Alice Foster opened her cafe, Coffee Depot, on Carholme Road last year. This year she brings the digital subculture, #BookTok, offline by starting a public book swap.

“We wanted to do it because you see a lot of young people now on their phones and on laptops” Alice says. “Reading is something I grew up doing and then as I got older I stopped. Then going through TikTok, you’re scrolling through there for ages and I’m guilty of sitting there thinking ‘I need to get off my phone, I’ve been scrolling through two hours.”

Pictures by Jake Williams.

“But when you come across these book recommendations, it gives you something to think about doing. If you come out for a coffee, and there is a book recommendation you’ve seen online and we’ve got it in our bookswap, it’s such an easy way without fully committing to spending the money on a book.”

Now, the book swap is mostly enjoyed by younger customers who have sustained the viral trend. Alice says; “Young adults, lots of students actually are quite interested in it. If a parent comes in and they have a kid with them, they can pick a book and read it to them. They normally don’t take it home but it just keeps their child occupied while they are here. But on the whole, it is anywhere between 18 and 30 year-olds that mostly enjoy it.”

More people have been encouraged to read by online communities like Bookstagram on Instagram, and BookTube on Youtube; however, none has been as effective as BookTok, as its popularity bumped up the footfall in brick-and-mortar bookshops and accounted for 1 in 4 book sales in 2022 according to The Bookseller.

In the same year, over 60 billion videos on TikTok have included #BookTok, and have now been viewed by 112 billion TikTok users. Social media hype or not, stores like Waterstones have now codified the hashtag into their reading festivals and in-store ‘book table’ display.

Sceptics have criticised BookTok for harming the community it represents, where the aesthetics of a reader is being sold, rather than promoting the action of reading itself. The commodification of the reader’s identity created concerns of what the lasting impact of the trend may be.

“Please enjoy my mum’s amazing book,” reads a note on the inside of one of the books on offer.

At the heart of the BookTok trend are often titles that are self-published. A Nielsen study from 2021 showed that the trend makes books feel more authentic when recommended by another person. Users ranked TikTok as being ‘more authentic and more unique’ than other social media platforms, with many self-published titles becoming best-sellers that were overlooked by traditional publishers.

For Alice, the trend is not shallow; “Potentially it’s a way to start talking to someone as well. I’m serving someone their coffee and they’re waiting a minute and I see them starting to look at the book swap. I normally start a conversation with them and ask if they like reading and what kind of books they like to read, and then I’ll tell them something that I can recommend for them.”

The trend has also personalised the author-and-reader interaction, with some authors posting about their writing process.

One of Alice’s favourite donated books was written by a customer’s mum; “There were only 5 copies ever published, it might still be on there. So I read that, and then gave her feedback and that helped with promotions as well. It’s something a bit different, it’s not really ‘out there’. It’s quite close to home that a customer had written it, which is really sweet.”

By Amanda Jones

I'm Ellis, Deputy Editor of The Linc for 2022-2023. I specialise in politics. You can find me @EllisAsherUK on Twitter or at my website