Transmedia Storytelling, Narrative Transportation, and BookTok: Can Publishing Houses Use this TikTok Trend to Save a Dying Industry?
“That’s the thing about books. They let you travel without moving your feet.” – Jhumpa Lahiri in The Namesake
Books are one of those classic modes of imaginative transportation that have, for the past 600 years, informed and captivated audiences alike. It’s no coincidence that with the emergence of commercialized books with the Gutenberg press, the Renaissance bloomed, encouraging artists and scholars to use their imaginations and creativity to propel mankind forward.
But with the birth of the digital age comes new challenges for books and the publishing industry at large. How can publishing houses, like Penguin Random House or HarperCollins, continue to thrive when corporate giants like Amazon continue to promote self-publishing? How can small bookstores stay in business when bookstore giants like Borders permanently shut their doors?
The answer could be right under our noses, on our phones, in one new app that has swept social media by storm: BookTok.
Transmedia Storytelling and Narrative Transportation
In order to understand how BookTok can save the publishing industry, you need to know the important principles involved with transmedia storytelling and narrative transportation. Transmedia storytelling, as famously defined by Henry Jenkins, is a process of creating and sharing content or a story through various media and communication platforms. This can come through videos, blogs, ebooks, social networks, and more.
Similarly, narrative transportation is the term researchers use to refer to the phenomenon of losing track of time when you are deeply involved in a story. As an avid book lover, I can personally attest to this experience, and is why I wish to work in the publishing industry. But I digress.
What ties transmedia storytelling and narrative transportation together is their ability to communicate and engaging with a seemingly never-ending story. For example, as a way to continue the Star Wars story, Disney has partnered with authors and comic book creators to write side adventures about popular Star Wars characters, such as Yoda or Padme Amidala. Readers, then engage with narrative transportation by becoming focused on the visual details of the comic book, therefore figuratively transporting them further into the Star Wars universe.
The Current Publishing Climate
While the concepts of transmedia storytelling and narrative transportation have been emerging over the past two decades, the publishing industry is facing an economic and social crisis. In the book Literary Publishing in the Twenty-First Century, multiple author contributors refer to the American publishing industry being on the verge of collapse due to competition with Amazon and self-publishers. The rise of Amazon in the late 90s/early 2000s essentially drove Borders books out of business, and as of 2014 book sales brought $5.25 billion dollars to Amazon.
However, the publishing industry isn’t dead – at least, not yet. According to The New York Times, business was actually good for publishers in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent quarantining. Additionally, book buyers learned to buy from elsewhere when Amazon underwent some challenges with shipping and order overflows on the outset of the pandemic. But as a social media lover, though, I can’t help but also attribute the recent success in book publishing to one of my favorite social media platforms: TikTok.
TikTok is a short-form, video-sharing app that allows users to create and share 15-second to 3-minute videos, on any topic. The key to TikTok’s success is not only the utilization of videos, music, animation, and acting to tell stories on social media, but is also its ability to craft uniquely curated “For You” pages based off what viewers recently see. This algorithm module has given millions of users access to what is known as BookTok, a community of users on TikTok who post videos reviewing and recommending books. Videos that have the hashtag #BookTok have been viewed more than 12.6 billion times.
According to NBC news, Shannon DeVito, who is the director of books at Barnes and Noble, credits the pandemic and BookTok with the rise in current book sales in the past two years. Particularly, there are two distinct reasons: younger readers are being introduced to older books, therefore increasing book sales for older titles, and because of COVID-19, people craved emotional connection that was satisfied with reading.
Does this sound familiar to anyone?
By utilizing BookTok, publishing houses can use transmedia storytelling to create an emotional and exciting narrative transportation experience to younger generations.
For example, as you can see from this BookTok compilation video, publishers can promote books they are releasing by using catchy titles like, “If You Love Sci-Fi Novels, You Will Love…,” and lure viewers in to see the covers and titles of books that match that description. Publishing houses can also engage in effective social media listening and monitoring strategies by tracking information of the posts that garnered the most likes or comments, or by viewing BookTok hashtags to see what content or trends are most popular on TikTok at that time.
The publishing industry is going through a rebirth in terms of attracting audiences and standing out from corporate giants like Amazon. However, it is not enough for these publishing industries to ride on this current wave of increased sales; they need to understand how social media sites like TikTok have contributed to this resurgence, and from there study and listen to their audience. I think this tactic could completely change the face of what it means to publish and promote hardcover books in the 21st century.