Much has been written about how the almighty algorithm shapes our taste in everything from food and music to movies and books, but Penguin Random House is leaning into TikTok’s top #BookTok trend to help users discover titles and interact with other readers.
On Tuesday, the publishing giant announced a new deal with TikTok that allows people to link to books in videos using the popular #BookTok hashtag while working with various creators to curate content. The feature will direct users to a page that has additional information about the book and the other videos created by various TikTok users. According to Penguin Random House Marketing Director Sanyu Dillon, BookTok offers an “emotional journey” that is driving more successful videos compared to those that simply provide a synopsis of the book.
“It’s very powerful that BookTok is powered by real people, making real recommendations,” Dillon said. “And because the best videos capture that feeling of a book, this, in turn, gives viewers and users more confidence in discovering your book on their journey to discovery.”
For years, curated recommendations within bookstores have helped guide readers to new titles that might interest them. But does relying on a social platform like TikTok to deliver relevant content expand or prevent potential readers from broadening their horizons?
It’s not necessarily just one or the other, Dillon said. He noted that the footprint of many bookstores often limits the number of titles that can be sold or how various titles are promoted on the shelves. For example, she said TikTok communities within BookTok could help people read more books in a certain category than before, provide a larger pool of related authors to choose from, or help someone discover more books by their favorite authors. .
Much of BookTok’s adoption has been driven by organic content from everyday users, but Penguin is trying to address its role by co-creating content for TikTok. with creators and users. Although Penguin works with thousands of creators across its various subsidiaries, it also hired three micro-influencers internally, including two for TikTok and one for Instagram.
“We understand that an algorithm can be absolutely effective, but you can stay in your lane once you’re in that algorithm,” he said. “We want to broaden awareness of the various categories we publish and the authors we publish each year.”
To do that, the company has recently created other technology-driven initiatives. Last year, it created a tool called Today’s Top Books that pulled data from all online platforms where Penguin titles are discussed and shares those popular titles at any given time. Penguin has also started more curated initiatives on other social platforms like All Ways Black, an Instagram community that highlights black authors and books.
How Penguin experiments with online initiatives depends on different book titles and which platforms cater to different audiences, Dillon said. For example, she mentioned that Penguin is also experimenting with newer platforms like Roblox for its Who Was young adult series.
How Penguin creates content for various social platforms depends on how users interact with each one. Dillon said the books gaining traction on TikTok are often fiction, so they might focus more on novels, but lean more on Twitter when it comes to non-fiction titles on current affairs. Penguin has also been trying to get people off social media. This summer, it created a new “Slow down, read a book” campaign that encouraged people to put down their phones and pick up a book.
Penguin isn’t the first company to officially partner with TikTok on BookTok: In July, the platform worked with Barnes and Noble and various content creators on a summer reading challenge. Stephanie Fryling, the bookstore’s vice president of business strategy, said the company built initiatives on YouTube and Instagram in previous years, but TikTok has been “much more explosive.”
“For us, it’s about being in the conversation,” Fryling said. “Recommendations are driving sales of the books readers are talking about.”
Since BookTok began in 2020, the trend has continued to grow, with views for the hashtag increasing from 21 billion in November 2021 to 60 billion in July and 77 billion today. Whether Penguin’s BookTok feature will gain traction remains to be seen, but it might depend a bit on whether creators use the feature and how that drives viewership.
Grace Hoy, director of social media strategy at VMLY&R, said BookTok can also be overwhelming in creating a paradox of choice, but Penguin’s new features could help readers navigate recommendations more quickly. However, she added that longer view times often help creators move up the rankings, but if the tool allows people to star books without seeing them in full, they could move on.
“It starts with a lot of storytelling,” Hoy said. “What’s interesting is that it really makes you see all the way through a lot of trends. They describe the plot, or what’s emotional, and often you have to wait until the end, or sometimes even the commentary itself to find out what the recommendation is.”
Penguin didn’t disclose the terms of its new TikTok deal or how much it spends on the platform, but data from ad tracker Pathmatics found the publisher spent $1.4 million on TikTok this year, with monthly spending ranging from less than $50,000 in March to $450,000 in April. Those ads have helped rack up 143.2 million impressions on the platform. Penguin has only spent more on two other social networks, Facebook and Instagram, where it spent $2.6 million from January to August. (So far in 2022, Penguin has spent $8.76 million on digital advertising compared to $8.26 million in 2021 over the same period, according to Pathmatics.)
Other major publishers have not spent as much on TikTok, according to Pathmatics. So far this year, Simon & Schuster has spent $187,000 and earned 18.7 million impressions, Harper Collins has spent $200,000 on 19.8 million impressions, and Hachette has spent just $600 on 57,000 impressions. Meanwhile, McMillan, the other major publisher, hasn’t spent anything on the platform.
Social platforms like YouTube and Instagram have had features for publishers in the past. But Thad Mcilroy, an independent analyst focused on the publishing world, said BookTok’s popularity and ability to drive sales are unprecedented and that publishers have “never seen anything so dramatic in terms of social media.”
TikTok says it could expand the feature to other publishers, but right now the deal is exclusive to Penguin. That could give Penguin an unfair advantage, according to Mcilroy, who added that many of the popular BookTok discussions already include Penguin books. Instead, he believes new features should be accessible to both major competitors and smaller publishers.
Mcilroy also mentioned Penguin’s ongoing attempt to acquire another Simon & Schuster, another publishing giant, which is still locked in a legal battle with the US Department of Justice over concerns it would create a publishing monopoly. According to Mcilroy, the exclusive TikTok deal is “one more reason” for the Justice Department to block the merger.
“All the big publishers have been trying to get into [BookTok] and find a way to harness it,” Mcilroy said. “Of course, they should try to capitalize on social media trends, so it all makes sense. It really is TikTok that shouldn’t be making these kinds of exclusive deals at the expense of the rest of the ecosystem.”