Beyond BookTok: The generation revolutionising publishing

Inside the minds – and living rooms – of the young book lovers reshaping the way we read.

These days, nearly every bookstore has one: a table of novels, their authors spanning gender, sexuality, race, and ability, with a small placard featuring some variation on “BookTok recommends”; “BookTok faves”; or “As seen on BookTok”. The commercial power of BookTok – the subcommunity of social media platform TikTok where readers recommend, review and joke about their favourite books, authors, genres, and tropes – is such that last month the New York Times called it “a Best-Seller Machine”; in June, a Guardian headline maintained it has triggered “a books revolution.”

So it can be hard to remember now that when lockdowns started happening in early 2020, #BookTok didn’t really exist, either as a hashtag or a community. Known primarily as an app where children, young adults, and enterprising elderly folks alike congregated to create and replicate viral dances, TikTok wasn’t yet a meeting space for the comparatively introspective act of sharing books that made you cry, made you feel seen, or saved your life. But for roughly two-and-a-half years, since Covid-19 forced everyone inside, that’s exactly what’s been happening.

As so often happens with the interests of a younger generation, BookTok was initially treated as a novelty – across the media landscape in early 2021, condescending headlines sprouted up everywhere explaining to readers what exactly was going on – but by the end of last year, newspapers, magazines, a scrambling publishing industry, and millions upon millions of book sales could confirm: BookTok had changed the publishing industry.

Behind the phenomenon, as always, is people: in England, BookTokkers from Surrey to Sunderland have sought, found, and then spread a sense of community online, inviting other readers into the community once called “the most wholesome place on the internet.” And we wanted to meet them.

This summer, we set off with photographer Andy Parsons on a cross-country journey to meet and photograph the people behind some of the UK’s brightest BookTok accounts, in the places where their online adventure started: in uni halls and suburban enclaves, city flats and family homes. Below, we go beyond BookTok, meeting them offline to ask about the phenomenon they’ve created online, how it’s changing the world around them, and why you should join BookTok, too.

Holly, 25, Sunderland |@the_caffeinatedreader

Better known as @the_caffeinatedreader, Holly is as vivacious in person as her colourful, often funny posts suggest. When we showed up to her flat in Sunderland’s pretty Roker neighbourhood on a Thursday morning, she had an array of breakfast pastries, fruit, coffee and conversation ready for us.

“I have read since I was little,” she says. “I was always that kid like, back seat on car trips reading. I always had an overactive imagination, and reading was a way to channel it. It’s why I like fantasy; adult contemporary is fine, people living their lives, but it’s not quite as fun as people going out and saving the world with superpowers.”

That said, Holly’s keenly aware of the importance of representation, too.

“I love championing queer books, but especially queer diverse books that aren't just the white experience. I’ll never understand the argument of people not reading things because they're like, ‘I can't relate to that.’ I'm like, I can't relate to Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games – like, when am I going to be in that environment? – but it's still one of my favourite series.”

What motivated you to be a part of BookTok?

I downloaded TikTok, and then I was like, it's just an app of people dancing, and not really my cup of tea, so I deleted it. Then lockdown happened; I was put on furlough and didn’t have anything to do. My friends were talking about TikTok and sending videos, so I thought “I'll just download it.” The algorithm was too good: I think I got into BookTok within the space of like, a week, and once I saw that side of it I was like, “Okay, now I get why people love it so much – because there are so many different areas of TikTok.” In my head, I'd always wanted to work in publishing – like, that's the dream – and I thought, “It's always good to just have on your CV that you're in the bookish community.” So I started making videos – at that point, I wasn’t super comfortable being on film and especially didn’t like using my own voice. It was really just to put it on my CV.

But the more I did it, the more the community became so lovely. Then, I wanted to stay in the community; the friends that I've made there, we FaceTime every night now, and arrange to meet up. Once you get into BookTok, the community is so welcoming. I kept making videos, and then it kind of became a thing when people started following, and I started getting opportunities. Now it’s just this massive thing, and I keep saying to myself, “What is happening? I'm just like, from Sunderland. What's going on? Now Penguin’s at my house?”

Tolu, 22, Cambridge | @tolusuniverse

When we arrived at Tolu’s university halls at Cambridge, she was midway through packing her things to move to London. No matter: even in the midst of transition, we still got a vivid picture of her excellent taste in books, from memoirs by young women of colour to LGBTQ coming-of-age novels, with a special focus on the intersection of Blackness and queerness.

They’re the same books you’ll find her posting about in @tolusuniverse, so named because it didn’t start as a BookTok account. “I posted a few videos on TikTok with my bookshelf in the background, and people were like, ‘Oh, what books do you read?’ Then I realised, ‘Oh, there's like, a whole community… and they want me to speak? That’s weird!’”

The youngest of three children, Tolu got a lot of books handed down to her. “That played a massive role. Nigerian families are very tight-knit, and my older sisters (now 25 and 30) gave me books that were pivotal in my upbringing. When I read Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman, it was one of the first times I read a novel by a Black woman. It turned my world upside down.”

Most BookTokkers have a story about how the pandemic, combined with a love of books, pushed them to BookTok. But what keeps you there?

The motivating factor is that I genuinely enjoy it; I just like talking to people about books. I think making a difference can be motivating, but it can also sometimes be too heavy, I think; when, like people place all the burden of representation on you, it feels like you can't like take one step wrong. Obviously I'm human, and at some point I might recommend a book that everyone hates – and that's okay. As much as I enjoy helping people find books that they like, and representing a specific community in some ways, nobody can be, like, the one. I want to be part of a community of people that are just diverse. If I stopped posting, people can go to the next person; if they stop posting, people can go to the next person. On BookTok, everyone can have someone they look to.

But it has been motivating to me that a lot of the people on TikTok are quite young, younger than me. They’ll say, “This feels really important” or “I read this book, and I saw myself in it.” I'm like, “Wait, I might be becoming the big sister. Am I growing into that role? It’s really rewarding.

Callum, 20, Guildford | @libraryofcalcifer

Two days before we were meant to visit Callum in Guildford, part of the team was struck down by Covid. Our photographer bravely soldiered on to Surrey alone, capturing photos – every bit as good as the rest of the series – of the funny, engaging mind behind the hilarious, often dramatic @libraryofcalcifer, where Callum posts clips of himself theatrically falling onto his bed, and playing multiple roles to camera. We conducted the interview safely over Zoom.

“I learned a love of reading from my Nan. Every Friday she would come round and like, do my spellings with me. She would get books out and we'd read together.”

Like many of his peers, Cal fell out of love with reading in his teen years. But in college, he says, “I picked it all back up” when a book he chose to read, based solely on plot, ended up featuring a gay protagonist.

“It wasn't in the synopsis, wasn't a big thing,” he says. “It was just, ‘Oh, this character is gay.’ I didn't realise that there was a whole load of queer books out there that I could read. It was really touching.”

How does BookTok differ from other social media?

What I like about BookTok is that it’s not written with like cancel culture in mind; it's more like “Hey, this is wrong, and this is how it should be addressed. It's very friendly; we’re all there to help each other understand our different experiences. I'm so grateful for my Black mutuals and my disabled mutuals and my queer mutuals; everyone has something to say, and we're all listeners. When I see my friends make a video about how important something is or how people need to understand something, you can boost the video, comment on it, share it with your friends. It’s something I aim to do, because if I'm finding something out for the first time, like, “Oh, that's not something I would have thought of,” then other people might be like that, too.

Why do you think there are so few men on BookTok?

I’ve seen a few UK men on BookTok, but there aren’t many of them, and I'm not entirely sure why. I think maybe it’s something to do with the concept of toxic masculinity that's still around, because it's still something that’s still prevalent. It's not something that I think there should be more of, necessarily; it just it is what it is. Maybe more will join, and it'd be lovely, but I've made so many friends from it. I don't really think about it, to be fair.

Ramlah, 20, Leicester | @inked.thoughts_

On a hot, sunny Thursday in June, Ramlah welcomed us to her spacious flat next to Leicester’s Victoria Park to shoot her in front of the bookshelves she features frequently on TikTok. A business economics student at University of Leicester, she purposely keeps her love of books separate from her education: “It's completely unrelated, and I like it that way; this is my hobby.”

“My parents, my mum especially, got me into reading; I grew up watching her read a lot,” Ramlah explains, “but when I came up to my GCSEs, I stopped reading for about two years. I wasn't really reading or keeping myself updated new releases. There were a lot of things that I missed out on.

When the pandemic rolled around, TikTok “got me back into reading. I kept seeing a lot of BookTok videos on my ‘for you’ page; I just discovered all of that at once. My camera was just full of screenshots.”

She started @inked.thoughts_, where she “looks for South Asian characters that make me feel seen, that I can identify with; it's a very emotional thing, almost. So I do try my best to highlight those things for others.”

What do books offer that film, social media, and screens don’t?

I've always said that even with things like Harry Potter, or The Hunger Games, things like that – I've always enjoyed the books much more. That's because I feel like when you read the book, you create your own cast, you're the director, the screenwriter. You do all of it in your mind. There’s a very personal relationship between you, the book you're reading, and whatever you create in your head; another person might not create the exact same thing in theirs. It’s personal to each person, and that’s beautiful. I also feel like I see the story better when I read the pages. Things like thoughts and feelings, or the tension between characters, or their backstory; you fill in the space between the words and your mind’s picture, so there’s an active relationship happening. You can create whatever you want; it’s not something that any other person can see, and I think that's kind of magical.

Kerrie, 31, Mansfield | @booked_up

The first thing that struck us, upon arriving at Kerrie’s lovely house in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, was her passionate fandom. Arrayed across her beautiful, sprawling bookshelves were tokens of her love for her favourite characters from Marvel, Disney, and other pop culture franchises: Funko Pop figurines; Harry Potter wands; Minnie Mouse ears; and plenty of occult skull figures, for good measure.

Her funny, self-aware posts on @booked_up tend to engage with – and skewer ­– the stigma surrounding the genres she loves most. “There are BookTokkers promoting books with almost a million followers; that’s a lot of younger people who are pushing – in my opinion – the right mentality forward, of inclusivity. You can read whatever you want: you can be straight and read LGBTQ books; you can be white and read about the lives of people anywhere in the world; you can read anything that suits you, and not have to fit it into a specific box. You can read romance with needing to say, ‘Oh, it's just a crappy romance’. Companies are specifically designing old-school romance covers again because people are pushing to remove the stigma. Nobody needs to be ashamed of what they’re reading.”

How do you balance a love of books with the more business-driven side of being an influencer?

Recently, I was having quite a few opportunities come through, and because I was excited about them, I took on too much. It wasn't just the fact that I was working too much; it was the fact that my page was now filled with sponsored ads and books that people were pushing me to read. That can kind of sway you from your own choices with regards to what you read and what you want to show people, and you can feel pressured to do double the work, keeping up your own personal reading preferences, your own normal content, on top of what someone's paid you to promote. So I've had to remind myself to step back and say, “I need to really look at how much I'm taking on so that the quality of my videos doesn’t come down.” I need to make sure that the content I do is still obviously good enough for it to be out there, still be true to me, and still be done for love for reading.

If I read three or four books in a row that I've not specifically chose to read myself, I get into the point where I don't want to read anymore, and I'm not really getting the most out of it for me. You have to find that balance if you are taking on partnerships and stuff like that, that it actually fits with you as a person. If it doesn't, people will know straight away, whether

you're actually promoting something you enjoy, whether you are just kind of like taking the money and then doing whatever they tell you to do. The main thing for me is that I want to be able to keep my page rolling with authenticity, as opposed to it being like, “Oh, my page is at a point now where I can monetise this, this and this, I stopped doing what I do.” Books are so personal; my priority is books I love.

Hali, 26, London | @booksonthebedside

Our very first shoot for this project was in Hali’s wonderfully sunny Stoke Newington flat. Talk about starting as you mean to go on: her photogenic space oozed the same kind of bookish sophistication and design sense you’ll find on the TikTok page she shares with her older sister Hana. @booksonthebedside is rife with book recommendations, but it’s just as likely to take you on a tour through a gorgeous UK bookshop, with sweeping panoramas of bookcases and descriptions such as, “I wish I could live in this bookshop.”

It only started, for them, around a year ago, but their follower count has grown quickly.

“It was around my sister's birthday last year; she'd come to visit me for a week, and I'd taken time off work. We were just going to raid every single bookshop in London, so I was filming it all, and it was so fun. I thought, ‘I would love to share this and show people where they can go and find books or like, just sit and read.’ It started organically through that. We were like, ‘We love books so much. Let's just post almost every day, whatever we want about books, and see what happens.”

How do you balance a love of books with the more business-driven side of being an influencer?

English literature was one of my favourite topics at school, so when I was going to university I was hoping to do, like, a history and English combined degree. But looking at curriculums for schools, it’s still just the canon, and the canon is essentially a lot of wealthy white men with maybe one woman thrown in for some spice: a Margaret Atwood or an Angela Carter or something like that. I think there is still a lot of value in learning about the canon because literature is interlinked with history, and you need to see how things were before to appreciate how things are now. So I have read a lot of classics, but I encourage people to ditch the classics mentality [that says you need to read them]; a lot of people don't want to but feel the pressure to, and I don't think that's valuable.

There are so many amazing authors of colour, and from working class backgrounds, all sorts of people who are bursting onto the scene writing future classics. I'd rather pay more attention to that than spend six months trying to read War and Peace. I've had to teach myself that that's okay. I’ve been undoing years of white supremacist thinking about what I read; we're still not where we need to be, at least from an educational perspective.

Emily, 22, Watford | @emilymiahreads

Though she’s mulling a move to London soon, for now Emily posts on @emilymiahreads from her bedroom in Watford, where her wall-to-wall bookcases were custom-built to house her vast – and quickly growing – book collection. When the three of us piled in to shoot her for this project, we could barely move around the stacks of books covering every inch of floor.

“My parents were like, ‘This is too much, you have too many books.’ And I had the old Ikea Billy bookshelves, which are so loose and wobbly, so my family got a carpenter to build shelves into the wall. There was loads of room to begin with; now there’s nothing left! My parents always took me to these massive 70% off book sales. They would say no to clothes and things like that, but books they usually said yes.”

Her walls are filled with children’s books and YA, fantasy and romance. For her, reading is a way “to take me away from reality. Like, my reality isn’t bad. But it's way more fun; if you can live in a world with a bit more magic, why would you not?”

Why do you think physical books have made such a comeback with your generation?

Books force you to slow down and unplug. When the TV or a movie is on, I’m often on my phone at the same time, so I'm not actually engaged with what I'm doing. With books I have to put my phone down; I have no choice but to be fully engaged and take things steady. Everyone always talks about how if they're going to read, they'll read on holiday, when they have time, and they can relax, and they can do it slowly. But if you implement reading in your own day to day life anyway, you can make yourself far more relaxed. I know there are many people who struggle, saying, “I can't get reading done.” Just read a chapter a night and you'll be fine.

Do you think attitudes about reading – either about certain genres or certain types of books, or even about what reading is for – are changing?

I would say yes – now, when you go to Waterstones, there’s a BookTok table, and they tend to be quite diverse. I always thought that I was quite a diverse reader anyway, but when I started thinking about more I was actually like, “Oh, wait, you are, but you're also not; the majority of my shelves were just white authors.” Often you just don't think about stuff until it actually gets highlighted for you. I’ll never understand why some people say they “don't relate” to books that aren’t white, or straight, or whatever. I’ve never thought that way, but BookTok highlighted to me that I should pick up a lot more books by more a diverse array of authors, which has been great. It’s also been good to find out which authors you did love are a little bit problematic. BookTok has definitely made me more of a critical reader, and so many of the books that I have seen getting deals from it recently are by Black authors, authors of colour who are part of the LGBTQ community. It feels beneficial for everyone.

Meg, 19, York | @readwithmeg

Meg’s colourful, fairy-lit space on York University’s campus was proof of just how much personality you can stuff into an otherwise drab halls room. Immediately, Meg’s passions shone brightly: the posters for musicals like Come From Away and Les Misérables, the latter of which she says she’s seen countless times; the long bookshelf, adorned with pride flags and lanyards; and a clothing rack adorned with a whole selection of limited-edition Taylor Swift cardigans.

Though she’s studying history, the founder of @readwithmeg has found community in reading both on BookTok and off. “York has a Literature Society, but I was always kind of like, ‘Oh, I don't really read like, the classics. I like YA, I like fantasy, I like reading for the fun of it. Is it all gonna be English students? Am I gonna fit in?’ It was actually having this community online of people who I talk about books with, and who want to hear my opinions, that encouraged me to join; now I’m on its committee.”

People have even started asking Meg if they should bring their love of books online, too.

“A couple of people at uni have said, ‘Do you think I should start a BookTok?’ Both times I've been like, ‘Of course you should!’ and both times they’ve had a really good time with it. Their accounts are growing, they're finding these communities and finding book recommendations. BookTok is so inclusive and welcoming; I think that everyone who's thinking about joining BookTok definitely should.”

Do you believe in the concept of a ‘guilty pleasure’ book?

Absolutely not. For example, I think people are realising that you don't have to be a kid to read Young Adult. There's no age limit on that. I'm 19, so I'm still technically a young adult, but I feel like outside of social media spaces about books, there's kind of a perception that once you turn 18 you should be reading the adult stuff, and can't be reading Young Adult anymore. That's not true, and there are plenty of people older than me on TikTok who still absolutely love YA. I read what I want to read. That might be a cheesy YA rom-com or a dramatic high fantasy; I try not to get too bogged down about the idea of reading so-called classics. Obviously, if a classic interests me I read it – I’ve really enjoyed some of the classics I've read in the past – but for me, reading is about enjoyment. I try not to think too much about “Is this the right book to be reading? Is this what people want to be seeing reviews of?” I just read for me.

Coco, 26, Leicester | @cultofbooks

Full disclosure: we knew Coco before we began shooting this feature. Based on the success of her excellent @cultofbooks account, which until recently she co-ran with good friend Carla, we hired Coco to run our @litincolour TikTok account, bringing attention to Penguin’s project supporting inclusive reading in school curricula. But in the time between our visit to her family home in Leicester in June – where her mother, despite being away for our shoot, still threatened “to disown” Coco and her brother Luqman if they didn’t serve us delicious Somali snacks – and the publication of this feature, Coco announced a new career milestone: joining the company’s publishing house Cornerstone as an editorial assistant.

“But I’m a BookTokker til I die!” she enthuses, speaking animatedly about her love of her community. “This stuff is important. I've had videos where I talk about Black fantasy books, and people leave extensive comments or send me DMs saying, “Hey, I just bought the book” that was from this Black, female-led publishing house Onwe. I got hundreds and hundreds of DMs from people saying they bought the book, bought it from their website – and I just did the video because I really enjoyed the book.”

It's a long way to come for someone who’s been reading for as long as she can remember (“my mom would take us to the library near our apartment block”), who moved a lot as a kid (“I went from Holland, to Canada, to America to then England – and then we moved, I think, three more times since then”) and who, just five years ago, was diagnosed with ADHD. “Reading books has always been a place where I can feel stable. They’ll always be a part of my life.”

You lead the way for a lot of young readers to discover more diverse literature. Has BookTok diversified your own reading habits?

Absolutely. Being from a minority group myself, it was easy to think that I’m one of the least represented in books. Then my eyes were opened to books by like, Polynesian authors, and Desi authors. It’s important those cultures are seen and read about, and I think BookTok is so great at creating space for people. I’ve found novels about Kenyan folklore, about Chinese dynasties; it’s beautiful. It’s where intersection happens: it’s not just queer books and Black books but like, Black queer books. Everything intermixes, and that's the great thing.

BookTok opened the world up to me.

Photographs: Andy Parsons for Penguin

Design: Claire Cheung

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