Colleen Hoover, the BookTok phenomenon, and how social media has transformed reading

If you’ve glanced at TikTok in the past 12 months, it’s likely that you’ve seen hundreds of copies of Colleen Hoover’s books take over your feed. But how did it happen?

Pre-TikTok, Colleen Hoover was already a best-selling, self-published author. Her novel, Hopeless, was published in 2012 and quickly accelerated to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Having published more than a dozen works by 2020, Colleen Hoover’s YA/romance novels were already beloved by (mostly) American readers and her books had been picked up by global publishing house Simon & Schuster.

But, in late 2020 — as reported by Publisher’s Weekly — Libby McGuire, Senior VP and Publisher of Atrium (an imprint of Simon & Schuster) noticed a strange sales bump with one of Hoover’s 2016 titles, It Ends With Us. The title would go on to go back to press “24 times since November 2020 to keep up with demand,” and sell “308,000 copies since the start of 2021—with sales peaking at just over 29,000 copies in the week ended August 14—and just shy of 450,000 since its 2016 release.” Many critics have attributed this to the literary subgenre of TikTok, “BookTok.”

booktok creators
Photo: Simon & Schuster

What is BookTok?

BookTok is a social media haven for literature lovers from all around the world. The hashtag has over 43 billion views on TikTok and a range of sub-genres (think: #spicybooktok, #romancebooktok) with views in the hundreds of millions.

In a world mediated by social media, users are quite used to being overwhelmed with stylized sponsored content. But since the nature of the content on TikTok is grassroots — self-made, organic content; peer-to-peer sharing; ordinary users — the BookTok hashtag has the ability to create a viral, authentic hype that big publishing house PR budgets can only dream of.

Additionally, it’s no coincidence that BookTok emerged during the pandemic. During a time when meaningful, physical connections were impossible, social media platforms like TikTok, and communities like BookTok, alleviated this absence. In an interview with Refinery 29, Luz — a 20-year-old BookTok creator — said  “I created my book account because I was longing to find a connection with people about something I am super passionate about. None of my close friends read in their spare time so I took it upon myself to ignore my social anxiety and create an account where I could finally talk about the books that have changed my life.”

What’s the deal with Colleen Hoover?

As we’ve said before, Colleen Hoover — CoHo, as she’s affectionately known by her fans — was already a big hitter in the YA/romance sphere before her books — It Ends With Us, in particular went viral. Writing across multiple genres and writing more than 20 books in the decade since her debut novel, her success pre-TikTok is no surprise. In saying that, in the short few years of TikTok’s popularity, it’s safe to say that Colleen Hoover — along with a significant group of others (Taylor Jenkins Reed, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo; Emily Henry, Beach Read; Madeleine Miller, The Song of Achilles) — has become synonymous with the BookTok community. To date, four million copies of It Ends With Us have sold in the US to date, and 20m Hoover books have sold globally.

@caitlinbea Reply to @annnne44 rating every CoHo book part 1! #booktok #coho #cohort #colleenhoover #spicybooks #bookrecs #bookish #bookrecommendations #fyp ♬ Fashionable and retro HIPHOP BGM(881868) – Oren

Labeled as “TikTok’s favourite writer,” with over 500 million views on the 2016 book’s hashtag, and as one of the best-selling authors of 2021, the exposure that Colleen Hoover’s received from the platform is enormous. It Ends With Us even caught the attention of Justin Baldoni (Jane the Virgin), who is now developing a feature film adaptation of Hoover’s novel through his production house, Wayfarer Entertainment Company.

Looking beyond CoHo and the elite group of authors who have experienced the virality of BookTok, the phenomenon marks a distinct shift in the way readers consume marketing content. When scanning the types of videos on the BookTok hashtag, users will see a mix of book reviews, recommendations, aesthetic TBR piles, and even memes, that all contribute to building its growing community.

Paradoxically, for a generation that has been raised wholly in the digital era, logging onto TikTok has revived the joy of diving into a book.