A new publishing company began courting self-published romance writers earlier this year. The pitch, delivered in a generic email, was impersonal and formulaic. The terms weren’t generous, sometimes amounting to just a few thousand dollars for the rights to a book.
Then came the clincher. The publisher was ByteDance, the parent company of TikTok, a social media company that traffics in short videos and has, over the past several years, helped create some of the biggest best sellers on the market. Along with an advance and royalties, the company was offering comprehensive online marketing services, according to several authors and publishing professionals with knowledge of ByteDance’s offers.
“This could be the next big thing,” Mariah Dietz, a self-published romance author, said of ByteDance’s publishing arm.
The company has already radically changed the way books are discovered online. And while ByteDance has said little publicly about its publishing plans, which are at an early stage, it is clear the company has the potential to sell a vast quantity of books.
Even under increased regulatory scrutiny over concerns it could be influenced by the Chinese government, ByteDance can reach an audience that is enormous, and growing. Many of TikTok’s users — more than 150 million in the United States alone — are interested in books. In the past year, videos with the #BookTok hashtag have been viewed more than 91 billion times, up from nearly 60 billion views the year before, according to the company.
Exposure on the platform has catapulted many authors — Colleen Hoover first among them — to the best-seller list. Posts tagged #ColleenHoover have been viewed more than 4.2 billion times, and her books have sold more than 24 million copies.
Sales driven by more than 100 authors with large BookTok followings reached $760 million in 2022, a rise of 60 percent over 2021, according to Circana BookScan, which tracks print sales. So far this year, sales have gone up nearly 40 percent over last year.
“To say it’s hugely important is an understatement at this point,” said Bess Braswell, a senior publishing director at Harlequin.
ByteDance filed a trademark for a publisher, 8th Note Press, in late April, describing it as a company that provides a range of book publishing products and services. According to the description, it would create an ecosystem where people could find, buy, read, review and discuss books.
The company also hired Katherine Pelz, a romance industry veteran, as an acquisitions editor.
ByteDance declined to confirm details about their publishing and retail operations, including which genres it plans to publish, when their first titles will appear and whether their books will be sold in traditional stores.
Despite how little is known about their intentions, ByteDance’s presence in the field has already raised concerns.
By tapping into TikTok’s ability to drive attention to books and its vast trove of user data, ByteDance could boost its own authors at the expense of others and make BookTok less organic and user-driven, a prospect that worries many TikTok users and authors.
The company could also put traditional publishers and self-published authors at a disadvantage. Even as they’ve come to rely on the platform to promote their books, publishers have found it difficult to manufacture viral book videos, since users tend to reject anything that feels corporate or inauthentic.
Their concern is that ByteDance could put its thumb on the scale in favor of its own projects, leaving less room for other books and posts that would go viral organically. In response to a question about its promotional plans, the company said that 8th Note Press is a separate entity from TikTok.
ByteDance’s advances so far have not competed with those of traditional houses: While independent presses may pay just a few thousand or tens of thousands of dollars, at larger houses, advances can run from roughly $50,000 into the millions. ByteDance said it could not disclose financial arrangements with authors but added that it believes its offers are competitive with industry standards.
For now, ByteDance seems focused on fantasy, romance and mystery, genres that are popular on the platform.
Tricia O’Malley, a best-selling romance author who has self-published about 40 novels, received an offer from ByteDance in April to buy the rights to two of her books. The deal included a social media marketing campaign, royalties and an advance of $3,500 per book — less than the titles earn every month, O’Malley said.
The company was interested in fantasy and romance, old books and new ones, stories that were “wholesome, fun and sexy, but nothing too steamy or dark,” she said.
She turned down the offer, but she said she was tempted: “The reality is that BookTok is selling books.”
For others, the company’s promise to provide robust online marketing for its authors could be hard to resist.
Ella Fox, a self-published romance author and advertising consultant who runs ad campaigns for other writers on TikTok, said that, presumably, ByteDance could make sure the algorithm prioritized their own books. “People would give their eye teeth to get in front of that audience and to be pushed in that way,” she said.
Some in the industry are dubious that ByteDance can carve out a sizeable chunk of the market, in part because publishing remains a stubbornly analog and relationship-driven business. Print sales still account for more than 70 percent of trade publishers’ revenues, according to the Association of American Publishers; any new major new publishing company would need printing and distribution capabilities, and relationships with booksellers.
“I’m less concerned about TikTok becoming a publisher tomorrow,” said Dominique Raccah, publisher and chief executive of the publishing company Sourcebooks, “because building a publishing infrastructure that works — that’s hard.”
It’s unclear what the company’s print distribution plans are and whether they intend to sell their books in brick-and-mortar stores. In an email reviewed by The New York Times, ByteDance told an author that it plans to focus on digital books with limited print on demand runs until TikTok launches an online retail store.
TikTok has already changed the way that books are acquired. Traditionally, readers learned about new authors from booksellers. Now, publishers are learning about viral authors from booksellers who come to them with requests from readers.
Bloom Books, a romance and women’s fiction imprint within Sourcebooks, signed several authors who were previously self-published — including Scarlett St. Clair, Piper C.J. and L.J. Shen — after learning their books were in demand from buyers at Walmart and Barnes & Noble.
“We started hearing from accounts, ‘This author is trending on TikTok, but we can’t stock the books,’” said Molly Waxman, the executive director of marketing for Sourcebooks’ adult fiction imprints.
Berkley has acquired books by Ruby Dixon, the author of the “Ice Planet Barbarians” series, who began by self-publishing and was one of the first TikTok phenomena, and by the twin sisters Krista and Becca Ritchie, who self-published their “Addicted” series. Avon signed the self-published author Mariana Zapata, who has drawn more than 280 million views on TikTok.
Some editors and publishers also wonder if ByteDance will be able to detect viral self-published authors when they start trending, and swoop in to sign them before they become obvious targets for other publishers.
There are industry veterans who take comfort in the fact that ByteDance will likely face the same challenges as traditional publishers: Readers are fickle, and ultimately, viral videos won’t automatically create a blockbuster if the books themselves aren’t appealing.
“They can get more eyeballs, but is that going to translate into sales?” asked Cindy Hwang, the vice president and editorial director of Berkley. “It’s not just about getting the hits, it’s about getting readers to buy the book.”