BookTok, a section of TikTok populated by book lovers, reviewers and writers, has been lauded for democratizing the publishing world. Amateurs can use the app to talk about the books they loved, the reads they hated, and the authors they can't get enough of. And with enough traction, sometimes the creators have become responsible for a book's resurgence on the bestseller lists.
But by mirroring the publishing industry, BookTok also took on one of its biggest problems: the lack of diversity. For Kendra Keeter-Gray, reading the same White books just wasn't good enough. So she created an account (@kendra.reads) dedicated to sharing the book, and main characters of color, she couldn't get enough of.
"I just wanted more people to talk about books with, but I kept feeling like there was something missing," Keeter-Gray said. "A lot of the BookTokers were White and they were just doing a lot of the same books. I was like, 'Wait, well, I like those books too, but I think I can add something a little more."
The 23-year-old spoke to me from her studio apartment in Los Angeles, where small white bookshelves behind her nearly buckle under the weight of colorful hardbacks. Like most of her peers, Keeter-Gray has a life outside of her TikTok account. She studied television, writing, and producing in college, with the goal of working in Hollywood. Now, her day job is something most people only dream of, working directly in the television industry. But during the pandemic, her love of books turned into a passion for making TikToks about them.
Only two months after starting her BookTok profile, she's gained nearly 60,000 followers and her account is thriving within the app's book community, something she never expected to happen so quickly.
Unlike major BookTok accounts, Keeter-Gray's videos don't stick to a unified format. Instead, the 60-second clips are as unique as she is, some reviewing popular books, others creating collections like "Five Star Reads of The Year," and no less than eight videos generally fangirling over romance novelist Emily Henry. But her biggest goal is highlighting books that center women and people of color, something Keeter-Gray is incredibly passionate about.
"My mom encouraged us to read so we wouldn't feel so lonely at our very White school. But I always played the changing game in my head, even if the character had blue eyes and blond hair, ignoring those descriptions and focusing on what we had in common instead," she said. "But at the end of the day, especially as I got older, I realized there was a trend — I was never the protagonist."
Still, reading became an escape for Keeter-Gray, and when she found characters that look like her, those books gave her an entirely new perspective on what reading could be.
"Reading Black authors like Jasmine Guillory and Talia Hibbert was incredible because they are about all these different girls with different body types and jobs and stories and they get to fall in love with the best men!" Keeter-Gray said. "Those books carried me through college because I was so excited to read about people who looked like me. They proved to me, unlike other books, that 'OK, I can look the way I do and still fall in love or have great adventures.' I'm worthy of that."
When Keeter-Gray saw the lack of representation on BookTok, she worked on filling that gap. One of her early viral videos was a compilation that featured Black girls "who just get to fall in love and be themselves." The video, which highlights authors of color like Elizabeth Acevedo and Nicola Yoon, has over 65,000 views, and the comments are filled with other literature fans giving and taking recommendations.
Continuing to feature authors and characters of color is a move that seems to have worked well for Keeter-Gray. Eighteen days after her TikTok account began, she had 10,000 followers. Today, she has more than 59,000 followers, nearly 1 million likes, and a thriving community, not full of fans, but friends she's made through her TikToks.
"I try not to think about the followers too much," Keeter-Gray told me. " I remember telling myself, like, 'OK, if I can just get to like one hundred followers, I'll feel great. Then I had my first viral video, with people commenting that they had never heard of these books and they were going to read them and I just felt like I had to keep going."
Keeter-Gray says she's happy to help bring Black books to BookTok, and she doesn't blame White creators or authors for the lack of diversity. Instead, she points to the publishing world for how Black books are underrepresented and undervalued from the jump, making it harder for them to get on bestseller lists compared to books with White main characters.
"I think it all comes down to publishers and what they're pushing, especially because they think Black books don't make money," she said. "I don't want to say things are changing now because it's moving at such a snail's pace. More voices are being published, but nowhere near the rate of like White authors and White stories. It's why I'm happy I've found this community."
Book recommendations on TikTok have even influenced book sales, with fan favorites like "They Both Die At the End" and "The Song of Achilles" reaching the New York Times bestseller list years after their debuts — a power that could potentially drive a shift in the industry.
While Keeter-Gray's hope is to harness that kind of influence for books that put Black readers first, she's already completed her biggest goal: finding a community that cares as much as she does. She says her comments and DM's are filled with conversations from Black people and women who are excited to see her recommendations —especially after reading the books and seeing themselves in the characters.
"What I want at the end of the day is for any other Black kid, Black person, whoever, to come across my page and realize there are books out there that they can enjoy where they're supported and they're the main character," Keeter-Gray said. "And maybe one day the books where I am represented will become just as popular as the books where I'm not — that's all I want."
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