It reads like the plot of a fantasy novel: an enormously popular social media app, best known for lip-syncing videos and viral challenges, is fostering a love of reading among a young, tech-savvy generation.
But it’s not fiction.
Just ask North Vancouver poet Russell Thornton. His 22-year-old Canadian poetry collection is enjoying a resurgence – and a reprinting – thanks to TikTok.
“My initial reaction was bafflement,” recalls Thornton. “I’d only vaguely heard of TikTok.”
But he would soon hear a lot more about it. On December 21, 2021, Ohmarni, a New York TikToker (whose real name is Marni Webb) posted a video about a dream she had that referenced a mysterious “fifth window.” Webb, who claims to have psychic powers, wondered what it could mean. She googled the phrase and discovered Thornton’s The Fifth Window, published in 2000 by Thistledown Press.
Webb couldn’t readily find a copy; it was only available from academic libraries. “That’s weird, that’s suspicious,” she said on her video, which has garnered more than three million views.
“There was no conspiracy,” Thornton explains. “If it was hard to get a hold of, the reason was that it was published over two decades ago in a limited run by a small independent Canadian literary press.”
Without being privy to this CanLit reality, Webb was intrigued, and soon she and her followers engaged in a spirited discussion about the book’s elusiveness.
Thornton’s teenage daughter learned about the buzz and alerted her father, who mailed out one of his two personal copies to Webb. She responded by posting a video when she received the sought-after treasure.
Suddenly, Saskatoon-based Thistledown Press was overwhelmed with emails, phone calls, and orders from around the world.
“[The orders] have come from Norway, Germany, Australia and Bulgaria,” says managing editor Caroline Walker. “In terms of the U.S., it’s just about every state. We’ve also received orders from retailers and individuals across Canada.”
Walker is overseeing the reprint of the book. “We’ve already increased the print run twice,” she says.
While serendipity fuelled the resurgence of a decades-old Canadian poetry book, a dedicated group of book lovers are influencing sales and readership on TikTok. #BookTok now boasts 43.2 billion views.
The hosts of this viral literary community are predominantly female members of digital-savvy Gen Z. Sometimes they post videos in which they have an emotional reaction to a beloved tearjerker. Other times they share recommendations and reviews with like-minded followers. It’s these fans who are flocking to bookstores and creating a boom in sales for retailers like Indigo.
“The company experienced a surge in demand for its book business from a younger demographic, fuelled by the popularity of reading on TikTok,” says Rania Husseini, senior vice president of print at Indigo.
The company has maintained a dedicated #BookTok webpage since 2020, and all of its large-format stores feature tables with trending books.
“Generally, we have seen stronger interest in young adult fiction and romance; however, we are finding that as viewership widens on the app, so do the genres that connect with people.”
Titles currently connecting with this customer base include Canadian books such as Xiran Jay Zhao’s Iron Widow and Thornton’s poetry collection.
Walker says that although it’s hard to know whether the TikTok influence on book sales will continue long-term, the experience with The Fifth Window has highlighted “the value of an interactive social media presence.”
“This has also been an opportunity to raise awareness, not only of Thistledown Press, but of small press publishing,” she says. “The potential audience for small press books and authors has expanded to levels that would not have been possible before social media.”
Thornton, whose collection The Hundred Lives was shortlisted for the 2015 Griffin Poetry Prize and who most recently published Answer to Blue in 2021, is equally optimistic.
“I’m quite convinced that the best Canadian poetry and fiction and essay writing is unique, multifaceted, and exceptional, and deserves the highest praise, support, and readership. If canny use of social media can help publishers and writers with that, I’m all for it.”