What’s The Recipe For A Viral #SmutTok Hit?
It’s not *just* about the spicy scenes.
In early 2021, romance author Willow Winters uploaded a video to BookTok, a TikTok subsection dedicated to books. An industry veteran with dozens of romance novels under her belt, Winters was one of the first few authors that began tinkering with how to navigate the space. Her video showcased a page from her novel All He’ll Ever Be: a partial Beauty & The Beast retelling with a side of “spice.” The excerpt teased an especially erotic scene. Within hours, the video had been taken down by TikTok — and Winters had sold four-figures’ worth of copies of All He’ll Ever Be.
Winters had stumbled upon an awaiting BookTok goldmine: the SmutTok community, a TikTok hashtag with over 4.4 billion views and a category of readership dedicated to discovering, discussing, and celebrating erotic romance. Of course, the genre’s popularity is not a new phenomenon. Romance is a billion-dollar industry, accounting for 18% of all U.S. fiction sales. When combined with BookTok’s own influence on publishing — which has increased Barnes & Noble’s book sales by 14%, with storefronts creating displays dedicated to BookTok favorite titles — SmutTok is a force to be reckoned with.
But readers aren’t just flocking to the app to read, rate, and review romance books. They’re also eyeing the texts with a level of analysis usually associated with literary fiction. “Romance is frequently a self-reflective and introspective opportunity for folks to experiment with all sorts of things that may bring them pleasure or positive sexual experiences,” Sanjana (@baskinsuns), 25, a creator and graduate student studying the psychology of sex, gender, and intimacy, tells Elite Daily. SmutTok readers, largely newer to romance, are further legitimizing the genre by highlighting the ways that reading erotica can be both empowering and educational.
“Romance sometimes gives people the language they're looking for to describe how they really feel about a sexual encounter — a sexual script, if you will — or helps click the puzzle pieces together around how they experience attraction,” Sanjana says. “Or it just helps them remember that sex, intimacy, and sexuality are fun.” And in the process, the community has created its own success stories — from traditionally published authors like Tessa Bailey and Helen Hoang to self-published superstars like Q.B. Tyler, Ana Huang, and Winters — and carved out a safe, nonjudgmental space for readers to grow better acquainted with their wants, needs, and desires.
What, Exactly, Makes A Book Go Viral On SmutTok?
The beauty of TikTok’s algorithm is that a book’s success can be mainly attributed to word-of-mouth recommendations and organic hype. This effectively puts purchase power straight into the hands of readers. So, how can authors create that kind of natural book buzz? One way to get people talking is to highlight the popular tropes that appear inside the book’s pages. “In reviews, people will often list tropes, like the one-bed trope, slow burn, or enemies to lovers,” Rosie (@acourtofthornsandrosie), 28, a creator and fantasy romance reader, tells Elite Daily. “This will encourage people to read a book if their favorite trope is mentioned.”
Another way to garner hype? The shock factor, or sharing an “out of pocket” spicy excerpt that encourages users to hit the save button. “Because TikTok is an audio-visual medium that prefers short-form, captivating content, books that are ‘quotable’ — because they're outrageous and a spectacle — end up performing really well,” Sanjana says. Authors like Ruby Dixon, Sophie Lark, and Elsie Silver have all found success with this format. Familiar titles, fan art, and aesthetic videos can also help to amass excitement by encouraging readers to invest in the world of the book. As Kristie, 33, the creator behind popular SmutTok account @read_between.the_wines, tells Elite Daily, it’s all about garnering FOMO. “The more people talk about a book or series, the more people will want to read it in order to know what everyone's talking about,” she says. And to skirt around TikTok’s guidelines, creators can use coded language by replacing certain letters with numbers and emojis with a sexual connotation to get their point across.
While these teasers can help to drive sales, BookTok insiders stress that jaw-dropping, explicit spice does not automatically amount to a five-star read. According to Alexandra (@literaryalexandra), 35, a creator and founding member of the Smut Squad (a group of romance readers and real-life friends), a romance novel needs both well-written character development and butterfly-inducing smut to get widely recommended by creators. “The right balance can make the couple feel real,” she says. “Can the audience reading your book feel the love and attraction between the two? That is truly critical for a romance book to stand the test of time, versus being a one-hit BookTok wonder.” Both Alexandra and Kristie offer Haunting Adeline, a dark romance novel by H.D. Carlton, as an example. “The author wrote a male main character (MMC) that you should hate, but can’t help but root for,” Kristie says. “That, mixed with a unique plot and some very nice spice, made it take off.”
Sanjana agrees, adding that sex and character work are inherently symbiotic. “A really great sex scene requires characters compelling enough to carry it,” she says. “Part of what makes the sex hot is that the character is engaging in sex the way that they would do it. Characters change in some way through their connection to other people, and a really good sex scene is a great vehicle for exploring that.” Rosie, a fantasy romance enthusiast, concurs — with a caveat: Sometimes, in between 800-plus pages of worldbuilding, you need a spice-centric palette cleanser. “These books are like McDonald's,” she says. ”Sometimes, nothing is going to hit like a cheeseburger.”
Authors Can Play A Role On SmutTok, Too
Most BookTok creators agree that author engagement isn’t necessary, but when done right, it can sometimes help grow an audience. After all, some authors have entire fandoms devoted to picking apart their work with a fine-toothed comb, while being virtually nonexistent on social media. Rosie notes that anonymity can be a good thing: BookTok has been responsible for canceling authors it deems problematic. Sanjana says that audience engagement can be really great until “an author is saying something transphobic or racist online, and expects their audience to dogpile on people who call them out for it.”
Alexandra emphasizes that, in order to exist on BookTok, authors must accept that the community is, first and foremost, a reviewer space: a place where readers can both think critically and rave at equal measure, without receiving feedback from the author. She encourages authors to work with BookTok creators by diversifying their audiences and getting books into the right hands.
I've become more sure of myself as a romance reader ... and more curious about things I don't understand.
Sanjana underlines that an author’s identity can also factor into a book’s success. The majority of popular BookTok authors are white women, writing about white heroes. “The algorithm is not a neutral actor in people’s engagement online, and it seems to like white faces better,” she says. She notes that even Talia Hibbert’s Brown Sisters Trilogy, a sharp, sexy, BookTok favorite, features interracial couples as opposed to Black romance.
But there’s a way for readers to curate their FYPs by actively seeking out BIPOC and LGBTQ+ authors and readers. Choosing to like, save, and repost recommendations for books by authors like Kennedy Ryan or Nisha Sharma can go a long way in creating a more diverse SmutTok community. “Even if the numbers don't necessarily swing our way, there's a really strong, robust, engaged population of readers, reviewers, and authors in my immediate community that prioritizes diverse titles,” Sanjana says. “We work really hard to expand reader tastes and give attention to books that really deserve to be fawned over.”
While these viral videos have boosted publishing sales and gotten a lot more people into reading, BookTok is, first and foremost, a space for readers to connect. And users agree that the biggest benefit of engaging on SmutTok has been meeting a community of book lovers, many of whom have gone on to become friends IRL. “I've met up with so many people I met through BookTok,” Sanjana says. “I've become more sure of myself as a romance reader, more experimental in my reading, and more curious about the things in romance I don't understand.” Rosie adds that growing up in a small town prevented her from being able to openly discuss taboo topics, but her friends on BookTok have made her feel comfortable opening up about sex, sexuality, and kinks. “I now have a really honest community of people who can be themselves without judgment,” she says. “And spicy books have opened the door for that.”