My Book Blew Up On Instagram. Why Isn’t BookTok For Me?

For writers like Sweetbitter’s Stephanie Danler, BookTok presents a more existential problem.

by Stephanie Danler

Like everyone with a soul, my relationship with social media is fraught and ambivalent. When I started my “professional” Instagram account in 2015, it wasn’t casual. I thought about it. I thought about what could produce a “net positive” effect in what felt like a narcissistic, lonely making space on the Internet. Food? Travel? No, the thing I do singularly well is read. So I started using that page as a place to talk about books and poems I love. Then something curious happened: My novel, Sweetbitter, which came out the following year, was one of the first books to briefly take over #bookstagram. No one in publishing knew what to make of it. Did these posts translate to sales? Was it the equivalent of taking out a magazine ad, the more eyes the better? Did author engagement enhance or hinder it?

Though it seems like those two events — my starting a professional account and my book’s visibility on the app — were strategically connected, the truth is they weren’t. I had nothing to do with early fans of the book posting about it. It was organic, spontaneous, and frankly surprising. But when those readers eventually made their way to my page, it wasn’t to talk about Sweetbitter. They came to see the book recommendations.

Earlier this year an article appeared in the New York Times citing BookTok, a TikTok hashtag used to talk about books, as a driving force in book sales. Much like with Bookstagram before it, the natural runoff from that conversation was an ambient pressure for authors to have a presence on TikTok. It falls under the depressing edict that having a social media presence is prerequisite to the publishing of books. Eventually, I, too, decided to join TikTok. And after I did, a dozen people asked if my agent told me I should join the app. My response: “What agent would say that?”

It wasn’t my agent. It was my friend Emily Ratajkowski, also a writer, who has been telling me for years to get on TikTok. She believes that’s where the smartest, funniest, most incisive content lives. And it was our conversations about OnlyFans, a platform where sex workers can monetize their trade — think getting paid for videos of your feet and all the other more hardcore bits of you — that gave me a vision of how an author could be on TikTok. I made a joke that I could create an OnlyFans page of me silently reading my favorite books. It didn’t feel like the worst idea.

I made a joke that I could create an OnlyFans page of me silently reading my favorite books. It didn’t feel like the worst idea.

My fluency with Bookstagram and the thinking it requires seemed to make me a natural fit for BookTok. After lurking, hemming, and hawing, I decided to participate: I did not speak. I did not dance. I read a book I think is worth reading. In addition to “reading” books I’ve read and loved, I gave writing tips like: snacking; masturbating; stealing from poets; despairing.

As I spent more time on the platform and the TikTok algorithm learned me, I enjoyed the mom humor, and the teenage dirtbag photo thing, and hearing brilliant people’s takes on thorny issues. I like that TikTok is messier than its still-life cousin Instagram. But I kept wondering... where are the books?

Every time I went on TikTok looking for books, it seemed impossible to discover different fiction. It was the same 20 books over and over, reinforcing the idea that if you aren’t reading that Colleen Hoover book (no shade! Haven’t read!), you’re not in the club. Where are the accounts talking about dead authors? Backlist books? Books recently reissued? Books from indie publishers, like Catapult, Milkweed, Soft Skull, and Wave? Where is the page that functions like the Lit in Translation table at McNally Jackson bookstore in New York, where I found Yuko Tsushima, Hilda Hilst, and Shahrnush Parsipur? I asked — on both TikTok and Instagram — for leads to these accounts and the response I got was that they, frustratingly, didn’t seem to exist.

I gave writing tips like: snacking; masturbating; stealing from poets; despairing.

After a month of my own posts and engagement, more “literary” content was fed to me. Apparently, I was looking for “Lit Girl Aesthetic,” which made me briefly want to die. There was the Ottessa Moshfegh, The Secret History, and a surprising amount of Dostoyevsky in the hands of startlingly beautiful women with cutting captions about angst and reading-in-the-corner.

But my inability to get hooked on BookTok actually has more to do with the way the app works. That it’s not a social media app but an entertainment app. On it, you can’t just show a book by Clarice Lispector. The successful accounts performed being a “woman who reads Clarice Lispector.” And I was also performing something: an author who was “over” BookTok and has more rarified consumer tastes than your average reader — a role I was probably born to play, though I’m not necessarily proud of that.

Being visible on these apps is antithetical to the act of writing. The former breaks down the precious isolation required for the latter. It breaks the spell of possession our characters cast over us. It forces us to become a perceived object (in essence to objectify ourselves) instead of lingering in the emptying of identity and ego that normally accompanies writing. I’m left with the suspicion that writing and reading are the most mysterious and private tricks our fretful little brains can perform. It’s a performance not meant for the public gaze. I do not see a home for myself as a BookToker. I am afraid that I don’t know how to both genuinely read, and imitate myself reading.

Though maybe I’m afraid I do know how to do it. All too well.