How is BookTok disrupting the editorial side of publishing?
BookTok’s ever-growing influence on readers has now reached the editorial side of the industry, forcing both editors and authors to adapt to this new disruption
Photo credits: Martina Currenti
TikTok’s BookTok community is quickly reshaping the publishing industry. Backlist titles like The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (Ecco Press) or They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera (Quill Tree Books) have been dominating the bestselling charts for over a year now, thanks to the viral videos of BookTokers like @aymansbooks and @caitsbooks.
Publishers like Penguin Random House and Bloomsbury have also started to integrate the platform into the marketing campaigns of their upcoming titles. BookTok’s ever-growing influence on readers has now reached the editorial side of the industry, forcing both editors and authors to adapt to this new disruption.
For every bookshop there is now at least a shelf (if not an entire table) dedicated to the books that are popular with BookTok members. These books are being referred to as ‘BookTok Sensations’, a title which underlines their status on TikTok and that serves as an incentive to readers, who will be more likely to pick them up due to their popularity.
Publishers have recently started to realise that BookTok can not only work wonders and produce bestselling phenomena, but also that it can be a useful tool for other publishing activities. Many self-published or aspiring authors have been using the platform to promote their writings, and some of them have been lucky enough to build up an engaging and abundant audience that is interested in what they have to offer. This has caught the attention of editors who have started to ‘BookTok-Scout’ for new authors, rather than relying simply on manuscript submissions.
Recently American author Olivie Blake was scouted via BookTok. Blake originally self-published her novel The Atlas Six in 2020 and saw a surge in her book’s volume sales in May 2021, when a video on her work went viral on TikTok. From that moment, thousands of readers started to post their positive reviews on The Atlas Six, using #theatlasix hashtag that has currently over 21.4M views. This popularity led to a seven-way auction between some of the biggest publishers in the United States, which Tor Books won with a six-figure bid.
Photo credits: Martina Currenti
The Great Resignation
In a roundabout manner, Blake’s novel is one of the driving forces behind the ‘Great Resignation’ that is taking place at the moment in the US side of the publishing industry, which has seen approximately 0.5-1% of editorial employees quit their job on March 11th, 2022. The exodus was reportedly a response to a viral tweet by Molly McGhee, who worked as Editorial Assistant for Tor Books for almost a decade. McGhee is responsible for the Book-Scouting of Olivie Blake and for editing the novel. Despite her reaching a milestone and discovering one of the biggest BookTok sensations, her promotion request was denied, which led her to leave Tor Books for good.
Photo credits: Molly McGhee (public tweet)
McGhee called out those working in executive positions for overworking junior employees, who are expected to ‘perform both full time admin work in addition to their full time jobs’. There is the overwhelming expectation for young editorial employees to add keeping up with what happens within the BookTok community to the long list of their daily tasks, as they look for the next The Atlas Series they can acquire and re-publish.
However, not all publishers can afford to partake in the high-stake auctions for BookTok hits, during which authors are courted with significant print runs and generous advance against royalties. On this matter, Sarah Shaw, an Editorial Assistant for independent publishing house Fairlight Books, commented: ‘I think that the authors will have expectations around what they'll get. As it becomes more popular for books to be acquired, and authors see what can happen when a book is acquired, I think they'll slowly expect a larger and larger advance from a publisher.’
Shaw shared her worries around BookTok sensations, stating that they might influence new authors into expecting higher advances from their contracts, and that this could push small independent publishing houses out of the auctions in favour of the Big 5.
Authors on BookTok
Many YA and Romance authors like Alex Aster and Chloe Gong are active in the BookTok community and promote their novels on their own profiles. For instance, Gong follows the popular trends on the app and connects them with the content of her duology These Violent Delights (Margaret K. McElderry Books). This allows Gong to not only nurture the relationship with her readership, but to also magnify her writing’s reach and influence more BookTok members to purchase her novels.
As BookTok appears to be a favourable environment for authors who aspire to brand themselves on the platform and consequently increase their volume sales, emerging authors like Garrett Curbow are embarking on it, gathering a great number of followers, and attracting the curiosity of both local and overseas editors.
There is, however, the risk that new authors might be the protagonists of unfair treatment due to their lack of experience in the publishing industry. They could be offered disadvantageous contracts, with advances against royalties that do not reflect either the potentiality of their writing or their already-established readership.
Popular authors like Victoria Aveyard are coming to the rescue of their new colleagues, recording videos where they are transparent about financial compensation and highlight the importance of being represented by an agent who knows how to navigate the industry.
This opinion is shared by the Literary Agent Juliet Pickering (Blake Friedmann): ‘I'd be happy to get involved, you know, make sure that they understood the publishing process. I'm there to kind of negotiate better terms, make sure that they're being paid fairly, and the publisher is doing a good job at publishing them.’
Pickering proceeded to add that it is essential for authors to learn at the beginning of their writing career that most literary agents earn money after a contract with a publisher is signed, thus if an author is asked to make any payment to their representative beforehand, in all likelihood they are being scammed.