In June 2020, national book retailer Barnes & Noble started seeing surges in sales of certain trade paperbacks and couldn’t figure out why — until the company found TikTok’s “BookTok” community, where bibliophiles post videos reacting to or sharing books they’ve enjoyed.
Shannon DeVito, Barnes & Noble director of books, said in some cases, a book highlighted by TikTok users went from selling 50 or 100 copies per week to 10 times those amounts.
“It’s really coming from people in a community who just want to talk about books, and it’s very authentic,” DeVito told PYMNTS. TikTok stands out from other social network-based reading communities, such as BookTube on YouTube or Amazon’s Goodreads, she added, because it’s less reliant on the follower size of an influencer — “it seems to be more of an organic conversation.”
“A lot of it is finding people who like the same things as they do,” DeVito said. “It’s really about developing that community and being part of the conversation with fellow book lovers about what they like.”
Last month, TikTok hit 1 billion monthly active users, up 45% from the middle of last year. Many brands and retailers have dedicated substantial resources to reaching consumers on the platform through livestreams and influencer marketing, and Shopify last month said it would be collaborating with TikTok to add shopping features to the video-sharing app. Shopify has said it saw 76% growth in its social commerce channels between February 2020 and February 2021, with TikTok the fastest-growing platform.
Catering to Consumers
Early on, DeVito said, Barnes & Noble wanted to be “a part of the conversation” in the BookTok community and, perhaps more importantly, make its stores a destination for those who post videos to TikTok as well as people desperate to get their hands on the latest trendy read. Some of the books highlighted by BookTok videos recently are “The Song of Achilles,” released in 2011; “The Midnight Library,” released in 2020; “The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo,” released in 2017; and “The Great Gatsby,” first published in 1925.
“As booksellers, it’s great for us because we can … have that breadth of backlist for them to kind of come in and discover,” DeVito said.
Barnes & Noble has a dedicated page on its website that’s regularly updated with the most popular books on BookTok, and it has created signage for local stores to utilize, but the company is not prescriptive about how stores are set up so that managers can react to local customer demand. DeVito said some stores have also worked with TikTok users to create BookTok videos.
“It’s really two-pronged, where we have the online overall national approach, but also the really local experience where it’s either a table or an endcap, whatever the booksellers have decided is best for their area,” she said.
Physical Books in a Digital World
The majority of BookTok videos feature physical copies of books, not digital, despite the fact that the core user base of TikTok is the digital-first Generation Z. A big reason for this, DeVito said, is likely because it allows people to interact with it in a video — but also because a shelf full of books can act as a reflection of their personality.
“It kind of says something about who you are as a reader and what you’re interested in,” she said. “We’re seeing it with a lot of the younger generation, they want to use these books as conversation starters and as kind of a window into who they are.”
Even beyond Gen Z, though, print sales have been up significantly over the last few years. The NPD Group said print sales in 2020 rose by over 8% year-over-year, the largest annual increase since 2005. The number of print books sold was 751 million, the highest since 2009.
This has created what DeVito calls a “reading renaissance,” where people either discover or rediscover a love of reading through interaction with a print book, a “solitary experience” after hours of sitting in front of a screen all day.
“To take that experience and be able to use it as a conversation starter or interaction with other people I think has been phenomenal,” DeVito said. “It’s been a silver lining to everything that’s happened over the last two years, but it’s absolutely all about the print editions.”