BookTok’s Racial Bias

Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photos: Getty

Forget The New York Times Book Review, the celebrity book clubs, the merch — nothing sells books like BookTok. The hashtag rocketed Colleen Hoover’s career into the stratosphere, landing a whopping six of her titles onto the New York Times’ best-seller list. (According to NPD BookScan, she outsold the Bible this year.) Novelist Alex Aster secured a six-figure book deal when she sold her book Lightlark at auction after garnering buzz on TikTok. It turned sales around for a struggling Barnes & Noble, and movie studios are optioning BookTok-popular titles left and right; in the past six months, viral hits such as It Happened One Summer, by Tessa Bailey, The Love Hypothesis, by Ali Hazelwood, and People We Meet on Vacation, by Emily Henry, have announced Hollywood deals.

But there is one rather glaring problem with the BookTok explosion: Almost every author who has found life-changing success via the platform — six- and seven-figure book deals, weeks and months spent on best-seller lists, headline-making movie contracts — is white.

“I can’t really think of a single book that’s blown up on BookTok that wasn’t written by a white person,” says Leah Koch, owner of the Los Angeles–based independent bookstore the Ripped Bodice. “And let’s be clear, this is a problem with white readers. It’s not a problem with readers of color; they obviously still want and care more about the diversity of their authors.”

Dating Dr. Dil author Nisha Sharma says that, among her fellow writers, there was an expectation that the young-adult audience — typically noted in publishing for being most interested in a diverse range of fiction — would mature into similarly diverse adult readers. But, in fact, the reverse is happening. Koch says she’s noticed that Gen Z cares the least about racially diversifying their reading.

“With TikTok, we’ve seen almost a regression and how that regression is playing out,” Sharma says. “We’re not sure why it’s playing out, but that’s something that has become more and more apparent as more and more books get optioned, get seven-figure deals, all of it.”

In many ways, this problem is an extension of racial inequity in the publishing industry overall. These conversations have been bubbling on social media since the #PublishingPaidMe hashtag took off on Twitter in 2020 with a New York Times report concluding that a mere 11 percent of books published in 2018 were by authors of color and that 85 percent of people who acquired and edited books were white. In 2020, for the first time, best-selling children’s books featured more Black characters than white; just one year later, that number of Black protagonists fell by 23 percent. Studies have regularly shown that representation is key in childhood development, both in terms of relating to one’s own ethnic or racial group and understanding others, and that comprehension carries through adulthood. It would not be a stretch to imagine that gap grows only wider as readers — and writers — mature.

“I think it’s a reflection of a structural misunderstanding — the idea that the white woman is the factory model and everything else is a new edition on top of that, a new thing to consider, instead of the conceptualization of whiteness as a racial identity alongside all of the others — and I think that, given how young the BookTok audience skews, there’s not really a level of self-awareness about that yet,” says Sanjana Basker, a BookToker who creates content at @baskinsuns.

Oversimplified conversations about race and representation on the app are filtering up through publishing; Sharma recalls one South Asian reviewer asking why South Asian romance protagonists couldn’t be more like Kate Sharma in the television adaptation of Bridgerton — an Indian woman grafted onto an originally white character in a story that takes place in Imperial England. “These are the kinds of hot, hot takes that then publishers will glom on to because publishing is predominantly white. They lack critical analysis when it comes to diversity and inclusion because they don’t have the training, they don’t have the awareness, they don’t have the understanding of nuance,” Sharma says. “Then they’ll call their authors and say things like, ‘We need to put ‘Indian’ in the title of the book to make it more apparent that this book is Indian.’ This is an actual true statement that came from one of the publishers that exists today.”

But the same thing that makes BookTok so powerful — TikTok’s much-vaunted, top-secret algorithm — is also what causes the lack of diversity. For a variety of reasons, most algorithms are inherently racist; TikTok’s creates an echo chamber that incentivizes users to keep something popular in the conversation rather than create content about something new. A common complaint BookTok users see is that the hashtag consistently promotes the same handful of books: If a topic is trending, a halo effect is created for other similar content, which means talking about Colleen Hoover, for example, or Sarah J. Maas’s A Court of Thorns and Roses series, is a surefire way to help videos go viral. (#ACOTAR alone has some 4.2 billion views.)

“The algorithm is pushing somebody talking about X white book to the top, and then five people read that book,” Koch says. “Then they all make their videos, and then everyone’s like, If I don’t make a video about this book, I’m not part of the conversation, over and over and over and over again.”

The way the algorithm functions also makes it easier for white creators to find success compared with creators of color. “Something I’ve noticed is that if I stitch a white creator, my video is most likely to go viral because it’s a white person that they see first, and then they see me,” says Breana Newton, who creates under @breana_reads. “There are times where I have a sponsored thing coming up, and my views aren’t doing that well; I’m like, All right, I’m gonna have to stitch this [white person], answer their questions, show some books that I think people would like, because then that now pushes that video out, and then the video that comes after that will perform well, which I need in order to get paid.”

Once BookTok went mainstream through news stories and publishers and creators alike realized there was money to be made, it became significantly more difficult for smaller voices to break through. Indie author Jessica Cage initially joined TikTok because she could connect directly with an audience, and she saw real-time increases in sales when her videos went viral. Now, she says, that’s not nearly as possible — not least because many users believe TikTok has “shadow-banned” hashtags related to race.

“Over the last year, I’ve seen the shift. It was a really great place for BIPOC authors because we were utilizing the platform and we would get the exposure,” she says. “It seems like the algorithm did drown out the POC authors and the readers as well.”

These algorithmic problems combine to stack the deck in favor of white authors. They already have an advantage in selling and marketing a book, but the app allows white authors to find an audience of white creators on TikTok, who then create the conversation other users feel obligated to keep up with, which exposes the book to wider audiences. It’s a cycle that leads to both incredible individual success and the suppression of marginalized voices.

It’s not surprising to hear that many BookTokkers have begun to experience severe burnout. Trying to keep up with an ever-changing algorithm becomes a job, which turns reading into a job. There’s a growing cynicism about how BookTok — especially with regards to videos that show off book hauls and “to be read” piles — promotes overconsumption. And for the creators who want to promote authors who fall outside the BookTok-popular list, it begins to feel as if they were tilting at windmills.

“I really want to create a space where, like, a lot of Black and brown authors get the hype that they deserve because some of their books are phenomenal and nobody really gives them a chance because they’re not deemed popular,” Newton says. “It gets a little sad sometimes to see how it’s always propping up white authors and sort of letting the chips fall where they may for any other marginalized group.”

This burnout has become an integral component of the conversation centered around the labor of content creation on BookTok. Creators are aware that they drive enormous book sales and change how books are marketed; there are now BookTok tables at stores such as Barnes & Noble as well as special stickers attached to books at other chain stores marking them as popular on TikTok, but the people who made these books go viral in the first place are not getting paid. Whereas other industries, such as fashion and travel, have long been paying content creators for promotion, most publishers still rely on sending advance reader copies and maybe a cool swag box in exchange for posts.

“There’s a lot of taboos about being paid for reviews too; there’s a lot of taboos in general around the book industry that don’t seem to apply to other industries, which is wild,” says Mel Thomas, a BookToker with the handle @pagemelt. “I think a lot of book lovers put publishing on a pedestal, but they’re still corporations who want to make money and want to spend the least amount of money to do it — so if you want to offer your labor for free, I mean, of course they’re going to do it.”

Authors, too, are frustrated with the current system of content creation. Many pay for their swag boxes out of pocket, which Cage notes most indie authors don’t have a budget for, and they navigate how to create content for this new platform with very little guidance on what does and does not work. Most of them just want to write; now they have to be video editors, actors, and marketers all in one without the help of their publishers.

“What they should do is invest in their authors and give their authors the tools and the means in order to be able to be supported on TikTok,” Sharma says. “Why are we doing this ourselves? If it’s obvious that you want TikTok buying power, wouldn’t it make more sense to support the people that you’re paying anyway?”

The good news is that these conversations about race and unpaid labor are happening across pockets of BookTok and are starting to bubble up into what Thomas refers to as “factory settings” TikTok, that top layer of BookTok that is the entry point for most users. Many creators encourage fellow readers to train their algorithms to present them with more diversified reading recommendations through following a broader range of content creators and engaging with their content through likes and comments. There is also increasing pressure on BookTokers to promote more books written by and about underrepresented and marginalized communities, especially outside special holidays like Pride Month or Hispanic Heritage Month. If BookTokers promote these alongside the more “mainstream” BookTok books, they argue, the rising tide will lift all boats.

Ultimately, the trouble with BookTok — which is also perhaps its biggest appeal — is that it functions much more like several dozen book clubs than one monolithic creature. That makes it harder to market to, but for BookTokers, being able to curate a space for people like them is the real benefit.

“As an adult, I’ve never had friendships or any kind of community around people who shared the same interests as me; mostly, it was me adapting myself to be interested in the stuff that my real life friends were into,” says Thomas. “I don’t think I realized before this how small I had been making myself in my opinions.”

More important — but less tangible — than selling books, BookTok has renewed an interest in reading and helped readers find communities through shared interests as well as giving them a voice about the things that matter to them.

“I would still do this all over again because this community has pulled me from probably the darkest moments of my life, where I didn’t even know if I was gonna wake up the next day and want to keep living,” Newton says. “I feel like I’ve met lifelong friends on this app.”

BookTok’s Racial Bias