Since the global pandemic and the rise of TikTok that went with it, BookTok—the platform’s sphere for book lovers—has emerged. It is now a media phenomenon for young people; a new way to promote books and make reading more accessible. And it works phenomenally: #BookTok accounts for over 181.7 billion views, and its Instagram equivalent, known as Bookstagram, has almost 100 million posts under the corresponding tag.
Parents should be delighted: finally their kids want to go to the bookstore and read some books they saw on their socials. However, as much as Bookstagram has created a renewed interest in books among young people (and especially girls), this phenomenon comes with a lot of criticism and even dangers.
One of the first problems we have been observing on these bookish spheres—and that can be extended to social media in general—is the lack of regulation for young people. Indeed, adolescents now have access to a wide range of recommendations, even ones for which they are definitely not the target audience. Middle schoolers should not read books with very explicit scenes, much less dark romance.
Dark romance, in particular, is a subgenre that only mature audiences should read, as it presents very twisted and even toxic representations of romance—you cannot even begin to imagine all the things one can do with a gun. When 14-year-olds start to read this kind of book, it is hazardous, because at that age you are more easily influenced and can fail to make the separation between real life and fiction. Being hit or insulted by your partner and dating someone with a huge age gap (especially when you are 15) is not romantic.
And still, I have never seen so many young girls buying these books at stores. But the true question is, whose fault is it ? Well, I would point out that editors tend to not do enough on this issue. Firstly because explicit romances can be part of the “Young Adult” category, which targets people between 12 and 20. Imagine the gap that this classification leaves: 12 year olds do not and should not read the same things as 20 year olds. A new classification is clearly needed. Secondly, age guidelines—like we can see on TV shows—are starting to appear on books but they should be mandatory and more visible on book’s covers. It would be a great indicator for children as well as parents so they can buy books with age-appropriate content.
The second problem I would point out with the development of BookTok and Bookstagram is that we have entered an era of overconsumption of books. Now it is very ordinary to see book influencers bragging about their fifty-plus TBRs (all the books they have bought but not read yet). The book world needs to slow down because readers keep buying to the point of excess and it is getting ridiculous. People are buying books for the sake of it, only for them to be left to be forgotten for months on a shelf. A book should be bought with the intend to actually be read and appreciated.
It is also problematic because editors have to create content faster to continue to satisfy demand, and then we end up with phenomena like the Fourth Wing sequel. After the success on social media of the first “romantasy” by Rebecca Yarros, the editor and author had to rush the editing of the second book, Iron Flame. The idea was to keep the book series trendy on social media by not waiting too long for the sequel, so they released it not even a year after the first book. This release was a monumental failure as readers were greatly disappointed by the amount of mistakes present in the plot and in the print: missing pages, text upside down, and the title and maps on the wrong side of the book. Iron Flames is the perfect example of how BookTok ruined the pleasure of waiting (sometimes for several years) for a sequel which will live up to the expectations of readers.
This overconsumption also leads to bad recommendations. It seems that tropes are the only way to promote a book, and because of that I often find myself disappointed. Sometimes it feels like reading the same book but with the characters and places just having different names. Some editors seem to copy and paste plots to satisfy the demand and publish their new “steamy enemies-to-lovers sports romance”. And instead of pure hatred between two characters who would literally hold a knife to each other’s throats (hi, Cardan and Jude) you have two characters making one snarky remark at the beginning of the book, before already kissing each other on page 10.
There is also a responsibility for book influencers, because the lack of diversity in their recommendations is astounding. I cannot count how many times I have seen on my Tiktok “For You Page” a Colleen Hoover book recommendation (who is clearly overhyped, give me back my money). It is always the same authors and always the same books promoted, and it is honestly tiring. Diversity in characters as well as plots is what is needed in Bookstagram (because 19-year-old white female characters falling in love with the handsome and mysterious white billionaire king who is a few centuries old is clearly overdone).
Finally, with BookTok, promoting books is accessible for everybody, including authors. Numerous authors do their own promotion and marketing way beyond what they should (i.e. reveal the synopsis and cover, as well as announce some book signing dates). It is the editor’s job, and not the author’s, to market a new release. Speaking from experience, it results in bad advertising reaching the wrong audience, who will then be disappointed by the book, as it did not match the promoted description. The author then misses the opportunity to attract a loyal audience just because of poor marketing.
If there is one lesson to be learned from 2023 in the bookish community, it is that we need to relearn to appreciate reading slowly. At the end of the day, it is the reader’s responsibility to put limits on their consumption. Editors are just trying to keep up with the demand, which ultimately leads to bad books with generic plots and printing issues. BookTok and Bookstagram are not the only ways to find recommendations. There are plenty of wonderful books waiting to be discovered and appreciated (even if they do not contain a copy-and-paste version of Aaron Warner).