Phone with TikTok app

TikTok for Authors: A case study

Is TikTok essential for authors to sell books these days? Author Rebecca Zornow shares her experience on TikTok to help find the answer.

You’ve heard it enough times: readers are on TikTok so you should be too. But is TikTok for authors really essential to sell books these days? And what does that mean for your writing practice? 

Hi, I’m Rebecca Zornow, a speculative fiction book coach, science fiction writer, and member of AuthorTok. I’m going to use my own experience on TikTok to answer some of these questions. 

Here are the facts as of September 2023. I signed up for TikTok about two years ago. I’m about to publish my third book, Negotiated Fate. I’ve made over 400 TikToks. I have about 1,200 followers and 23K likes across my videos. I’ve had plenty of dud videos that didn’t get any traffic as well as some small-time viral videos at about 20K views.

Rebecca's TikTok account

The hard stuff about TikTok for authors

Any new social media or marketing venture should be met carefully. Your time as an author is precious. That’s why I want to start by highlighting the difficulties of the experience. It’s easy to be lulled into the promise of one viral video that changes everything like this Texan author, but let’s take a closer look. 

The biggest cost to joining TikTok is time. A video can take anywhere from 2 minutes to film and an hour to upload. You also have to interact with the app to keep up-to-date on trending sounds and changes to the algorithm. All of this takes consistency. With few exceptions, real growth on TikTok comes from regular posting and thoughtful engagement.

A phone with the TikTok app open

There’s also a learning curve for making good videos. You need to have a phone that takes high quality video (I didn’t at the start), some idea of what good lighting is, and think critically about the keywords and other details. 

Being on camera can be challenging. There are plenty of times where I’ve felt the need to put out a video but don’t have the energy or the hair day. I’ve learned to just set aside that task for when I’m feeling energized, but it does require you to be in tune with yourself.

A copy cat TikTok account

Dealing with trolls—or just as worse, apathy—can also make TikTok feel like the dark side on some days. Why did someone make a copycat account of me, even using my own author photo? Why did that man tell me it wasn’t a big deal that there are so few women characters in LOTR, when it’s obviously important to me? These things are true on any social media, but there’s something about putting your face in a video that makes all of this more vulnerable.

So, if these sound like challenges you feel you’ll be able to overcome, read on because TikTok for authors can be equally magical.

The good stuff about TikTok for authors

Why wade into the black hole of another social media?

Well, because it builds community and can sometimes sell books.

It hasn’t been my personal experience that TikTok is as good at building author networks as Twitter was in its heyday, but I’ve still found ARC readers, writers who I chat with from time to time, and especially keep up with all the publishing news.

Even the small interactions add up. People love to cheer you on. It can feel truly amazing when you have good news to share and strangers on the internet take time out of their day to congratulate you.

Person holding phone with social media apps

You have to be careful as a writer though when engaging with reader accounts. Many reviewers aren’t interested in connecting with writers and can see it as overstepping the boundaries, whether the review is positive or negative. My best advice on that is to ignore videos about your work unless a reader initiates contact.

One of the most delightful, unexpected benefits of TikToking is that it chronicles my journey as a writer. I wouldn’t have otherwise filmed myself on book launch days or at special events, but now I can look back and see how far I’ve come.

The big question about TikTok for authors

Everyone wants to know: does it sell books?

And the answer is yes—if your books are already sale worthy. If you haven’t had your book professionally edited or have a ho-hum cover, it’s unlikely your book will sell, whether on TikTok or not. But if you’re either working with a publisher or have put the work in yourself, and you produce content that speaks to your ideal reader, yes, you will sell books. 

I unfortunately don’t have clear numbers on how many sales have come from TikTok, but I suspect I’ve sold more from small posts that speak clearly about what my book offers, than a few viral post that were tangentially related to my writing.

Many books on a shelf

I’ve experimented with posting daily and posting sporadically. Though I racked up views in the months I posted every day, I don’t have the willingness to dedicate the time consistently. With the other demands of being a writer and book coach on my plate, I didn’t see a big enough difference between the sales I got when I posted two or three times a week verses when I posted every day. 

Still, it pays to have at least a few periods when you post consistently. It gives you a greater well of experimentation and practice.

Best practices

What it comes down to then is having a book that readers want to read and connecting with those readers in a genuine way. Over my two years on the clock app, I’ve found a few best practices: 

  • Don’t market to writers. It can be tempting to talk all day about writing tips, processes, and publishing news, but that doesn’t reach an audience of readers.
  • It’s essential to have clear audio, and clear video is highly preferred.
  • Don’t greet people at the start of your video. Start with a strong hook instead.
  • Experiment with short vs. long form video, page flips vs. talking videos, and plot-related content vs. thematic content.
  • Get used to boiling down the concept of your book to just a couple lines.
  • Experiment with posting consistently and see what that can do for you. But also put your writing first and back off if you need to.
  • COPE: Create Once, Post Everywhere. I repost my TikTok videos to Instagram and Facebook reels which has led to consistent growth on those platforms too.

The TL;DR version is that TikTok is icing on the cake. Your author business needs to already be professional and growing on its own. Investment in TikTok just adds to that foundation. 

If you’d like more author marketing content, check out this guest blog post from Kim Catanzarite, How I made it onto the best sellers list and you can too.

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