If the algorithms strike right on TikTok, Grand Rapidians might find a familiar sight: Schuler Books.
The longtime independent bookseller, 2660 28th St. SE, has turned into an influencer in the world of BookTok, the subgenre on the popular social media platform. Schuler’s influence is so strong that its suggestions often end up impacting Amazon’s algorithm — not that they want anyone to order off the online retail giant.
“We’ve had bookstores tagging us from all over the world,” Marketing Coordinator Alana Haley said. “We have followers from Germany, Brazil, we have a lot from Australia. We’ve ended up shipping books all over the world.”
But how does a local bookseller end up going globally viral?
“Social media is always growing and changing. I’m old enough that I’ve been around since before there was a Facebook,” Haley said. “So, whenever there is a new channel, that’s something I will always start watching. So, we had been watching TikTok, figuring out a way to be on there.”
As it turns out, TikTok was a smart place to start looking. Book sales started to surge during the pandemic as people were cooped up in houses during the COVID-19 lockdowns and engrossed on social media platforms. As of July, the #BookTok hashtag had more than 64.3 billion views, per a Mashable article, and according to BookScan, BookTok helped sell 20 million printed books in 2021, with growth up another 50% in 2022.
Bookstores now have sections dedicated to trending titles and TikTok even partnered with Barnes & Noble for an official book club this summer.
The main players within the hashtag, however, are generally individual readers. In a New York Times article this summer, the publication noted the platform just provides an accelerated version of how books often spread historically: word of mouth.
With readers driving the content, Schuler’s team decided to do what they do really well in store, just on social media, which is give suggestions. Then one day after they had been receiving decent results, there was a mention of going viral.
“If you speak it, it will happen and it was within a week or two we had the first one go viral,” she said. “Once that happens, it’s a cumulative effect. We had some much stronger results after that, but it wasn’t until March we had one of our speed recommendations go mega viral and that particular viral basically sold out titles nationwide for three books that were not new releases.”
From there, selling out three titles that had been out for more than 10 years positioned Schuler as an influencer. Libraries started imitating the strategy and using their prompts.
While it has become a way to grow business, Haley said it’s also been a great way to support the industry as a whole. She hopes their suggestions drive business at other bookstores as well, not just at Schuler’s locations and website.
And the exercise is not just about moving books.
“It’s a lot of fun, but a lot of work to keep up with,” Haley said. “But we balance being silly and fun and recommending books.”