Gone are the days of “guilty pleasure” romance novels which you stick your nose up at and then binge in secret: #BookTok has made romance cool again, and it’s propelling our beloved “chick-lit” novels into the limelight they deserve. But what’s changed, and why now?
When I was a tween, I thought I hated the romance genre — even though my favourite books at the time were The Fault In Our Stars and the Vampire Academy series.
Romance was cringe, I somehow convinced myself, despite my deep investment in fictional characters’ love-lives and how feral certain tropes (“Who did this to you?”) made me.
However, times are changing, and no longer is enjoying the romance genre something that should be hidden — in fact, with the emergence of social media and specifically #BookTok, romance books are enjoying an unprecedented level of not only celebration, but respect.
Readers are unabashedly sharing the tropes that make their toes curl, animatedly reacting to certain ~spicy~ scenes in their fave books, and deconstructing narratives they find problematic. They’re pushing their favourite authors into virality and impacting book sales with the click of a button. It’s a phenomena growing by the day in its feverish excitement, and it’s honestly incredible to witness.
Romance is cool now. And it’s because of a community of (mostly) women who refuse to let the patriarchy malign what they love.
Ana Huang, author of the Twisted series (comprised of four “dark romance” books), is an author who has experienced the power of #BookTok first hand, after the community propelled her into fame in 2021.
She’s widely considered to be one of the most talked about authors on the app — hashtags associated with her have more than 1.5 billion views on TikTok, and she’s also the most popular author in terms of Australian sales after the infamous Colleen Hoover, according to publisher Hatchette, selling 230,000 copies of her books in just the last year.
“Before I published the Twisted series, I was a brand new author and very under the radar,” she tells PEDESTRIAN.TV.
“When I joined #BookTok, I started to be part of the community and I was lucky enough to develop relationships with some of the BookTokers.
“I was honestly not expecting [Twisted Love] to take off the way that it did after the fact. So I’ve been very grateful and humbled by all of the support.”
Genevieve Novak, the Australian author behind No Hard Feelings and Crushing, also found support and appreciation on BookTok for a genre that, pre-social media, didn’t always receive the same levels of engagement.
“I have found such a supportive community on TikTok to help celebrate my book, I couldn’t believe how much feedback I was receiving about how relatable it was,” she said.
“On TikTok there is this real sense of celebrating romcoms again, I think the Bridget Jones moment is back and women are rallying women.”
According to Novak, 95 per cent of her sales have come from TikTok, and Dymocks — who sells her book — tells PEDESTRIAN.TV it’s found that the romance category increased by 180% over the last three years, due to the rise of #BookTok.
“Oh noes, teenage girls have a space where they can talk with each other about their hormoney thoughts without feeling policed!” *clutches pearls so hard they crumble into dust*
— Bring Back Squick! 🚢& LET ⛴️🔞 (@crankyoldenby) May 13, 2023
So, what’s changed in these recent years?
“It’s interesting, because romance has perennially been the biggest selling genre in publishing, right? Always. But I do think that right now, there is a different demographic of readers that are reading it,” Ana Huang theorises.
“It’s more visible in the public space, for several reasons. When people talk about romance, and they talk about #BookTok, I think it was really kind of a confluence of events that you really couldn’t have planned.
“In the pandemic and the lockdown, people needed something to do so a lot of people downloaded TikTok. And with the state of the world, I think they also needed some escapism. So a lot of people turned to books and they turned to romance in particular, because you’re always guaranteed a happy ending in romance, right? That is one of the two main things that you have to have in order for a book to be considered romance: a happy ending and a central love story.”
Huang reckons this growth in popularity of TikTok, and Gen Z’s penchant for sharing things they like online, is what has legitimised romance as something people not only just read secretly but actively engage with and talk about. Finally, an industry us Gen Zs and Millennials are not killing.
“A lot of new readers are coming into the space, who are a lot more open, a lot more comfortable on social media, who are talking about their love for a book and sharing it and you know, really making it into this ‘phenomenon’, as you mentioned,” she says.
Despite its revitalising of the romance genre though, BookTok is not without its problems. For one, as quickly as it can raise an author to international fame, it can also swiftly turn on them.
Colleen Hoover is a good example of this. Perhaps BookTok’s most celebrated author, I actually bought her novel It Ends With Us because of the hype it was getting online. It turned out to be average at best, but more problematically, some accused it of romanticising abusive tendencies in relationships.
While she was hailed as one of the best romance writers on one side of BookTok, on the other, Colleen Hoover quickly fell from grace — which escalated after she decided to create a colouring book of her novel despite its dark source material.
There’s also been criticism that the popularity of specific tropes on BookTok — enemies to lovers, fake dating, the “one bed” trope, etc — has pushed authors and publishers to prioritise chasing virality by marketing stories with these tropes, which some say has come at the cost of good writing and an actually informative synopsis.
omg this!!! it makes sense with fanfiction because the existing plot and characters is already common knowledge for the reader, but a trope without any real synopsis is so meaningless
— verity ♡ (@veritys_books) May 3, 2023
As an avid reader myself, I think there’s some truth to this — I’ve definitely picked up a book based on a TikTok about its tropes, only to find it reads like something I would have read on Wattpad when I was 14. Tropes should be a bonus to a good story, not the reason it’s good, and I would certainly prefer good character arcs over a melting pot of every viral trope.
That being said, there are plenty of incredible books published every year with our favourite tropes which don’t use them as a crutch. One of my favourite reads this year doing the rounds on BookTok right now is a great example of this: Fourth Wing, an adult Hunger Games-esque fantasy novel which has actually found its sizzling enemies-to-lovers romance is the star of the show.
The fact that this book is a fantasy (with dragons!!), yet the selling point for most young people is its central love story, really drives home how much we’ve underestimated romance and its place in stories in the past — and how we’re finally moving passed that.