At the end of the 20th century, Mills and Boon changed its look. The genteel bodice-unlacers of the 1950s, hardbacks with titles like Inherit My Heart and Journey to Love, gave way in the 1970s to colourful paperbacks sporting a painting of a busty blonde and her hulking Burt Lancaster. Then, as their contents turned towards erotica, the covers became more upfront. Categories were established so that readers could easily find the types of plot that turned them on: doctor and nurse stories, historical romances, ‘Sensual Romance’ (later renamed ‘Blaze’ and then ‘Dare’). In the early 2000s, any pretence at subtlety was abandoned: Savage Surrender (1980) and The Tempestuous Flame (1979) became The Italian’s Runaway Bride (2001), The Millionaire’s Waitress Wife (2002) and The Arab Sheikh’s Virgin Stablegirl (2010). Now prospective buyers didn’t even need to read the blurb to know if a book would appeal to their particular fetish. The paintings on the front became hyperrealistic, and then were replaced by photographs.
There are several possible explanations for this increasing directness: the pressure of TV and a more crowded publishing market on readers’ attention; a changing social climate, which allowed for a campy acknowledgment of the books’ appeal (‘You know what you like and so do we; why beat around the bush?’); and, later, competition with the internet, which allowed readers to search in private for what they wanted. But the central principle of genre fiction didn’t change: people know what they like and will return to it again and again. Even within the doctor-nurse-Arab-sheikh categories, Mills and Boon’s authors were employing a number of subgenres and tropes long before the publisher began to advertise them openly: the marriage of convenience; the dark and damaged hero; protagonists who feel an excessive dislike for each other which dissolves into a frenzy of heady sex. Every romantic novel uses these formulas in some combination. The setting, characters and trumped-up misunderstandings differ, but the reader has no doubt about where things will end.
On BookTok, the corner of TikTok populated by readers, tropes are currency. The language that describes them has changed slightly – for ‘marriage of convenience’ read ‘fake dating’ – but the principle is the same, whether or not the mostly young and female users of the app appreciate their forebears. Books are understood as different combinations of a fixed number of plot devices and are rated not on their originality but on the flair with which those devices are arranged. Hashtags advertise that a book is smutty or dark or contains an enemies-to-lovers plot. Debate rages over the relative merits of ‘grumpy/sunshine’ (tortured man meets optimistic girl) and ‘reverse grumpy/sunshine’ (tortured woman meets optimistic man). Where Mills and Boon readers mostly had to discover their favourite conventions themselves, BookTokers make ecstatic recommendations, argue over tropes and discuss what excites them.
The short videos BookTok’s users post are often highly emotional. This is a function of the medium: TikTok valorises the chaotic, the immediate and the authentic. BookTokers scream, cry and throw up their way through books, sometimes live on camera. A popular soundtrack is a female voice sobbing, ‘Why would you write this? Why would you write this book?’ Reading is pleasurable torture, and the public nature of the reaction adds an extra layer of masochism. The strategy is to make fun of, and therefore control, your own ‘unwellness’. Elsewhere, BookTokers film themselves screaming silently into their hands as their favourite line from a book appears on the screen. The tongue-in-cheek emotional excess (as well as the performance of pathology) is the legacy of another ancestor, Tumblr, and many of the tropes were popularised by the fan fiction sites Wattpad and AO3. Literature as wish-fulfilment is a theme for both readers and authors, many of whom cut their teeth on Wattpad in the early 2010s. Some of the most popular books on TikTok are re-engineered Wattpad stories: The Love Hypothesis by Ali Hazelwood, currently number one on Amazon’s erotic fiction list, started life as Star Wars fan fic. (The most famous example is still the Twilight-inspired Fifty Shades of Grey.)
BookTok has serious purchasing power. Its top creators have followers in the high hundreds of thousands. The liveliness and informality of their recommendations, as well as the app’s viral model (it gives exponential weight to popular videos), mean that once a book has caught on, it sells. Colleen Hoover, whose name (or its diminutive, CoHo) is never far from the lips of BookTokers, was a self-published author until her 2016 dark romance It Ends with Us was rediscovered by TikTok in 2021. Cue thousands of crying videos and twenty million sales. Now she occupies seven of the top ten spots on the New York Times paperback fiction list. It Starts with Us, the sequel to It Ends with Us, sold 800,000 copies on publication day.
The books picked up by TikTokers are not always new. Books consigned to publishers’ backlists suddenly find themselves resuscitated by word of mouth (or algorithm). Madeleine Miller’s The Song of Achilles, a gay adaptation of the Iliad, won the Orange Prize in 2012, but recently blew up on TikTok. According to the New York Times, it sold ten thousand copies a week in 2021. Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, with its aura of occultism and psychosexual aggression, is one of the most popular ‘dark academia’ titles on the app. A Clockwork Orange, Frankenstein, Jane Eyre and, improbably, Ulysses are also hits, and the Lolita aesthetic – which comes to TikTok by way of Japanese fashion subculture – jostles for space with debates over the novel’s politics.
The physicality of books is important on BookTok: creators publish ‘bookshelf tours’ where they explain the arrangement of their shelves (often by colour, but sometimes by genre and trope). Stacks of Penguin Classics go with a specific look: leather jacket, nose piercing, flowers. Works perceived as highbrow are reduced to their covers, or to a combination of fan fiction conventions (‘Ms Brontë CREATED every single one of my favourite tropes’). The community is always preparing for battle with the intellectual snob brigade. A recent TikTok by a moody-looking teenager calling herself @ratparade with the text ‘you are on the colleen hoover side of booktok I am on the dostoevsky and kafka side we are not the same’ prompted a barrage of responses calling the canon elitist and anyone who espouses it a status-seeking pick-me.
Publishers and booksellers could hardly miss TikTok’s rise. Many bookshops now have ‘as seen on TikTok’ tables close to their entrances. Branches of Waterstones have their own TikTok accounts, usually run by junior employees. Stickers on the front of viral books proclaim them the TikTok pick of the summer/winter/year and a list of tropes can be found on the back covers of many hopefuls. The tropification of fiction has crept into the books themselves. Chapter 13 of The Love Hypothesis opens: ‘HYPOTHESIS: Approximately two out of three fake-dating situations will eventually involve room-sharing; 50 per cent of room-sharing situations will be further complicated by the presence of only one bed.’
There is a healthy debate on BookTok, as elsewhere on TikTok, about the relationship between virality and authenticity. TikTok takes the viral model to its extreme: the basic formula is to use a trending sound behind a video of yourself mouthing along to it, or to film a perfect rendition of a trending dance. Dances and sounds are reproduced until they burn out, then the template or its application undergoes a small mutation and the mutated version replicates until everyone gets bored and moves on to something else. On BookTok the cycle goes: rating books, simping over them, bringing ‘overrated’ books down a peg, and then rehabilitating them when the backlash goes too far. But there is a worry that we’re all being taken for a ride. What makes CoHo better than all the writers of commercial fiction who don’t make it?
It doesn’t help that the financial aspect of BookTok is so opaque. Nobody seems to know if, or how much, the top BookTokers are paid to promote new titles. The Advertising Standards Agency requires paid partnerships to be clearly marked on social media, but the line between a complimentary post and an ad is blurred. Paranoid Redditors see dollar signs behind every gushing CoHo review; others point out that book bloggers have been making next to nothing for decades, and since BookTokers do such a good job of providing free marketing for publishers, there’s not much incentive to start paying them.
As with any online phenomenon, BookTok stardom is precarious. In 2014, the YA author Kathleen Hale came under fire from book bloggers for writing an article in the Guardian in which she described her confrontation with a one-star Goodreads reviewer. Hanya Yanagihara, whose A Little Life is weeping-video fodder for the ages, ricochets between acclaim (transcendent exploration of the darkness in human nature) and derision (gay trauma porn by a straight woman) on both Twitter and BookTok. J.K. Rowling is ‘she who must not be named’. The phrase ‘separate the art from the artist’ comes up regularly in the comments, usually to be dismissed by another commenter: ‘It’s amazing how people don’t realise that buying the books supports the author.’
Readers of fan fiction and YA, once the underdogs of the book world, have suddenly accrued a disproportionate cultural capital. But it is unclear whether they are shaping the commercial literary landscape or being shaped by it. There’s little discussion on the app of the fact that, when you lick off the girlboss icing, the politics of much BookTok fiction isn’t that far from The Arab Sheikh’s Virgin Stablegirl. An overwhelmingly female readership is still being sold – or seeking out – fantasies of ‘taming’ a brooding stud. Age gaps and educational sex are still popular. Who is getting suckered here? Not TikTok, which made $4.6 billion in the first three quarters of 2022. In November, it announced that it would partner with booksellers to sell books directly through the app.
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