How hashtagging titles affects writers and readers.
“Everybody always asks, so here it is,” Aaliyah Aroha captioned what would become one of her most popular TikTok videos. She appears, lip-syncing to a song from the app favorite Unofficial Bridgerton Musical and holding a stack of books, while the words “Enemies to Lovers book recommendations” float overhead. The video, posted to her account, @aaliyahreads, which has over 216,000 followers, now has 2.5 million views and more than 431,000 likes.
Many book lovers in the market for their next read—especially readers who stick to genres like romance and fantasy—turn to accounts like this first. TikTok is teeming with book influencers like Aroha (her last name is a pseudonym), who use their platforms to buy new releases, make book recommendations, share reviews and more. But in 2021 and 2022, these content creators found a new way to hack the algorithm—and in turn, the publishing industry. That is, until they started to wonder if they had created a monster.
Among genre readers and editors, depending on who you ask and the degree of engagement with the internet, they will sign up tropics (refer to the Merriam-Webster dictionary’s second definition – “a common or overused theme or device”) as the tags used to categorize fanfiction on the website Archive of Our Own (also known as AO3), the backbone of the vast fan wiki tvtropes .org, or the internal language used in publishing offices to discuss new releases. On TikTok, tropes have become internet shorthand for helping people find their next read. Creators hacked the phenomenon that is BookTok by using these tropes – “enemies of lovers”, “morally gray main characters”, “fake dating” (the trope where characters have to present a facade of love to the world but actually end up in love – see Simon and Daphne in Bridgerton), “love triangles” – as search engine optimization words to package the content and convey the “mood” of a book.
And it works too. “People want to get straight to the point, so they can read more and read what they know they like,” Aroha said in an email. “It’s a smart way to adapt to society today. I also think that it has kept books alive, and people who actively want to read.”
There is certainly an audience for it. On TikTok, videos using #EnemiesToLovers as a tag have a total of 4.2 billion views, while #EnemiesToLoversBooks has 78.2 million. Books like It ends with us by Colleen Hoover (#FriendsToLovers), The love hypothesis by Ali Hazelwood (#FakeDating, #GrumpySunshine), and People we meet on holiday by Emily Henry (#FriendsToLovers) became print bestsellers in 2022 after being promoted in the app using these trope tags. There’s almost no avoiding it – trope-ification plays a key role in BookTok’s influence on the publishing industry, especially for the fantasy, YA and romance genres.
This shorthand categorizes books in a hyper-specific way. On BookTok, romance readers can find a book where their love interests are forced to share a bed, or fantasy readers can read books with a super-powered female protagonist (known online as a “magical girl”) or a “chosen one” protagonist. This categorization allows fans to choose their own adventures or special happy days. It also streamlines the process of selecting books – and creating best sellers.
“No matter how you get people to buy books, it’s a great step for the book industry/society. I also think it helps readers to read what they love earlier, Aroha said.
But some believe this trend is reductive and rewards writers for simplicity rather than complexity. Hazelwood, author of the best-selling novel The love hypothesis and Love on the brain, did a controversial interview with Goodreads this summer that sparked a heated online debate about BookTok’s focus on tropes. Hazelwood, who is open about how she got into writing fanfiction, explained Love on the brain was the first book she had “written from scratch”.
“I kind of didn’t know where to start and my agent guided me a lot. She said, “I would love to read an academic rival-to-lovers story,” Hazelwood told Goodreads, itself a site devoted to producing trope-focused lists of genre fiction. “She gave me a bunch of tropes that she wanted me to build the story around, which was very, very helpful because I’m very indecisive and had no idea what I was doing.”
This was a bit too much, even for trope-loving fans. People online condemned this type of writing as one of the consequences of TikTok’s trope-fixation of literature. The seemingly countless videos describing — or even mislabeling — books using their tropes had, naysayers said, finally come to a head. Tropes, which have typically been seen as clichés to be avoided in writing, were suddenly everywhere, according to readers. They thought they were now seeing tropes quoted more in marketing copy, author interviews and recent books like Hazelwood’s.
TikTok readers—at least some of them—went from familiarity with tropes to, in 2022, oversaturation. Video creators who addressed this issue said they felt as though recent books were “built around the tropes.” Readers are now often savvy enough to recognize if the characters they are supposed to be invested in were created to fulfill a formula rather than advance a plot.
Josh Lora, who runs the BookTok account @tellthebeees, sees trope-ification affecting influencers more than authors. Tagging book recommendations according to their tropes and genres helps encourage user engagement. “There’s almost a mimetic quality to social media,” explained Lora, who also uses a pseudonymous last name. “When you see that something worked for someone else, you start doing it.”
While many sounded off online about one of the app’s most widespread trend cycles, it may have already made its mark in the real world. The use of tropes as SEO terms can play a role in determining national bestsellers and popular book recommendations on the app.
NPD BookScan, which tracks bestsellers and book sales from major retailers, reported that overall sales figures for authors featured on BookTok more than doubled in 2021. According to the New York Times, sales for authors featured on BookTok were up another 50 percent by July 2022 Total sales of genre books also increased in 2022, regardless of whether such books were displayed on the app or not. The romance genre saw the most growth among US print book categories in 2022, while YA fiction maintained its momentum after having its best year ever in 2021. Sales of LGBTQ fiction also doubled from the previous year. “Growth has been driven by a number of authors and series, which were supported by BookTok and word-of-mouth discovery,” NPD book industry analyst Kristen McLean said in a release.
According to Libby McGuire, senior vice president and publisher at Simon & Schuster imprint Atria, TikTok is definitely being considered during the book acquisition. “There are books that we read upon submission and think, ‘Oh, we know this reader; we know where to find them on TikTok. We can see that this will appeal to that market,” McGuire said in an interview.
She explained that industry professionals have been using these tropes and terms internally for some time. But now, due to their popularity with the general public, Atria includes these tropes in the book’s metadata, so readers can find something that hits the spot. “The consumer has become so much more savvy,” McGuire said. “They are now categorizing the books the same way people in the industry do.”
On a basic level, trope-ification has long been part of the romance genre. A staple of any romance novel and found across the genre’s many subcategories, a happy ending guarantees romance readers an experience unique to the genre. But no one could have expected that one day we would be able to search for books that have, say, a single knife-to-throat scene.
“It’s this joy of familiarity, which is part of what makes for an intimate, simple kind of reading experience,” Catherine Roach said in an interview. Roach is a professor of gender and cultural studies at New College at the University of Alabama, who has also written romance novels under the pen name Catherine LaRoche.
As a fantasy and romance reader myself, I’ve picked up my share of BookTok famous novels to understand what the whole discourse was about. There’s something exciting about seeing how a book will meet—and sometimes exceed—your expectations, even when you know what tropes it will explore. But that familiarity has its drawbacks. “If you only ever look for ‘second chance’ romance tropes, for example, you’re going to miss out on a lot of wonderful storytelling that you might have been drawn to or found otherwise,” Roach said. “That can be limiting and limiting, but it can be effective.”
Editors and writers planning books around tropes trending on TikTok may have a concern in 2023. As Lora pointed out, trends in publishing can be fleeting. Just look at the road Duskits success started a subgenre of paranormal romance books for teens and adults in the 2000s, while The death games sparked the dystopian YA boom of the 2010s that intensified The Maze Runner and Divergent. Eventually, authors and editors of these books saw diminishing returns, proving that producing books based on perceived public demand has its pitfalls. There may come a time when novels built around these particular tropes go out of style sometime again.