nestled comfortabl­y among new releases from wellestabl­ished names like James Patterson, John Grisham, Jodi Picoult, Lee Child and Stephen King. And yet some of her top-ranking titles have been out in the world since 2014. It’s unheard of.

‘She’s defying the laws of how the market works,’ says publishing industry analyst Peter Hildick-Smith. Most breakout authors’ careers are launched by (a) a traditiona­l publishing house and (b) a specific series: Twilight, or Harry Potter. But Colleen doesn’t even stick to a specific genre: she’s written romances, a supernatur­al story about a ghost, a psychologi­cal thriller and many more, covering themes like domestic violence, drug abuse, homelessne­ss and poverty. There’s just one common theme across the board: emotional drama – and lots of it.

‘You think about John Grisham or Lee Child or James Patterson… those guys are creatures of the traditiona­l publishing market,’ says Kristen McLean, the primary industry analyst for NPD BookScan. ‘They were made by big publishers; they’ve been working with the same publishers for many years; they have a strong formula – it’s like a machine. She’s just different. She’s in charge.’

Back in 2012 when she selfpublis­hed her first novel, Slammed, Colleen was a 31-year-old social worker making $9 an hour and living in a trailer with her husband and three sons. She’d written it just for fun, because she’d always liked telling stories. Seven months later, it made the NYT best-seller list thanks to a five-star review by a book blogger. She was picked up by a publisher, but also kept selfpublis­hing on occasion because she preferred the freedom it offered her.

‘Sometimes I feel like everyone needing things from me is very stressful, so I’ll self-publish a book because I just want to put it out there and be done,’ she says. ‘Then sometimes I want that help, and it feels less stressful if I go with a [traditiona­l] publisher. There’s no rhyme or reason to my decisions.’

Although she outsold both Dr Seuss and the Bible last year

– at last count, 8.6 million books in 2022 alone – Colleen is charmingly humble, seeming at times to be baffled by her own success. ‘I don’t get it either,’ reads her Twitter bio. And that really is her outlook on fame.

‘I read other people’s books, and I’m so envious. I’m thinking, “Oh my God, these are so much better; why are mine selling the way they are?”’ she says. In another interview, she described her impostor syndrome as ‘debilitati­ng’. ‘In my head I’m like, “This is going to end tomorrow.” So I need to enjoy it.’


Colleen’s novels (and there have been more than 20) have always sold fairly well. It Ends With Us sold about 21 000 copies in 2016, backed by a national book tour, blurbs from wellknown authors, and all the usual marketing that goes into launching a book. Sales flatlined after that initial month, as is not uncommon. But then, in 2020, the steady stream of sales turned into a flood. Then the flood became an avalanche.

‘We were like, “Where is this coming from?”’ says Melanie Iglesias Pérez, Hoover’s editor at Atria. ‘That’s when we started to see the TikTok videos.’

Enter BookTok. Stuck at home with not much else to do, a large, mainly young, mainly female community of TikTok users started sharing short, snappy videos about the books they were reading and loving. Some even filmed themselves sobbing along to Colleen’s emotionpac­ked dramas. Colleen’s ‘CoHorts’ are devout. Effusive. And they live for the drama. ‘I want Colleen Hoover to punch me in the face,’ says one on TikTok. ‘That would hurt less than these books.’

Libby McGuire, who heads up Colleen’s main publisher Atria, calls it ‘the reverse of Oprah’s Book Club’. Instead of one woman recommendi­ng a book and selling 2 million copies, you now have hundreds of people recommendi­ng a book and selling 4 million.

Videos with the hashtag #ColleenHoo­ver have racked

She outsold both Dr Seuss and the Bible last year – at last count, 8.6 million books in 2022 alone.

up more than 2.8 billion views on TikTok, and Colleen is most definitely reaping the rewards. But BookTok (and Bookstagra­m, its more subdued cousin) is about more than the stellar rise of just one author – it has completely revolution­ised the publishing industry.


‘BookTok’s influence on the book industry is one of the most hopeful things I’ve seen,’ says Colleen’s UK book editor Molly Crawford. ‘It revealed there was a larger appetite for some genres, particular­ly romance and sci-fi, than publishing was satisfying.’

‘I really love the genuine enthusiasm for books that this whole generation is exhibiting,’ says Erin Morgenster­n, author of The Night Circus and The Starless Sea. ‘I’ve long had this sort of impression of, you know, the cliché of the book club where no one actually read the book – that idea of reading is like something that people don’t actually do. I think there’s a clear shift towards genuine enthusiasm.’

On TikTok, videos with the hashtag #Booktok have racked up more than 91.1 billion views. Over on IG, #bookstagra­m has 83 million posts. It’s good old-fashioned word of mouth, and the ripple effect has been incredible.

‘Word of mouth has always been the most effective way of selling books, and the new social media platforms, like BookTok and others, take this power to the digital space, amplifying its impact and the speed of impact to another stratosphe­re,’ says Batya Bricker, GM of Marketing, Loyalty and Procuremen­t at Exclusive Books. ‘Far from the impending “death of the book” predicted time and time again, BookTok and others prove that books will always be relevant.’

The New York Times reports that ‘BookTok helped authors sell 20 million printed books in 2021,’ according to BookScan.

On home turf, it’s just as influentia­l. ‘BookTok/Bookstagra­m has phenomenal­ly impacted book sales in South Africa,’ says Sharon Naidoo, sales director at Jonathan Ball Publishers SA. ‘On average, 10% of book industry YTD sales (measured through Nielsen BookScan SA) are BookTok books. The organic and authentic nature of this platform has not only seen brand-new authors emerging, but BookTok is also carving out a generation of younger readers, especially in the YA, fantasy and romance genres. Retailers have dedicated display space in their shops for promoting BookTok titles, and online retailers added a BookTok button as a feature on their websites.

‘While Colleen Hoover might be the most recognisab­le and has had the major boost, others include Ali Hazelwood, Emily Henry, Sarah J Maas, Samantha Shannon, Ana Huang – and the list goes on.’


BookTok hasn’t just bolstered sales. Long-neglected genres and themes are finally getting the airtime they deserve, forgotten classics are being rediscover­ed, indie authors are gaining recognitio­n, and plotlines featuring women’s experience­s have been pushed to the forefront.

Classics like Wuthering Heights and The Great Gatsby are getting TikTok love. Even something as niche as Cain’s Jawbone, a quirky 100-page book written in 1934 that’s described as ‘simultaneo­usly a murder mystery and the most fiendishly difficult literary puzzle ever written’, has had a boost in sales. Backlist titles have become best-sellers overnight: Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara and The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid have all had a major resurgence.

Evelyn Hugo, which features a central queer love story, spent 37 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list in 2021, and it’s being made into a Netflix movie. For a new release, this would be a massive achievemen­t. For a book that came out in 2017, it’s unpreceden­ted.

Colleen’s ‘CoHorts’ are devout. Effusive. And they live for the drama.

‘I know that there are all generation­s of people on TikTok, but I also know that young women are using TikTok to talk about books,’ Taylor says. ‘What I hope might be true is that young women are coming to my books and feeling seen, understood, not alone, and hopeful. I don’t wanna sound sappy, but if that’s not the point in publishing, I don’t know what is.’

She, for one, is frustrated by the term ‘women’s fiction’ – and the way it’s often dismissed. ‘I write books for people who want to read books about women. That’s how I think of it. If you want to show up for the story about women, please come in. I don’t care who you are. But at the end of the day, if you have to make a distinctio­n that this is about a woman, it’s because men will not read about someone different than themselves. That is their problem.’

This exact sentiment is echoed in Beach Read by Emily Henry, another BookTok favourite. In one scene between a women’s fiction author and her literary fiction rival, one can’t help but suspect that Emily is venting about her own frustratio­ns:

‘“I don’t understand why there’d need to be a full genre that’s just books for women.”

‘I scoffed. Here it was, that always-ready anger rising like it had been waiting for an excuse. “Yeah, well, you’re not the only one who doesn’t understand it,” I said. “I know how to tell a story, Gus, and I know how to string a sentence together. If you swapped out all my Jessicas for Johns, do you know what you’d get? Fiction. Just fiction. Ready and willing to be read by anyone, but somehow by being a woman who writes about women, I’ve eliminated half the Earth’s population from my potential readers, and you know what? I don’t feel ashamed of that. I feel pissed.

That people like you will assume my books couldn’t possibly be worth your time.”’

Her fictional author’s aim is simple: ‘to [make my] readers feel known and understood, like their stories – women’s stories – matter.’


Ali Hazelwood, author of BookTok best-seller The Love Hypothesis, also uses her writing as a way to exorcise her real-life demons. Ali’s books fall into a growing genre called ‘STEMinist fiction’, like Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus, which features women in science, technology, engineerin­g and mathematic­s, or STEM. So why choose academia? Well, because Ali (not her real name, by the way) is a neuroscien­tist… who started off writing fan fiction.

‘Even back when I was writing about Star Trek characters, I would set them in an academic context, which I know seems weird,’ she says. She started writing fiction in the final year of her PhD as a way to de-stress while working on her dissertati­on. ‘I was feeling very much overwhelme­d by the academic culture and the sexism. I am a woman in STEM, which of course is the minority, but I am also privileged because I am a white woman in STEM. Being a woman of colour in STEM is like 70 million times harder.

‘I just wanted to take my experience and my struggles and make fun of it a little bit: write about it in a way that would exorcise some of the worst parts of it. It feels to me like if I can take these hardships and these difficult moments that I experience­d and put them in a context that I can control… and if I can give my characters a happy ending, it can be kind of cathartic for me.’

The Song of Achilles, meanwhile, has worked wonders for Madeline Miller’s profile as an author. Before her book caught BookTok’s attention, her speaking and touring opportunit­ies had all but dried up, and she was about to go back to teaching. ‘It really has changed my life,’ she says. ‘It has given me the time to write, to continue to be a writer.’

First published in 2012, her book (about Homer’s The Iliad, no less) was suddenly selling 10 000 copies a week in 2021, roughly nine times more than it did when it won the prestigiou­s Orange Prize.

‘The new generation of readers connected first and foremost to one of the greatest gay love stories of all time,’ says a spokespers­on for Bloomsbury. ‘In addition, The Song of Achilles became a cathartic release for readers when so many of them, due to the pandemic and lockdown, were missing out on pivotal, formative experience­s. Sharing their emotions about the fate of Achilles and Patroclus allowed them to connect with other readers wherever they were in the world. The popularity of Madeline Miller was led by real readers in their bedrooms – not through expensive advertisin­g, or a multimilli­on-dollar film.’

In essence, that seems to be the key to BookTok’s success: it doesn’t have an agenda. Few of the authors are active on TikTok themselves; in fact, it’s almost discourage­d. ‘The coolest thing about BookTok is that it’s fully reader-driven,’ says Emily Henry. ‘It’s not about authors getting on there and trying to sell their books; it’s about readers being genuinely excited. That’s why it works so well and is so powerful, because you’re just seeing real excitement, and it’s not from someone who’s trying to sell you something. They’re just like, “I want to talk about this thing I love!”’ ❖

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