Old Dog, New TikTok
Y’all. Are you sitting down?
I made a TikTok.
This was not my fault. Well, not entirely. It’s mostly my friend Thumper’s fault. And also a little bit my editor’s fault. Some of you know that, among other things, I write young adult (YA) novels. And for the last little while, TikTok has been the place to be for YA writers and books. This isn’t surprising given that 80 percent of TikTok’s user base is between the ages of 16 and 34, which lines up almost perfectly with the target audience for YA books these days.
There’s a subcommunity of TikTok called BookTok, where users make TikToks about their favorite books. And this is a big deal. Books that become favorites with the BookTok community almost inevitably become bestsellers. I love this because it’s readers selling other readers on their favorite books. And the best part of it is, absolutely no one has figured out how to make a book a BookTok star.
They’ve tried. But it doesn’t work. As one of my publishing friends lamented, “We have entire meetings about BookTok and how to make a book go viral there. And nobody knows. If it doesn’t happen organically, it doesn’t happen.” Frustrating, to be sure. But also, kind of fantastic.
I honestly hadn’t paid much attention to TikTok before except when my husband, who is addicted to TikTok, would send me ones to watch. Also, there’s this hilarious Muslim woman (@zainah.mb) who makes TikToks about her cat, Sister Minnie, and I am in love with them both and get excited every time they make a new TikTok.
Now, though, I have a reason to pay attention. I haven’t had a YA book out in a while. But in one of those peculiar publishing fairy tales that sometimes come true, a book I published 15 years ago, called Suicide Notes, was recently given a second life by someone at Barnes & Noble, who selected it for a sales program that found it reaching an entirely new audience. That audience asked for a sequel, and so this fall my novel Every Star That Falls will be out.
A week or so ago, another editor friend sent me a photo. He had gone to a Barnes & Noble in Manhattan and took a photo of a table they’d made featuring BookTok Favorites. There in the middle of the table was my novel Suicide Notes. That led to my husband searching for my books on TikTok and finding a surprising number of TikToks about them.
Which brings us to my friend Thumper. About a year ago, Thumper decided he wanted to give TikTok a go to promote his writing. He started making TikToks engaging with the witchcraft community, which is his primary focus. To his delight, they took off. (Check him out at @fivefoldlaw.) And one of the things he realized very quickly is that the best way to promote your writing is to not talk about it very much at all. Instead, you make TikToks about pretty much anything else that gets people to engage with you. Then, if they like you, they might check out your books.
“Make one about something fun,” Thumper suggested when I told him I was thinking of venturing into TikTokland. And so, I decided to make one about Greta, one of our dogs. Specifically, I made one of me singing Greta one of the daily songs that I make up about her, in this case one in which I assure her that she is the most beautiful dog in all the world. It concludes with the statement that she is especially more beautiful than Gwyneth Paltrow.
“This is so stupid,” Thumper said when I sent it to him for his thoughts. “I love it.”
I put my TikTok up and waited for it to go viral. (Should you want to see it, check out my account at @authormtford.) So far, it has not. As of today, I have 23 followers and 14 likes. This is nothing on Thumper, who has 57K followers and 1.5M likes. And it’s really nothing on TikTok’s most popular creator, Khabane Iame, who has 155M followers and 2.4B likes. But everyone has to start somewhere.
Most of my writing peers lament the very existence of TikTok. They don’t understand why anyone likes it. They hate that something as simple as a ridiculous 15-second video can make or break a book. Mostly, they resent it deeply when the books that make it aren’t theirs. And I get it. In its worst moments, TikTok feels like being in a room filled with people desperate to be famous just for being famous.
But I can’t help but love it. I love that it’s made mostly by young people taking control of the same advertising channels that target them. I love that it’s actual readers talking about the books they love, and why. I love that it’s often completely ridiculous.
Yeah, I’m probably too old for TikTok. Whatever. I learned a new trick. And I think it’s a pretty good one. ▼
Michael Thomas Ford is a much-published Lambda Literary award-winning author. Visit Michael at michaelthomasford.com.