The power of GenZ and the #BookTok boom

In 2018, an unexpected rise in printed book sales began to happen, thanks to millions of book-loving teenagers… and an extraordinary TikTok hashtag.

Written by Lisa Lambert

Senior PR Specialist

Just think, around fifteen years ago the media predicted the death of physical books. In hindsight, we can see why – things were pretty shaky in the music industry during that time too, with revenue plummeting as illegal downloads soared. It was simply assumed that books were next. After all, e-readers were taking off and self-publishing was finding its feet in a world that meant print and shipping were no longer necessary to authors who wanted to sell their craft.

Both e-readers and self-publishing went on to become extremely successful but, as we know, they didn’t hammer a single nail into the coffin of physical books. On the contrary, there wasn’t a coffin at all, and people continued to purchase books, both physical and digital – and a combination of the two. However, the continuing success of printed books in a digital world has become a matter of endless fascination, particularly when so many creative industries have found themselves disrupted by inventive new ways to reach their consumer. Homes no longer have CD racks, but they do have bookshelves. IKEA even recently relaunched their classic Billy Bookcase in a range of new colours.

Sales of printed books remained steady despite the market being inundated with new e-readers, offering storage for endless books and various bells and whistles. The two happily existing in parallel suggested that if you were a reader, these devices offered a great deal of convenience and portability, but there was something about a real book that was uniquely appealing. It was okay to enjoy both, and the predicted demise of print simply didn’t materialise, but what did was absolutely unexpected. From 2018, a new generation of book lovers emerged, and publishers watched as they changed the face of book sales forever.

A young woman wearing headphones lies on the grass in a park, reading a book.

For some young people, reading literally represents ‘down time’ from an always-online world.

The youngest of Generation Z – those born around 2005 to 2008 – became what the industry calls ‘Young Adult’ readers (or just ‘YA’) around this time. These are children whose parents were often among the first owners of smart phones, a generation who themselves grew up in a pre-internet world but have embraced it joyfully and are thoroughly tech-savvy. As a result, these kids have a solid relationship with printed books through school, bedtime stories and their parent’s paperbacks lying around the house, but socialise, study and find their entertainment online. You might expect them to eschew reading altogether, demonstrating the short social media-trained attention spans that adults often lament. But instead, many – a lot, in fact – love to buy, read and talk about books.

“My teenaged daughter regularly reserves books from her local library,” smiles Liz, who is parent to three children aged 7, 12 and 15. All enjoy reading, but she admits to being surprised by the habits of her eldest. “Kids of her age have a reputation for being face-down in their phones, but it’s like she relishes the time away.” And this, at least anecdotally, seems to be true. The #BookTok hashtag on TikTok has had a staggering 117.9 billion views (without accounting for #booksoftiktok, #BookTokChallenge and local language hashtags, which add further millions). It offers an incredible insight into today’s young readers. The way in which these young people recommend their favourite books is nothing short of delightful, inventive and fun. They take time away from the digital world to read a lot, then give reviews, ask for opinions, talk about the books that changed their lives, make a lot of in-jokes and are also caring and considerate – warning each other of difficult content and triggering subject matter.

“Most of our lives are spent on the internet anyway, or at least mine is. Reading something physical kind of disconnects me from that.”

It's this sense of community and camaraderie that’s contributed to soaring sales of in YA which has been the fastest-growing area of printed books in the last five years. It’s mostly fiction but there is a notable uptick in non-fiction too. The power of these young readers is very real indeed. For example, #BookTok has made stars of the likes of Colleen Hoover (‘CoHo’ to her army of online fans) and Taylor Jenkins Reid, whose novels have had TikTok endorsements in the millions and sales to match. Watching the recommendations and reviews is fascinating. Yes, it’s influencer culture, but it’s more than that. After all, this is the generation who are notoriously intolerant of inauthenticity and know when they are being sold to or courted for their money. #BookTok gives them a level of collective control over their fandom – and their cash.

None of this comes as a surprise to Stuart Rising, Head of Commercial Print at Canon UK, who has seen our book printing customers report a general positive trend. “The pandemic certainly boosted demand for physical books across the board,” he says. “But online communities of young readers are having a real impact on the publishing and print world. The speed at which books can go ‘viral’ has certainly had ramifications for print on demand.” This is a significant challenge in book publishing and the Heartstopper graphic novel series by Alice Oseman is a good recent example. Originally a web comic, in 2018 Alice decided to self-publish and set up a Kickstarter to fund it. She raised the money in under two hours. The first run sold out immediately. Then the rights to Heartstopper were acquired and a full release of the first two novels happened in 2019. They immediately sold out everywhere and booksellers reported waiting lists and turning away dozens of disappointed teenagers every day. This is a great example of why publishers are now increasingly exploring print on demand as a way to keep up with these trend waves, particularly as #BookTok is global. Being able to print as required across multiple countries speeds up time to market significantly, just in time to be read, shared and hashtagged #BookTokMadeMeReadIt before a trough happens.

“Physical books smell goooood,” sighs Anna, age 15. “There's just something about them. Having a physical book that someone wrote is kind of special.” Amelia, also 15, agrees, “I like real books because I like having something I can actually have with me, I guess. I like the fun covers and the feel of the paper. Oh, and they don’t burn my eyes off if I read at night.” So, next time you pass a bookshop, take a look inside. You’ll see thousands of beautiful books, but you’ll also see teenagers. Lots of teenagers. Because they’re not always online – sometimes, like most of us, they just want to curl up with a good book.

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