30 Sep, 2023

In September 2022, The Last Word, an independent bookstore in Lahore, posted on Instagram, marketing a new addition to the collection of books they now sell: The Dating Plan by Sara Desai. In the post, they deem the novel a “TikTok Sensation”. The Dating Plan is one of many books whose success and popularity can be credited to the devoted young teenagers and adults posting on ‘#BookTok’, a books and literature community on TikTok. The hashtag has gained over 100 billion views and counting.

The phenomenon of BookTok also gave birth to various trends, one of which is “TikTok Made Me Buy It”, and Pakistani bookstores have quickly submitted themselves to the changing perspectives in the book market. Large bookstores in metropolitan areas such as Lahore soon caught up to the success of BookTok and started to capitalise on viral books such as The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid, and These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong.

Readings, the largest online bookseller in Pakistan, has gone as far as dividing shelves in stores under the title “TikTok Made Me Buy It”, and posting stickers on book covers that state the same. Director of Sales at Readings, Jibran Saeed, told Images they saw “a dramatic increase in demand” for such books, inspiring them to create new racks. These books were not necessarily on the bestseller list before they gained traction on TikTok, but now they have become household names amongst young adults, with bookstores in Pakistan scrambling to import more copies to meet the rising demand.

“Many of the books I want to buy are sold out at Readings, from where I usually buy my books,” one reader stated. Other competitors in the Lahore book market are Liberty Books and Ferozsons, but the latter does not sell books that come under the category of Young Adult or “BookTok Books”. Though Liberty Books also stocks novels made famous with the online book and literature community, one reader declared, “I would never switch to Liberty Books because they have a very high price range”.

Eventually, after major players could not meet demand and a gap persisted, another competitor in the market emerged — The Last Word. While the bookstore is known amongst locals for its indie aesthetic as a place where the staff is knowledgeable and can provide a personalised service, support more local authors and artists, or act as a space where Taylor Swift fans can have album-listening parties, it eventually also succumbed to the BookTok culture.

The millions of people who have transitioned from simply discussing novels online to turning them into ‘aesthetic’ mood boards have created a culture that values the act of being a reader more than actually reading. Appearing as a reader has become an obsession; TikTokers post videos that showcase hundreds of unread books organised by colour, most of which are novels categorised as Young Adult.

Influencers have a tendency to engage in buying books and related merchandise, such as highlighters and bookmarks, and share their book hauls that sparks a desire among others to buy more. One reader stated that content creators online showcase aesthetically pleasing shots of books, which makes reading more appealing.

A Twitter account with over 40,000 followers titled “book struggles” that posts about the issues of BookTok also identified this as a “struggle” for the literature community, stating that, “Books are something that people are over-consuming, something to buy and read — sometimes enjoy — but not usually something to digest, because that’s what these industries want”. Reading has become a lifestyle: now, people must simply look as though they own and read books, never mind if they actually do.

The shelves and stickers at Readings and Liberty Books recapitulate this culture when they note “TikTok Made Me Buy It”, instead of “TikTok Made Me Read It”. A past intern at The Last Word expressed gratitude for the bookstore for being open to her recommendations of certain YA favorites on BookTok, making it clear that the online community influenced The Last Word’s decision to make a shift and start selling more books that are popular among young readers, such as the Six of Crows series by Leigh Bardugo, at an even more inexpensive price.

BookTokers take advantage of this change, further advertising the Young Adult and Fantasy sections available at indie stores, urging their followers to “support local independent bookstores”. One frequent buyer of The Last Word said that while she resonates with the bookstore’s need to adjust to rising markets, those are not the kind of books she is necessarily looking for, stating, “It does make buying more obscure books harder because they’re not available.” Instead, she has to “place specific requests” in order to purchase the books that she wants to read.

While indie bookstores in the West are being bought out by larger chains, in Pakistan it appears small bookstores are adapting so that they continue to operate under any circumstances, even if it means surrendering themselves to the same consumerism that has made BookTok the success it is, and lose the personal touch that many independent bookstores are known for.