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BookTok: Is The Hype Actually Worth It?

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at ODU chapter.

Gone are the days of simply reading books because you like reading. Of picking up a book not because its tropes are currently trending, but because it genuinely sounds interesting. Social media has created a new breed of book lovers: People who pick up a book because of its enemies to lovers plot line and nothing more. Trend hoppers who read the book that has the most hype around it whether the hype is deserved or not. While I am all for the reading renaissance that seems to be ensuing, I do not believe it is bringing any books of actual quality into the spotlight.

I have never been one to judge others based on what they are reading. I am a full believer that you should read what makes you happy, even if you don’t fully grasp the meaning of it or if you have the ability to read something more challenging. Books are books and they are meant to be read by anyone. Is it funny to go on a date with a guy who labels himself as an “avid reader” just to have him explain the meaning of a David Foster Wallace novel incorrectly and tell you how much he stans Patrick Bateman? Absolutely. But at least he’s reading. Is it a little unsettling to watch your grandma read hot and steamy romance novels and drool over the shirtless men on the cover? Definitely. But at least she has a hobby. Never once did I judge other people or think I would become someone who judges other people for reading certain books. That is until I came across BookTok. 

BookTok, a book-centric subculture of TikTok, has taken social media by storm. The recommendations in these videos are of books whose writing brings me right back to 2014 when One Direction went around kidnapping girls in Wattpad stories. On Tiktok #booktok has over 109.9 billion views. Some of the top videos have anywhere from 70 thousand to 1.6 million likes. This side of TikTok is full of creators promoting their favorite books and giving you lists of their five-star reads and authors. Even stores like Barnes and Noble are hopping on the trend by setting up different kinds of booktok themed tables. It’s safe to say that BookTok has grown from simple videos to an influence in businesses. It seems as though it is reigniting a love of reading in the millions of TikTok users who have come across the hashtag and bringing people together to bond over one common interest. It sounds too good to be true, and it just might be.

Once I heard about BookTok and the cult-like following it has generated I knew I needed to check it out. Thus began the worst week of my life. BookTok looks great on the surface because it is a place where millions of people come together just to discuss their favorite books and authors. These videos usually recommend some of the most popular books at the moment and share personal experiences with the authors of the books from time to time. It’s a level of immersion that you wouldn’t have been able to experience before. But it only looks great on the surface. As you delve deeper into the cesspool that is BookTok, you will find that it is not as great as it seems. 

I spent the entire week scrolling through BookTok watching video on video of over-annotated books just for the aesthetic and books that you should read depending on what “era” you’re in. There are books only getting recommended because of the tropes, never mind if the writing quality is akin to the worst fan-fic you can think of. I began my week of BookTok deep diving with high hopes and ended with nothing but disappointment and three times the amount of screen time I normally have.

One thing I noticed is how depressingly similar all of these books are. The romances mirror each other to a point that it’s almost funny. Almost every Colleen Hoover book is the same brand of trauma writing just with different characters (although Verity was pretty good). The fantasy books are boring and oftentimes have a convoluted plot line. Now, these are just the books that get pushed forward the most. If you really sit and dig through all of the videos, you will eventually find some recommendations that are actually worth your time. By the end of the week, I had read four of the popular books that were shown over and over again in hundreds of videos, as well as four books that I really had to work to find. The last four books were not as hyped as the first four, despite the first ones having dreadful plot lines and character building, and the recommendations were more than “read this book if you love enemies to lovers.” The last four books were actually worth the read. Those four books being Babel by R.F Kuang, Verity by Colleen Hoover, Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi, and The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman.

The main problem I encountered with BookTok is the algorithm of TikTok itself. The videos with the most likes and the most hashtags get pushed to the front. Those videos are usually recommending the same book over and over with the same short and cute overly-positive reviews like “this book gave me all the feels.” Which creates a vicious cycle of seeing some books far more than others. I have also noticed a concerning lack of ability to actually critique a book based on normal characteristics like writing quality, plot, character depth, etc. If BookTok was solely centered on just recommending books to you, that would be fine. However, from what I saw, it seems to be based heavily on book reviews and book commentary: People telling you why a book is good. But in this case, not really. I have seen so many videos where the creator sits down to give you a review and really only says “this book is good because it is.” There is no depth in the explanation. There is also no room for a negative critique because any bad review is attacked with a barrage of comments calling the creator out for “being mean” or “being mad because they don’t have a published book.” Basically, there is no room for a civil discussion on the book if someone disagrees with the opinion of the creator and fans of the book. It is only being used for overly positive platitudes like “this book brings all the vibes.”

It is because of this hype culture and trend following that we get books with fan fiction writing quality being put on the New York Times Paperback Trade Fiction Best Seller list. That just shows the power behind BookTok. Users of the app see the same books being pushed in their faces over and over again and go out and buy them. Which in turn, causes the overall sales of the books to rise. You might wonder, would people really buy the book without really knowing if it was good? The answer is yes. These books get so over-popularized on the app that people buy them just to see what all the hype is about whether they end up liking them or not. 

The impact of BookTok seems to be decreasing the quality of new books that are getting published. Authors who have had books gain popularity have an increased demand for their work so they increase the number of books they write a year even if it compromises the quality. Aspiring authors see what goes viral on BookTok and think they can create the next bestseller by just copying the formula of the already viral authors. As a result, we get cookie-cutter plots and lazy writing, that wouldn’t normally be published had they not gone viral, in the BookTok spotlight instead of books with actual depth. This is all because BookTok has enabled the authors to garner a celebrity-esque following on the app. I can’t even count the number of times I saw videos on there that might as well have been love letters to Colleen Hoover or Sarah J. Mass instead of the genuine book review it claimed to be. 

While I do think BookTok has been beneficial in reigniting a love for reading in many people, and in some cases starting one all together, I also think the current overpopularization of increasingly similar books is bringing down showcasing books of different genres. This is not meant to come off as overly negative in any way. I love the fact that BookTok has been able to create a community for people that love reading. Reading is something that should be fun and enjoyable, but I do not think that the current state of BookTok recommendations are very good. However, this is not meant to discourage you from checking them out for yourself. Everyone likes different genres and plot lines. You could very well like many of the books I disliked. 

Hi! My name is Amy Wallace I am currently a junior at ODU and I am majoring in English with a concentration in journalism. I love writing because it gives me an opportunity to let out some creativity and I find it genuinely enjoyable. I also enjoy books, movies, music, and coffee!