Leigh Stein Explains BookTok For You

Attending a webinar by a writer who’s trying to bridge the publicity generation gap for writers

If you’ve been on the literary end of any social media platform in 2023, you’ve probably seen some kvetching about BookTok: is it overhyped? Or the secret to your novel’s success? Skeptical writers are giving it mixed reviews. But one name, author Leigh Stein, has entered the conversation in a big way: Stein’s LitHub article in defense of BookTok decries earlier pieces in Bustle and GQ, which paint the platform as “shallow, fake, showy and performative.”

“I’m no BookTok tourist. I’ve lived here for nine months,” writes Stein, who now teaches classes on the platform for writers. “As a chronically online millennial, I’ve become a translator between the readers on BookTok and the literary community that looks down upon them.”

Stein argues that, instead of complaining about the challenges of maintaining a creative profession, writers need to get on BookTok and sell themselves, writing, “It’s a little lonely over here. I’ve been baffled by why my esteemed colleagues…are so incurious about the place on the Internet where readers are buying a metric fuckton of books.” While the Bustle and GQ pieces claimed that BookTok made a handful of books big, Stein cites some current creators on TikTok who beg to differ.

Stein explains the reasons behind that gap—where outsiders perceive BookTok as “a contraction or reduction of books and ideas to what ‘performs’ best in a visual medium engineered by Chinese geniuses to destroy our attention spans” and BookTokers see it as a  “a place to learn new things and expand your reading tastes”. BookTok is largely home to many young women romance readers, a population and a genre that mainstream media largely ignores; writers and readers of “literary” fiction would rather look to the New Yorker for the next best read, instead of lowering themselves to TikTok; and writers are too depressed for the joys of the creative and fun social media platform.


I will never stop recommending this book. #book #booktok #tbr #bookhaul #ifhehadbeenwithme #fyp

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“When I scroll past millennial and gen X writers on Twitter or Instagram, I see the symptoms of major depressive disorder: fatigue and feelings of worthlessness, irritability, lack of pleasure,” wrote Stein.

It’s that last comment that sparked much ire online. “one of the first conversations you and I ever had was about our experiences of depression. surely there was a better way to put this,” tweeted writer Jacqui Shine in reply to Stein. “you just seem incredibly angry and I hope you find whatever peace it is you’re seeking.”

Others, like author Brandon Taylor, balked at the idea that writers now need to do the work of publishers and marketing executives to sell their books on BookTok. Instead, the platform should be for readers looking for their next book pick, like Goodreads.

As a BookTok illiterate, I took Stein’s “BookTok for Writers” class to see what kind of advice she’s offering authors. The Zoom webinar offered a crash course in the literary platform, the knowledge of which Stein credits to her Gen-Z presenting partner, Callie Zola, who “held my hand and guided me” through BookTok.

“I am now fluent in the language of TikTok,” she began, “and by the end of tonight, you will be closer to fluent as well.”

Stein and Zola broke down what TikTok is and the history of the platform, which boomed during the pandemic. The class explained the creative ways that users make TikTok content by using viral phrases, sounds and images, as well as users and communities to follow and advice for how to pitch yourself.

Stein stressed the need for authenticity on TikTok and to engage with a Gen-Z audience, who have been online all their lives and who know an ad when they see one. It was good, but odd, advice when you zoom out on the situation: she has paid a Gen-Zer to teach this platform to her nine months ago and is now “translating” BookTok for the rest of the literary world.

That incongruence struck me throughout the LitHub piece and Stein’s webinar: why isn’t a Gen-Z author or creator calling out the publishing industry in a major literary publication? Or translating TikTok for an older audience of writers? The truth is they probably are, on TikTok, and I’m not there to see it. In which case, maybe I do need Stein’s webinar…In any case, the question of how authors, reviewers and other content creators interact with each other and with books online is a complicated one, that only grows more dire as publishing houses get bigger, staff get smaller, and publicity dollars become precious.

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Katie Smith

Katie Smith is a Philadelphia-based writer. Find her on Instagram @saddy_yankee for cat pics.

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