Inside Penguin Random House’s play to reach avid readers on TikTok’s BookTok

Much has been written about how the almighty algorithm shapes our taste in everything from food and music to movies and books, but Penguin Random House is leaning into TikTok’s major #BookTok trend to help users discover titles and engage with fellow readers.

THE BOOKTOK BREAKDOWN

On Tuesday, the publishing giant announced a new deal with TikTok that lets people link to books in videos using the popular #BookTok hashtag while also working with various creators to curate content. The feature will direct users to a page that has additional info about the book and the other videos about it created by various TikTok users. According to Penguin Random House chief marketing officer Sanyu Dillon, BookTok provides an “emotional journey” that is driving more successful videos compared to those that merely provide a book synopsis.

“It’s very powerful that BookTok is driven by real people, making real recommendations,” Dillon said. “And because the best videos kind of capture that feeling of a book, this, in turn, gives viewers and users more confidence in their book discovery in their path to purchase.”

For years, curated recommendations inside of bookstores have helped guide readers toward new titles they might be interested in. But does relying on a social platform like TikTok to serve up relevant content expand or limit potential readers from broadening their horizons?

It’s not necessarily just one or the other, Dillon said. She pointed out that the footprint of many bookstores often limits how many titles can be sold or how various titles are promoted on shelves. For example, she said TikTok communities within BookTok might help people to read more books in a certain category than before, provide a greater group of related authors to choose from, or help someone discover more books by their favorite authors.

Much of BookTok’s adoption has been driven by organic content from everyday users, but Penguin is trying to approach its role by co-creating content for TikTok with creators and users. Although Penguin works with thousands of creators across its various subsidiaries, it’s also hired three micro-influencers in-house, including two for TikTok and one for Instagram.

“We do understand that an algorithm can be absolutely effective, but you can kind of stay in your lane once you’re in that algorithm,” she said. “We want to kind of expand the awareness of the various categories that we publish and the authors that we are publishing every year.”

To do that, the company has recently created other tech-driven initiatives. Last year, it created a tool called Today’s Top Books which scraped data across every online platform where Penguin titles are talked about and shares those popular titles at any given moment. Penguin has also begun other more curated initiatives on other social platforms such as All Ways Black, a community on Instagram that highlights Black authors and books.

How Penguin experiments with online initiatives depend on the various book titles and which platforms match various audiences, Dillon said. For example, she mentioned Penguin is also exploring other platforms such as Roblox.

How Penguin creates content for various social platforms depends on how users engage with each. Dillon said books that gain traction on TikTok are often fiction so they might focus more on novels, but they might lean more heavily into Twitter when it comes to nonfiction titles about timely news topics. Penguin has also been trying to get people off of social media. This summer, it created a new “Slow Down Read A Book” campaign that encouraged people to put down their phones and pick up a book.

Penguin isn’t the first company to officially partner with TikTok on BookTok: In July the platform worked with Barnes and Noble and various content creators on a summer reading challenge. Stephanie Fryling, the bookseller’s vice president of commercial strategy, said the company created initiatives on YouTube and Instagram in previous years, but that TikTok has been “a lot more explosive.”

“For us, it’s about participating in the conversation,” Fryling said. “The recommendations are driving sales of the books that readers are talking about.”

For us, it’s about participating in the conversation.
Stephanie Fryling, vp of commercial strategy, Penguin Random House

Since BookTok began in 2020, the trend has continued to grow, with views of the hashtag rising from 21 billion in November 2021 to 60 billion by July and 77 billion today. Whether Penguin’s BookTok feature will gain traction is yet to be seen, but it could depend a bit on whether creators use the feature and how that drives viewership.

Grace Hoy, director of social media strategy at VMLY&R, said BookTok can also be overwhelming by creating a paradox of choice, but Penguin’s new features could help readers more quickly navigate recommendations. However, she added that longer watch times often help creators get higher in the ranking, but if the tool lets people highlight books without watching the whole thing they might move on.

“It starts with a lot of storytelling,” Hoy said. “What’s interesting is that it really makes you watch the entire way through a lot of trends. They describe the plot, or what is emotional, and often you have to wait until the very end, or sometimes even the comments themselves to find what the recommendation is.”

Penguin didn’t disclose the terms of its new TikTok deal or how much it spends on the platform, but data from the ad-tracker Pathmatics found that the publishing house spent $1.4 million on TikTok this year, with monthly spending ranging from less than $50,000 in March to $450,000 in April. Those ads have helped rack up 143.2 million impressions on the platform. Penguin has only spent more on two other social networks — Facebook and Instagram — where it spent $2.6 million from January through August. (So far in 2022, Penguin has spent $8.76 million on digital advertising compared to $8.26 million in 2021 during the same period, according to Pathmatics.)

Other major publishers haven’t spent nearly as much on TikTok, according to Pathmatics. So far this year, Simon & Schuster has spent $187,000 and gained 18.7 million impressions, Harper Collins has spent $200,000 on 19.8 million impressions and Hachette has spent just $600 on 57,000 impressions. Meanwhile, McMillan, the other major publishing house, has spent nothing on the platform.

Social platforms like YouTube and Instagram have had features for publishers in the past. But Thad Mcilroy — an independent analyst focused on the publishing world — said BookTok’s popularity and ability to drive sales have been unprecedented and that publishers have “never seen anything this dramatic in terms of social media.”

Although TikTok says it might expand the feature to other publishers, right now the deal is exclusive to Penguin. Mcilroy — who added that many of the popular BookTok discussions already feature Penguin books — said he thinks the new features should be accessible to both major competitors and smaller publishers.

“All the big publishers have been trying to muscle in on [BookTok] and figure out a way to turn it to their advantage,” Mcilroy said. “Of course, they should try and capitalize on the social media trends, so that all makes sense. It’s really TikTok who should not be making these kinds of exclusive deals at the expense of the rest of the ecosystem.”

Clarification: After publication, Mcilroy’s commentary about the deal was updated after Penguin clarified that other publishers may get future access to the BookTok feature.

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