TikTok Figured Out an Easy Way to Recommend Books. The Results Were Dubious.

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From Slate:

“Everyone always asks, so here you go,” Aaliyah Aroha wrote in the caption of what would go on to 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, as the words “Enemies to Lovers book recommendations” float overhead. The video, posted to her account, @aaliyahreads, which boasts over 216,000 followers, now has 2.5 million views and more than 431,000 likes.

Many book lovers who are in the market for their next read—especially readers who stick to genres like romance and fantasy—turn first to accounts like this. TikTok is teeming with book influencers like Aroha (her last name is a pseudonym), who use their platforms to peddle 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 began to wonder if they had created a monster.

Among genre readers and editors, depending on whom you ask and their level of involvement with the internet, they’ll register tropes (refer to Merriam-Webster dictionary’s second definition—“a common or overused theme or device”) as the tags used to categorize fan fiction on the site Archive of Our Own (also known as AO3), the backbone of the tremendous fan wiki tvtropes.org, or the internal lingo used in publishing offices to discuss new releases. On TikTok, tropes have become an internet shorthand to help people find their next read. Creators have hacked the phenomenon that is BookTok by using these tropes— “enemies to lovers,” “morally gray main characters,” “fake dating” (the trope where characters must present a facade of affection to​​ the world but end up actually in love—see Simon and Daphne in Bridgerton), “love triangles”—as search engine optimization terms to package their content and convey the “vibe” 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 adjust to the way of society today. I also believe that it’s kept books alive, and people actively wanting to read.”

There’s 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 Vacation by Emily Henry (#FriendsToLovers) became print bestsellers in 2022 after being promoted across the app using these trope tags. There’s almost no avoiding it—trope-ification plays a key part 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 in which the love interests are forced to share a bed, or fantasy readers can read books with a superpowered main female character (known online as a “magical girl”) or a protagonist who is the “chosen one.” This categorization allows fans to cherry-pick their own adventures or particular happily-ever-afters. It also streamlines the process of picking out books—and creating bestsellers.

Link to the rest at Slate