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BookTok could change the way Filipinos read

After the pandemic cut short my academic life in person, I have since studied at Trinity College Dublin, Warren University in New England and the University of Exeter in the UK – by which I mean that I lived vicariously through college lives of Marianne and Connell from “Normal People”, Samantha from “Bunny” and Dolly Alderton from “All I Know About Love”.

Books have always taken us somewhere else, but this carrying capability has gained unprecedented relevance with home orders. Frankly, reading was a welcome coping mechanism. So it’s perhaps fitting that I discovered these titles — and my love for reading — from another coping mechanism: TikTok.

Appropriately named BookTok, this corner of the application dubbed the last sane place on the internet is responsible for the fact that thousands of people around the world – including Filipinos – have become accustomed to reading, that they have been interested in books before the conception of the community. Thanks to BookTok, Vianchi, 25, started reading again after seven years. Chia, 18, has never read as much as she reads now. Aya, 18, didn’t read at all until she found BookTok. At the time of writing, the hashtag #BooktokPH has generated 139.9 million views on TikTok.

The ever-growing community is increasingly making its presence felt outside of the app. When Bryan, who creates BookTok content as Books by Bryan Hoards, made a viral video about the young adult mystery thriller “A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder”, a local bookstore saw an influx of orders. He adds: “Local bookstores now have their own ‘BookTok Favorites’ section in their physical and online stores. I’ve also seen new local book businesses emerge along the way; most of them even respond to pre-orders from international bookstores. (For context, bookstore sections dedicated to YouTube or Instagram rarely exist, perhaps proving BookTok’s unprecedented impact.)


Screenshots of Fully Booked and National Book Store “BookTok” online shelves. PHOTO BY NATIONALBOOKSTORE.COM

No one is quite sure how videos about books that make us cry or romantic feel-good novels found their way onto our For You pages. True to TikTok’s mystical, hyper-personalized algorithm, the book-related videos just popped up, and soon users found themselves overcoming year-long reading dips. Such is the story of Julienne, known to her TikTok followers as Love, Juliennewhich rekindled her love for reading after she sold out on BookTube, BookTok’s former YouTube counterpart.

“Factor yung short videos [sa TikTok]”, she said, “On BookTube kasi, watching 10-minute videos of a book language, so at noon, usually very interested in the language of the book in this book.” Due to TikTok’s three-minute limit , the creators cut to the chase, often featuring multiple titles and using tropes and themes as shorthand for what makes them appealing. sapphic protagonists, beautifully crafted enemies for loverseven books with female characters who can kill you in a second — all before a 30-second snippet of a viral song plays off.

Julienne also observes that BookTok is more laid back. Bryan, who has been posting about books on Instagram since 2018, agrees: “Bookstagram thrives on a perfectly polished aesthetic, [while] BookTok embraces everyone. On TikTok, creators have carte blanche: some play scenesCraft book-inspired moodboardsor save them (usually weepy) natural reaction at the end of a book. “I’ve seen TikToks where people show up after reading ‘A Little Life’ [by Hanya Yanagihara] and I got so curious why everyone was crying so I got it myself,” says Hannah, 19.

“A lot of people see that side of reading, that it can be fun,” says Jam, a 27-year-old content creator who started including books in her videos during her quarantine. “It may be for pure entertainment and not all books are intimidating.”

The laid-back nature of BookTok lends a sense of authenticity that readers now find crucial for finding book recommendations, to the point that they trust the creators of BookTok more than best-seller lists or promotions supported by editors. “Strangers don’t feel like strangers, and the reviews aren’t intimidating or overwhelming for the beginning reader. It’s not something you get from other platforms,” says Vianchi. Bianca finds the reviews on BookTok are fueled by a creator’s pure passion for a book, and as such feels more personal than publishers telling her to buy something.She adds that BookTok has made book criticism – often seen as nerd or overly academic – feels new and accessible.

And thanks to TikTok’s random algorithm, more and more users are discovering these short, accessible reviews, opening them up not just to the immersive world of reading, but to the plethora of genres they otherwise wouldn’t be able to check out. Thérèse, a college student, who creates videos as notthesereads, has always been a voracious reader, but joining BookTok pushed her to venture out. “Over the many years na nagbabasa ako ng libro, hindi ako napapaisip dati na, bakit parang all white yung binabasa ko,” she says. “BookTok has diversified my reading.”

This debunks the common misconception about BookTok: that it recommends the same titles over and over again. While many books have gone massively viral in the app – many of which are indeed straight and white – the community is rapidly growing globally, and given its local and self-made nature, creators of marginalized identities can celebrate books that may be overlooked in book charts or other platforms.

Homosexual books often take center stage. Some creators make Rick Riordan and Colleen Hoover videos one day, and then Bob Ong and Jonaxx the following. Each August, BookTok joins Wikithonan annual read-a-thon featuring Filipino authors, where readers are introduced to Jessica Zafra and Nick Joaquin.

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I was bitten by the BookTok bug in mid-2021, and when a video I made on “Sexuality and the Philippines” from the University of the Philippines gained attention, it reinforced my belief that local readers are receptive to Filipino titles; they just don’t know where to find them. The book has since been out of print, with the online press store’s top review thanking BookTok for the recommendation.

This is not an isolated case. Filipino author SJ Wolf says TikTok was instrumental in promoting his self-published novel ‘Under the City Lights’: “TikTok reaches billions of people around the world. It’s also free marketing, and it’s very useful for little authors.” This contrasts with other platforms like Facebook, which require her to pay for ads before showing her book to an audience she can access for free on TikTok.

As a reader, SJ finds BookTok “a very comforting community”, noting that for many people, books have become their friends during long periods of isolation. Entrepreneur and content creator Cleo, who started reading and creating book content during quarantine, feels the same way. “People needed escape, and books did that for us,” she says. “It gives us a sense of connection with other humans, a feeling we’ve longed for since the start of this pandemic.”

Books have always had this power – I remember Joan Didion’s oft-quoted statement, “We tell stories for a living” – and BookTok is an extension of that. “A comforting na umiyak ako sa part na ‘to ng book, and siya on the other side of the world, umiyak din. It creates a kind of bond,” says Therese. Many readers also express that BookTok makes them feel seen , understood and that they belong; feelings that they have a hard time finding elsewhere, especially now.

Many readers also express that BookTok makes them feel seen, understood and belong; feelings they struggle to find elsewhere, especially now.

That said, since TikTok is designed to incentivize quick content consumption, creators feel compelled to read more. There’s also the pressure to buy as many physical books as possible – a problem endemic to BookTube and Bookstagram as well – which makes reading accessible only to those who can afford tall, full shelves.

Bryan assures readers that everyone is welcome in the Booktok community, “even if you read e-books.” Julienne shares that she takes reading breaks to combat burnout, although they never last too long: “Nae-encourage talaga ‘ko magbasa [dahil sa BookTok], kasi marami akong nakikilalang bagong authors, bagong books. Thérèse reminds readers to “don’t let anyone force you to read books you don’t want”.

I remember my first few weeks on BookTok, watching ten-second book unboxing videos and seeing dozens of comments with variations of “I hope you enjoy the book.” I soften at the sheer purity of the act, and find myself posting the same good wishes. In a way, the title of the books doesn’t even matter – it’s enough that we both find refuge in reading, that we both know something that not everyone else knows. I press twice, comment “good reading!” and, for the first time in a long time, scroll without a gnawing sense of dread.

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Margarita W. Wilson

The author Margarita W. Wilson