How TikTok is helping to revive the UAE's love of reading

Sub-genre 'BookTok' is drawing more teenagers to local book stores

Lubna's choice of TikTok recommended books at Kinokuniya Abu Dhabi. Victor Besa / The National
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“Sorry, it’s sold out.”

On a Saturday evening in one of the UAE's largest bookshops, a teenager waits at the customer service desk with the “Favourites” folder on TikTok open on her phone. Scrolling through several book recommendation videos, she asks the employee if certain titles are in stock.

Unfortunately, many are not.

With a sigh and a quick scribble of her number on a piece of paper, the girl thanks the attendant and walks back to join her friends, who are sitting on the floor in a corner of the shop.

Sometimes we get special requests to order certain books because they are new and have become popular on TikTok
Roma Masilungan

Piles of other popular books on TikTok are scattered around them as they discuss which ones are worth buying.

The queue at the payment counter has grown to more than 15 people by the time the teenagers choose books.

“It is all because of BookTok,” Borders bookstore employee Roma Masilungan says.

A sub-community, or niche, on the app TikTok, called BookTok, focuses on videos relating to books and literature. These include recommendations, reviews, reactions, skits, memes, fan casts and much more. The hashtag currently has 47.5 billion views, with more than 83,000 from the UAE.

Ms Masilungan has been working in customer service at Borders for about six years and says there have been many young people specifically inquiring about popular books on the app since 2020.

“Sometimes we get special requests to order certain books because they are new and have become popular on TikTok.”

She has also noticed that this trend is most common among teenage girls and particularly about books written by Colleen Hoover.

It Ends With Us, for instance, is Hoover’s most viral book and has been on the bestseller lists at Kinokuniya and Borders since 2021.

A powerful tool for marketing

BookTok inquiries have became so frequent that it is common for bookshops to create entire shelves and several display tables at the entrance of the store dedicated to books trending on the app, making it easier for customers to find them.

"The book-related videos are great for marketing to young people,” says Aizza Quinones, who has been working at Borders for more than seven years.

“We usually place bulk orders for these books often because they sell very quickly.”

So, what converts a viewer on TikTok into a buyer and reader at a bookstore?

Going with the crowd is one of the main factors that affects this, says Suraksha Mukesh, 19, a frequent reader and UAE resident.

“People, especially young girls, want to conform to the norms and the trends on TikTok,” she says.

Ms Mukesh believes the "it girl" trend is a good example of this, where female creators post videos of the books they read along with their aesthetically desirable lifestyle.

If her followers want to be like her, then they will want to read the same books, she says.

Ms Mukesh says she is influenced by them as well and she finds herself buying books about self help or feminism solely because her favourite BookTokkers are reading them.

Targeted audience

Moreover, the “For You” page on TikTok is highly personalised for each user, so there is an increased sense of intimacy and trust between audience and creator in comparison with platforms such as the Amazon-owned book catalogue site “Goodreads”.

Ms Mukesh says she feels the creators are speaking to her directly when they recommend books.

“I’ve never intentionally searched up book-related videos but it is as if the creators know what type of books I would like.”

As a result, she feels there is a corner of TikTok that is a community of readers, who share their opinions in the comments section, relate to each other and together gush over the books they love.

“I even joined a [chat room] that I found on TikTok with readers and we would all talk about our favourite books or recommend some to each other.

“I don’t think I will ever go back to traditionally [researching] books. The list of book recommendations from TikTok in my notes app is ever-growing and will remain with me for ever.”

Lubna Abdul Nazar, 26, echoes the sentiments.

As a BookTok creator, she has noticed many people engaging with her content often, having conversations in her comment section, and even going out to buy the books she recommends after they see her videos.

When checking her analytics, Ms Abdul Nazar has also realised that her most viral videos are short, funny ones about book jokes; however, her most saved and shared are the longer videos, such as book reviews.

“I feel like I can connect with my audience more if I am talking to them directly. These are the videos I personally love to watch as well.”

Avid reader Mohaddesa Meherali, 19, agrees with this.

She says the most attractive videos are those that have a summary of the book as well as how the creator honestly feels about it, without the unnecessary hype.

“I also think videos on books written by authors of colour, or those that contain diverse characters are very likely to be popular on TikTok,” she says.

Ms Meherali says the BookTokkers on the platform “are often critical readers and quickly spot hidden biases or problematic ideas”. However, they also give the authors credit where credit is due, which she finds to be a good balance.

“BookTok has made some great progress in helping readers diversify their shelves. I took a step back and thought, ‘that's a lot of white authors on my shelf’.”

Ms Abdul Nazar wears a hijab and, as a Muslim creator, thinks she has a role to play in adding to this diversity on BookTok.

She enjoys reading and sharing books with Muslim leads and a positive representation of Islam.

“People in the region are able to relate to me more and therefore be more trusting of my recommendations.”

Updated: May 20, 2022, 6:00 PM