The biblio-files: How the publishing industry is controlling your next read

A TikTok logo sits in front of a book shelf with the book "Lightlark" being pulled out.
(Katherine Tan • The Student Life)

Imagine this: You’re an author who’s done the difficult and grueling work of writing, editing and finally publishing a book that you love. For the first couple of weeks it sells fine, but then suddenly it absolutely blows up. Retailers cannot sell it fast enough and within weeks it has hit The New York Times Best Seller list. You soon find out the culprit of this overwhelming success – BookTok. 

BookTok refers to a grouping of TikTok videos pertaining to all things literary, created by and aimed toward bibliophiles. With the nature of endless short video content on Tiktok and the everyday user averaging about an hour of use on the app, videos go viral very quickly — so it’s no wonder that this viral formula might also apply to books. Thus, the term “BookTok book” — books that go viral on TikTok — was born. 

The above has been the story of many BookTok books including “The Atlas Six,” “A Court of Thorns and Roses” and “The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo.” It has also led to many authors joining the platform in hopes of further promoting their works and garnering a bigger audience. As a result, TikTok followers have become a currency recognized by the publishing industry. It is in this climate that Alex Aster and her newly released fantasy young adult novel, “Lightlark,” first made an appearance.

With a follower count nearing 1 million on TikTok, Aster has been able to amass an awful lot of interest and excitement for her newest novel “Lightlark” from authors and readers alike. For readers, she makes videos describing scenes from the book, marketing it as a novel complete with diverse character representation, popular book tropes and an amalgamation of aspects from other well-known book series. For authors, she regularly speaks about how she had been writing for over a decade before eventually gaining her current mainstream success. 

Prior to its release,“Lightlark” has even been able to generate a movie deal with Universal Studios and the producers of “Twilight.” Aster maintains that she had no connections to the publishing industry and gained agent representation the way most authors do – through cold emailing. 

So why the recent controversy over this seemingly fortunate and deserving author? A few weeks before the book’s release, reviewers with access to advanced reader copies began to complain about “Lightlark.” The main claims have been that the actual issues of racial and LGBTQIA+ diversity in the book were not accurately portrayed in marketing and that many scenes and quotes used in marketing the book online were not even included in the print edition of the novel. The online discourse was almost instantaneous as her TikTok community grew quickly upset, with many people on the internet publicly condemning not just “Lightlark” but also Aster for falsely advertising her book.

The issue at hand, though amplified by “Lightlark,” extends far beyond the book. Authors and publishers have taken advantage of the idea that there is a reliable, formulaic way to interest readers, who want elements like diverse representation and specific book tropes. This creates a situation where books can generate mass amounts of media attention and success without ever even being read. The key is in the marketing, and publishers are learning that by monitoring and replicating social trends, you can sell a book more easily than by marketing the actual content of the pre-existing book. 

One might argue that books have always been marketed through the monitoring of social trends. Through the 2000s, supernatural media was in vogue, spawning literature like “Twilight” and “The Vampire Diaries.” This was quickly followed by the rise of the dystopian genre with popular examples such as “The Hunger Games” and “The Maze Runner” series. 

Overall, the question is no longer “how are publishers choosing what they market?” It’s “how much autonomy do readers have over choosing our favorite books?” Were you a “Twilight” fan because you were really interested in Bella’s choice between Edward and Jacob or was it because that was what the publishing industry was offering you? 

Whether it’s “Lightlark” or “Twilight,” the publishing industry continues to figure out the formula to engage us the most. And while we might genuinely enjoy vampires, dystopia or fantasy, it is important to remember that there is a whole industry dedicated to understanding the psychology of how to best market the genre of the decade to us. 

So when you pick up your next read, ask yourself: why this book? Was it recommended by a friend or book influencer or did the cover stand out to you on bookstore stands? Because while indulging in these marketing systems is by no means wrong, it is important to recognise the forces swaying us in each direction. 

Tomi Oyedeji-Olaniyan CM ‘23 is a Dual Neuroscience and Literature Major. If you need her, say her name in the mirror three times and legend says she will appear to give you a book recommendation.

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