If BookTok Convinces Teens They’re Ready For Erotica, Is It My Job To Stop Them?

As a bookseller off and on at a major chain for the past nine years, I’m reasonably confident that when I see a cover I know where it belongs in the store. Yet the book Twisted Love by Ana Huang has a deceptively simple cover: It’s pale blue, and its title is written in a combination of cake-frosting cursive and big block fonts.

Of course I took this paperback to where we keep all the books with sparkles and large bubble letters—to the teen section. Thankfully, one of my coworkers intervened. He redirected me to a romance table. “See the ones with the cartoon covers? That’s where the dirtiest sex is now.” 

We don’t exactly keep the smutty books behind a velvet curtain. Even if the books get sorted in the right places, they’re often redistributed through what I call customer cross-pollination. But the books on the romance tables and young adult romance tables look virtually identical. And if I can’t tell where a book goes, what chance does a customer have?

On the same table as Twisted Love is Lucy Score’s Things We Never Got Over, another pale blue book with large block fonts and daisies. It Happened One Summer by Tessa Bailey, The Hating Game by Sally Thorne, The Love Hypothesis by Ali Hazelwood all display vibrant candy colors and simple illustrations that look closer to phone-game character designs than scantily clad models.

These new drastically pared down, largely kid-friendly illustrations obscure the genre and content of these books, and when a kid or their parent brings one up to the register it makes my job a great deal harder than it used to be.

Basically, I ask myself almost daily, “Should I tell customers they’re buying lightly dressed up erotica for their kids?”

At the register, we all take different approaches: Plenty of us say nothing, while others carefully pick their moments. I’ve heard some of my colleagues switch to a whisper when talking about the sexual content, sometimes successfully talking a parent out of the purchase. Patty, an extremely sweet 66-year-old, tends to ignore the children, turn to the parents directly and say, “Do you know what you’re buying?!” 

I simply wiggle my eyebrows at the purchaser and hope that’s enough, like some kind of parental-guide Morse code. It’s only if they decide against on their own that I will sometimes burst out, “Oh yeah, that’s probably a good call with all the fucking that’s in here.” 

If the kid knows what this book is about, I don’t want to narc in front of their parents. But if they don’t, how to intervene? Is it my place at all? Since it’s not up to me, I say there’s no harm in just letting people know what they’re getting into. It’s not my call to say at what age a young customer leaves the kid department, or how they’ll handle the books we sell in our adult sections. I still nurse some emotional scars from reading The Clan of the Cave Bear when I was 12, based off the recommendation of a teacher who likely forgot about the intensely graphic rape scene. Obviously, there is a world of difference between books introduced in school and the ones you seek out yourselves. There is no greater joy as a reader than discovering something on your own, that feeling of surprise as you cultivate a sense of what you like or love. The thrill of reading something that feels forbidden is a rite of passage for teens. But at the point of a transaction, customers, even young ones, rarely benefit when they have no clue about what they’re buying, and it’s weird that the cynical changing currents of marketing force me to be the bearer of uncomfortable news. 

This change has a direct cause: #BookTok. Retailers almost entirely owe their current fiscal stability to the TikTok subcommunity of literary influencers pushing young consumers to embrace physical media. The hashtag glamorized upstart authors and those in the literary tradition alike, making stars out of Colleen Hoover, Madeline Miller, and Taylor Jenkins Reid, effectively automating word of mouth and celebrity endorsement. As The New York Times reported last summer, 20 million printed book sales in 2021 were attributed to TikTok, and by July 2022 those sales increased another 50 percent. #BookTok displays cropped up at stores around the country and Amazon’s wrath, it appeared, was once again held at bay.

This change seemed positive, as many influencers are regular people whose currency appears to be their own feelings. But the most troubling side effect of #Booktok is how the publishing industry responded to a glut of younger, easily influenced consumers moving deeper into the romance genre. The plan, it seems, to entice and retain these customers was to take the embarrassing bodice-ripping, kilt-clad, flowy-hair heroes off the covers of romance novels and instead churn out aesthetic, minimalist designs. Now sex books are sleek and fun and nearly impossible to distinguish from the overwrought, but mostly innocent YA novels that stir the mischievous hearts of tweens. 

In my teen reads of old, the scale started at hand-holding and definitely ended in sex. Implied sex, vaguely described sex, and maybe, sometimes, you know, sex sex? But definitely not the kind of sex that’s so outrageous that my coworkers and I only talk about it in the breakroom when none of the managers are present. If I can’t trust my spice meter, I can at least trust the scores of readers who post content warnings online for other adults letting them know it’s a rough ride. 

What’s a bookseller to do? What do I tell the kid with braces coming up to the counter with one of these, that instead of a gothic fantasy where a group of plucky teen pirates face off against the forces of evil on the high seas she’s about to enter a world in which sexual consent is dubious and severed human hands are sent in the mail (Haunting Adeline)? Do I say something to her slightly-past-middle-aged dad, credit card already poised, not listening to a single thing I’ve said so far? What are the chances he’s going to stumble across the content warning for this book on Goodreads? What are the chances he knows what Goodreads is?

We can’t be everywhere in the store at once, and even if we could, we wouldn’t want to be. It’s not my job to explain to grandma why we sell manga wrapped in cellophane—or what makes manga different from other comics—but it’s a lot easier to do. Older generations know what Penthouse is, and Playboy (both of which we still sell). And they know what a sexy book is supposed to look like. 

But when you have the influence of ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, you have the power to decide that a sexy book could look like just about anything. Videos with the #BookTok hashtag have been viewed more than 91 billion times in the past year. Now that ByteDance plans to start its own romance-focused publishing house, it seems less likely that the recommendations users see will be impartial. Publishers have been trying to tilt the algorithms in their favor for years by contacting influencers with large followings to promote their titles for cash or free books. With its own publishing house, TikTok could find ways to prevent authors in traditional publishing houses, or that self-publish, from going viral thanks to their massive data collection ability to tip the scale.

Still, as concerning as TikTok launching its own publishing house—and likely, its own digital retail operation—seem to be, it’s worth noting that plenty of TikTok books get returned by customers who felt tricked by influencers. “This is total crap,” I was told when someone returned A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder. I saw the same title at my friend’s place a few weeks later at the bottom of a box. She told me she was donating because it didn’t live up to descriptions she found online. This is one area where the community and parasocial relationships around #BookTok doesn’t match up with the real world. Recommendations, and especially reactions from readers, tend to flow in one direction.

For me, the final straw came when a mother returned a huge stack of paperbacks with her 10-year-old daughter. The first to hit the counter was Hooked, a dark romance by Emily McIntire where Captain Hook gets a very happy ending with a 20-year-old Wendy. Sampling from its content warning on Goodreads, it’s a “series of fractured fairy tales inspired by our favorite villains.” Given the rise of Disney re-imaginings like Descendants, where the teenage offspring of Disney villains sing pop songs and work to change their negative reputations on a utopian island nation, it makes perfect sense that this Never After series could clear Mom’s radar. But when the books, a birthday gift, made it home, the girl’s teenage cousin and fellow TikTok user took one look at the stack and said, “You know those are all basically porn, right?”  

Merging romance and YA further is the developing genre descriptor “new adult” with protagonists in the 18-29 age brackets. The term, reportedly coined by St. Martin’s Press in 2009, includes hugely popular books like Red White and Royal Blue and Sweetbitter, so popular they’ve made the final leap to streaming TV series. Most of the time, novels could fall easily in either category, and what type of material transcends a young adult reading level is increasingly complex.

What often complicates matters more in the genre are the covers themselves. Self-published books, with their half-naked men smoldering at the camera lens and biting their lips, seem obvious compared to the confectionery alternatives readily available in brick and mortar stores. The lighthearted romances only tell one part of the story. For example, the book Haunting Adeline has a dark cover featuring black-and-white images of spider webs, a skull wearing a crown, and butterflies. Not much to suggest that there’s a scene where our protagonist is jerked off with the barrel of a gun. 

I think we put too much faith in the shadow systems used for determining what ideas, visuals, or themes are suitable for certain age groups. The Motion Picture Association of America’s rating system has detractors for good reason—deciding what is appropriate is almost always political. When certain vocal groups advocate a more stringent book rating system that’s similar to the MPAA’s, it’s clear that the guise of protecting children is being used to obscure larger forces of censorship and othering. If, for example, I was instructed to warn parents when a book for their child featured a gay couple, or an interracial one, that very idea suggests that I should participate in marginalizing and segregating those stories. 

One mother recently rethought her entire basket after seeing the author she was purchasing on our “banned books” table, meant as a celebration of the books lately lambasted in conservative media or outlawed in Texas and Florida. “What’s wrong with this one?” she asked about Drama, a graphic novel by Raina Telgemeier about a middle school play that made headlines for featuring a gay character. “I don’t want my kid reading it if it’s banned.” We tried to explain that there was nothing inappropriate about it, but she dumped them all and left.

At the store level, I scan a title and my little machine tells me where it goes, but our managers may change that designation on a case-by-case basis. From there, the customer needs to decide for themselves what they can and can’t handle. It’s not my job to tell kids or young adults what they should be reading. Testing your own limits is healthy and necessary. Art requires that degree of involvement and discomfort, and I won’t be standing in the way of that. At least, not for minimum wage.

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