book drama

BookTok’s Busy Year: Plagiarism Scandals, Period Drama, and CoHo, Of Course

Video: chancejterry, jamieisreading, mynameismarines, readingwsonia

BookTok is not to be trifled with. With more than 77 billion views globally to date, TikTok’s collection of literary-minded creators and clips has the power to turn niche writers into global sensations, to start (and shut down) companies, and to connect striking publishing workers to a digital community rallying around them. And as with any community of this scale, there’s (a lot of) drama, much of which has practical implications for the book world and beyond. As 2022 comes to a close, here’s a look back on the biggest, baddest, and oddest BookTok controversies of the year.

A Touch of Plagiarism

Where to begin? How about with fantasy-romance writer Dana Islay, who was accused of plagiarizing both Jaclyn Kelso and a voice actor who posts under the name voEROS. It wasn’t Islay’s first plagiarism rodeo; she’s known in the community to lift lines. But after voEROS posted proof of the plagiarism, Dana replied saying that ideas and plots can’t be copyrighted. This response seems to be deleted, but a screenshot is visible in this video by a user named Mari who posts under @mynameismarines. I’m no lawyer, but would love for one to evaluate that claim. So would BookTokers! The controversy prompted creators to make their own videos and opine in the comments sections of others about the definition of plagiarism and what constitutes copying — arguments that will surely be solved on the FYP.

After the allegations emerged against Islay, romance writer Willow Winters went all out defending her friend. Winters suffers from tweet and delete syndrome — she posts apologies, attacks, or other content and then takes them down without warning — and has a tendency to block detractors, so things got chaotic. If you want to take a deep dive into the Winters corner of the hullabaloo, I invite you to wade into the waters of this Reddit thread.

Can You Hear Me?

Verba was a short-lived (or at least short-promoted) audiobook platform. The idea what that users would pay a monthly subscription fee for unlimited access to Verba’s library. What’s in their library? Great question. Months ago, content creators like Chance Terry and Thoren Bradley teamed up with a handful of romance authors and started teasing that something big was coming to BookTok. They blasted emails and hosted a livestream on TikTok where they answered questions about the platform and unveiled some partnerships. Their slate included a few authors embroiled in controversy, like Islay and Winters, which was met with immediate backlash (and allegedly led Terry to separate from Winters, though his DMs claim otherwise). Verba’s tiering system also seemed questionable, as did its starting price of $20 per month — but none of that mattered, because the entire operation was dissolved and disbanded within days. There’s a lot more to the story, which BookTokers break down for you here and here. BookTok always moves fast, but Verba was a real blink-and-you-miss-it phenomenon.

This Again?

Romance novelist Kate Stewart is most known for her Ravenhood series, but it’s her 2017 book Drive that caused uproar this year. The main character of Drive is a biracial woman — half Mexican — who refuses to see herself as anything but white. Jessie Arrieta, a prominent BookToker who goes by the username @exclusivepalmbeachliving, posted at length about Stewart’s misrepresentation of the Hispanic and Latino community in the book in August. Then, after screenshots of pages containing racial slurs made the rounds, Stewart responded to the backlash by getting defensive and doubling down.

Stewart catapulted her name back into the spotlight in September 2022 when she announced that Pan Macmillan acquired world rights to her Ravenhood series, plus three other unnamed novels, during Hispanic Heritage Month. This is the same publisher that got in hot water with Jeanine Cummins’s notorious American Dirt — and that publicly promised to make changes to increase Latino representation in the publishing world.

The CoHo Effect …

Colleen Hoover’s BookTok reign is a game changer — and to some, an abomination. It’s impossible to scroll through BookTok without getting hit by an avalanche of Colleen content, and this domination of the platform has led to her domination of best-seller lists as well. CoHo’s books are heavy on the drama: She typically features themes like domestic violence, sexual assault, physical abuse, and infidelity. Known as CoHorts, her supporters are known to be incredibly intense and devoted, especially in the comments. But opposing the CoHorts is an army of staunch critics, who approach Hoover and her work not just with scorn, but with nuance. Readers are worried about the ramifications of her trauma-filled works, and what they mean for younger fans. And, of course, these two teams have also spawned a third group: commentators, observers, and sometimes defenders, who weigh in on the lovers and haters alike with takes of their own.

… And the CoHo Effect’s Effect on Z-Library

Meanwhile, BookTokers are blaming CoHorts for the downfall of Z-Library, a pirated e-book repository that operated in plain sight — until recently. As the chatter goes, it was right after a CoHort posted her video of downloading a laundry list of Hoover titles from Z-Library that the FBI took down the site. The original video is now gone, but here’s a duet that preserves it. It’s unlikely that one lone video was responsible for taking down a well-known piracy site, but that selectively acknowledged reality has done little to stem the harassment that the original poster is allegedly facing from Z-Library stans. On the brighter side, the jokes that have come out of it are fun!

HarperCollins Union 🤝 Bookfluencers

The HarperCollins Union’s fight for fair wages is bigger than BookTok, but striking employees have leveraged the app to maximize the impact of their effort. One editorial assistant who goes by the username @jamieisreading documented day one of the strike; the video, which has more than 23,000 views and counting, struck a chord. Readers and content creators are vowing not to review HarperCollins titles while employees are on strike. A bunch of BookTokers have even been posting periodic updates about the strike, including videos on how best to support workers during this time.

“Heavy” Details

BookToker @fictionalsociallife managed to repel almost anyone who has a period after posting about his experience reading Elif Batuman’s Either/Or. He said, I am six pages into this book and we are already getting into heavy details about how to put a tampon in and I’m a little uncomfortable. Here’s what you’ll find on page six: “No matter what direction I pushed the applicator, however methodically I tried all the different angles, the result was a blinding, electric pain.” So.

At least he has a sense of humor.

An All-Too-Exclusive Partnership

BookTok is now so popular that TikTok itself has added tools to its platform to enhance the experience, including links to buy books in-app. Users can tag titles, which will generate a purchase link — though there’s one little catch: The partnership exists solely with Penguin Random House and its authors. There’s no linking out to books published by any other houses, which is … a lot of books. One BookToker wondered how this will affect the algorithm: Will those who use the feature see more success on the FYP? What about authors who aren’t backed by PRH? Another prominent BookToker called for BookTok to ignore the tool outright. Considering that BookTok is a community that prides itself on catapulting indie authors to fame, the implementation of the e-commerce tool by TikTok was a real misstep.

BookTok’s Busy Year: Plagiarism, Period Drama, and More