How Authors Can Master TikTok with BookTok Sensation Shelby Leigh

Anna David
21 min readJan 1

If you hear words (but are they words really?) like “TikTok” and “BookTok” and go, “Ugh” or “I’m too late” or “I’m too old” or anything of the sort, this episode is for you.

Shelby Leigh got into the TikTok game relatively late and, in under two years, has sold 40,000 books as a result of her videos (one video in particular sold roughly 7000 copies!) This success has led the poet and mental health advocate not only to traditional publishing deals but also to a career as a book marketer.

And she makes the whole thing sound so DO-able! In this episode, she breaks down ways to hook TikTok scrollers, what TikTok “likes,” how to grow your account to sell books and why BookTok truly can work for any book genre out there (yes, even yours).

Oh, and she sells products (including a $23 TikTok for Authors course) and consults with authors about growing their TikTok accounts. Go to her site to get in on all of it (and check out her TikTok here). Also! Enjoy our conversation, which provides a whole bunch of highly implementable tips and techniques.

How Authors Can Master TikTok with BookTok Sensation Shelby Leigh


Anna David: Okay, so you Shelby know more about TikTok as an author than anyone I’ve ever talked to no pressure. But I am so excited to hear all the things you know.

Shelby Leigh: I’m excited to share them.

Anna David: So tell me, how did you get started on TikTok? In the beginning?

Shelby Leigh: Yeah, so I firstly have a have a social media background. I’ve always loved social media, and marketing. That’s what I studied in college. And so whenever I was hearing more and more about TikTok, I wasn’t like the first person to be on it. But I was fairly early, I think it was the end of 2019, that I started experimenting with it, but then 2020 that I dove into it, and like created my author, account and all of that. So it was early 2020, that does not mean you are too late that you can’t grow, I had my biggest growth period this year. So it is not too late to get on the platform and start using it as an author. But that is when I decided to get started was in 2020. And I knew some other authors in my genre, which is like mental health and the poetry space, who were also using it. And so we all were kind of on it at the same time and seeing a lot of success with sales. So I’ve stuck with it since then, and started teaching it to other authors.

Anna David: So were you all supporting each other? Or is TikTok not really a platform where that works as well?

Shelby Leigh: No, we definitely support each other. I was following all of those people who I knew were on the platform, and we were engaging with each other. And I think as it’s grown, there’s been more and more people on the platform. I wouldn’t say we do it as often as we did in the beginning, when we were trying to find a community and trying to find our audience. We’ve all kind of established our own audiences at this point. But I definitely still will engage with those authors. And I think having that support and community in the beginning helped out a lot too.

Anna David: So do you think that TikTok can work for all genres? Are there certain genres that it’s just way more effective? Well, I mean, definitely, there are certain genres, but can it work for every every author?

Shelby Leigh: I think it can work for every author, but more some genres more than others, I would say like some of the children’s books are a little bit more difficult because you’ll find parents on the platform. But it kind of depends on like the age range of the child and things like that. So I have worked with some children’s book authors, but they haven’t seen as much success as the more popular genres like fiction, sci fi, thriller, romance does very, very well. But at the same time, poetry is a very underrated genre, and nobody believes us when we say like, like poetry is blowing up on TikTok. So just because your genre might not be as popular in like mainstream, doesn’t mean you can’t succeed on TikTok.

Anna David: So a lot of the authors that I’ve worked with, and I believe, listen, I don’t know this for a fact, are in the recovery memoir in the mental health kind of space is that’s is it a good place for that?

Shelby Leigh: Definitely. Absolutely. Yeah. Because any niche like I’m in the mental health space as well. Your goal really, is to just target people that are going through those experiences that need those types of messages. So there’s like the book tok community, which is very focused in like fiction, and romance and all of that. So you wouldn’t necessarily be targeting them, you’d be targeting people who really need the messages in your book, if that makes sense.

Anna David: And how do you do that?

Shelby Leigh: So the key to a TikTok video is having a hook, which is like the first one to two seconds, you are hooking them into your video. And the best way to do that is by speaking directly to that person that ideal reader in your mind. So for me, that looks something like if you are going through a dark time, dot dot, dot, something like that, where like immediately someone sees it and is like, oh, I this relates to me, that works really, really well for nonfiction. For someone who writes a fiction book, a thriller book or romance book, they might start their hook with looking for a spicy romance that’s really popular on TikTok, basically, like you’re listing out the tropes in your book is very common to do for fiction books, things like that, to immediately hook people into what your books about, and they say, oh, I want to read this, or I want to see what happens next in this video.

Anna David: Do you mean writing it out as the text or saying it or both?

Shelby Leigh: Both, okay, you want to write it out, you want to write it out on the screen for people that aren’t listening, especially if it’s in the first second. You can’t get all that out in one second of speaking. So having it on the screen so people can read it quickly and decide if that’s videos for them or not, or scroll through. So that’s how you would kind of find your audience. So I recommend doing both or you could put a text hook and then say something different to hook people that maybe weren’t interested in the text but they are interested in what you’re saying.

Anna David: And what about if you have a business book is TikTok not good for that?

Shelby Leigh: It can be I think, honestly, any author should try it. Just try it for a little bit. because you will find your audience I mean, there’s over 1 billion users, it’s like one of the fastest growing platforms at this point, there are people on the platform who want to read your book, it’s just a matter of you making this content that is tailored to them and understanding who your readers are, what they’re interested in, and you’ll find them and TikTok TikToks algorithm is very good. So, like, once you start making these videos, and you’re interacting with people who might be your ideal audience, or you’re interacting with readers who are posting about business books, like you just mentioned, or whatever your genre is, it will learn what you want, what you like, and who to show your videos to.

Anna David: And, um, what’s the ideal length?

Shelby Leigh: It really varies, I say, to stick between like seven to 15 seconds, whenever you’re starting out and kind of experimenting in that range, you have very short people have very short attention spans, so we got to capture them, but don’t hold them too long. But at the same time, and every genre is different, and everyone will have a different experience. But I’ve had videos that are 40 seconds long that have been some of my top videos. So it really depends.

Anna David: So how do you get something across in seven to 15 seconds is it, you kind of hook them and you get them in the caption?

Shelby Leigh: No, not so much the caption, you really want to focus in the video, but it’s very fast paced. You don’t want like a 30 second quote or something like that, like you want people to be reading it quickly. I don’t like when it’s too fast. And I think that’s a little bit frustrating, because people really have to watch it again and again and again, which some people use as like a trick, I don’t necessarily recommend that. But you do still want it to be pretty fast paced. So a seven second video a 10 second video, it might be less focused on the video itself and more on the text that’s overlaid on the video. So yeah, a lot of authors will do things like page flips, where they’re like just flipping through their book, and they overlay a scene from the book as text. And it’s seven seconds, you’re intrigued by what the book is about, and you go check it out. So it can be very, very simple.

Anna David: And so, how that how exactly does that translate into book sales? Is it through the link that you have on your profile page?

Shelby Leigh: So you cannot have a link until you have 1000 followers, which is a bummer for a lot of authors that are just starting out because it can take some time to get that 1000 followers. But I always recommend just putting where to get the book in the comments. So you might not see web traffic to your website, necessarily. But people will go see the name of the book and go search for themselves on Amazon. You know, it’s available on a popular retailer. So whenever I have a video blow up, I’ll find that I do get some traffic to my website. It’s linked in my bio. But primarily people are just going directly to Amazon themselves or Barnes and Noble wherever and searching for the book themselves.

Anna David: Wow. And so when you’ve done a video, have you gone and looked at your book sales and seen the actual direct effect that video has had?

Shelby Leigh: Oh, yeah, yeah, whenever I have a big spike. I mean, it depends. But I’ve had like 7000 sales from one video blowing up.

Anna David: Are you kidding me?

Shelby Leigh: Yeah, no, I’m not kidding. It’s wild.

Anna David: Oh, my God, how many views did that that one of those videos get?

Shelby Leigh: So that was my top video. And that was around 10 million views.

Anna David: Okay, so let’s talk about this going viral thing? Yeah. How do you do it?

Shelby Leigh: I wish there was like a clear answer. And if there was, then we would all be going viral every day. Right? I wish I wish that there was I think the key is experimenting and sticking within that timeframe that I gave you. And really, you have to get your hooks down, you have to grip people in immediately, or you will lose attention. And I still experiment with this. I’ve been doing it for two and a half years. And I still experiment with this. And some of my videos completely flop. And some of them do really well. So it’s really just a matter of figuring it out. And then repeating what works TikTok likes repeats. So I repeat my top videos, I’ll change it up a little tiny bit. And they’ll pretty much consistently go viral, which is really nice that you can repeat things.

Anna David: How long do you have to wait between when you first posted it and repeating it?

Shelby Leigh: I try not to but like less than two months or so less than I think a month will be a little bit close. But it’s so nice with TikTok that new people are shown your videos every single time. So you really don’t have to worry about people complaining that you’re posting the same things. Again, you do want to post other things and not just the same things on repeat. But at this point two and a half years into promoting one book, I finally have a new one coming out in January. So I’ll have some new content but promoting one book for two and a half years. I’ve had repeats of course, right. I think I’ve seen one comment of someone being like I’ve seen this before. And I’m like okay, that’s fine.

Anna David: You’re like well, we all have it seven second attention span you’ve already forgotten. Now do you can you do the same captions even?

Shelby Leigh: Yeah, definitely. Yeah, I recommend for captions like pretty short. The length has expanded for captions but again, people like something quick, if you want to share more details, I kind of put things in the comments because people who are really engaged are going to go to the comments anyway. But for captions, you can use the first line to intrigue people even further or to make them stop and watch. It’s kind of like a second hook in my opinion. Or you can ask a question like, would you read this? Or what do you think happens next? And then you get comments of people answering those questions. So that’s a good way to drive engagement too.

Anna David: And do you think it’s important to do an actual video or posting an image with text over it? Or does the video is going to do better?

Shelby Leigh: The video is going to do better? they did recently introduce a feature kind of like an Instagram carousel, where you can upload photos, and people can swipe through them manually, which is interesting, because it is very much a video platform. I haven’t seen a ton of success with that yet. So I do recommend sticking with video content. But they do make it pretty easy. If you have like, several different photos you want to use. They have different templates, they call it where you can upload the photos, and they’ll put it to music and kind of make it a little bit more video esque. But videos definitely rule the platform, but you can definitely experiment with photos too.

Anna David: And so what was this video that was it seven, it was 7 million views?

Shelby Leigh: It was 10, around 10 million? Yeah.

Anna David: What did you do in that video?

Shelby Leigh: So most of my content is reading poems from my book. That’s primarily again, I always recommend that authors once you find what works to stick to it. And so I’ve repeated that, and tried different hooks. That one was very timely, because it was January, and people are setting new year’s resolutions and setting goals for themselves in terms of like self-esteem, and all of that. So I kind of played into that. And my hook was if you see this January 2022. This is a sign that you need to hear or something along those lines. And I read a poem from my book that continuously performs very well. And drives sales. So that one went wild.

Anna David: And so yes, I saw this. And so if if, like this whole this is a sign thing, that’s genius. Yes. Because people are like, I don’t want to ignore a sign

Shelby Leigh: Exactly, yeah.

Anna David: But you can’t overuse it.

Shelby Leigh: No, yeah, I don’t over well, I might overuse it. Well. I’m not sure.

Anna David: Do people, people have copied that I’m sure.

Shelby Leigh: Yeah, other people have done it. And honestly, I don’t know if I was the first person to claim that either. But yeah, I think other people, especially in my genre, do it too.

Anna David: And so how often do you post?

Shelby Leigh: I try to post every day. Usually just once a day, a lot of people will tell you, you have to be posting like five times a day. I don’t ever do that. And don’t recommend that. I think quantity is important, but quality will always be more important. So I try to post once a day, but I definitely miss days.

Anna David: And how long do you spend on you know TikTok?

Shelby Leigh: At this point, not that long, I probably should go on it more and engage more than I do. But in the beginning, I spent a lot of time and of course, it takes time to learn a whole new platform and learn how to put together a video TikTok has really great editing tools built in. So people always kind of shy away and think that they need to have like 10 different editing apps and all these skills to make a video but at this point, it takes me like 5 10 minutes to do a video. But in the beginning, it definitely took me probably upwards of an hour to do just as I was learning it. Yeah.

Anna David: How long after you devoted yourself to it did that? Well, yeah did that video. I was kind of trying to do the math. It sounds like it was right away. Right if you started in early 2020.

Shelby Leigh: Oh, yeah. It was in January of this year that one was. Okay, so two years. yeah, yeah, but I definitely had sales. I mean, that video, I was not like my first viral video. I think it was like three or four months after I started that I had like, a big viral video. But honestly, even with smaller performing videos, I still saw an increase in sales. It just wasn’t, you know, 7000 books in one week like that time, but it was you know, a little bit it was still an increase.

Anna David: How many books overall have you sold since being on TikTok?

Shelby Leigh: It’s around like, over 40,000.

Anna David: That is insane.

Shelby Leigh: Thank you.

Anna David: Um, by insane. I mean, I am so impressed. Um so Okay. Now. People have this idea. This sort of Colleen Hoover situation that it’s only that like, book tok like so. So people should they consider it book tok when they’re talking about their own books that aren’t romance books?

Shelby Leigh: Yeah, definitely. There’s a lot of different genres posted under book tok. I think what holds a lot of authors back though, is seeing things like Colleen Hoover, where it’s primarily reader driven and readers are talking about those books a lot. That’s okay. It doesn’t mean that we’re all going to have a billion readers talking about our books on TikTok, that’s the dream, but you can definitely be successful as an author and promote your book and have success, whether or not readers are posting about it in book tok or not.

Anna David: And do, are hashtags important?

Shelby Leigh: They can be yeah, to kind of categorize your work. I always say like, a hashtag is not going to make or break the success of a TikTok like if people are gripped by the hook, they will watch it. My most popular videos don’t have hashtags. But I still use them occasionally. So that way, when people do search for my genre, or are looking for mental health book recommendations, my videos still pop up. So that’s where they kind of play a role.

Anna David: It’s fascinating. So when did you so you have a course?

Shelby Leigh: Yeah

Anna David: On TikTok for authors?

Shelby Leigh: Yes.

Anna David: Can you tell me about the course when you created it what people get?

Shelby Leigh: Yes, I created it this summer, and it is a step by step guide. So it’s a PDF versus it being like an hours and hours of video content course. So it’s meant to be just like a step by step guide. But there are video tutorials embedded into the guide. I created it this summer, just because I was getting a lot of authors coming to me and helping them. And I really wanted to help on a larger scale without having to like hop on calls, which I’m still happy to do. But this guide really kind of takes you through, it’s very affordable. It’s $23. So other courses are like in the 1000s right now. So I was like I really want to make this affordable. A lot of us have full time jobs or whatever it may be. And so yeah, it’s a step by step, it’ll walk you through everything from downloading the app and creating your profile and optimizing it, to hooking those readers, to making your first video, post ideas, all of the above.

Anna David: Yeah, and I’ll put a link to it in the show notes that just seems like a done deal. If you’re listening to this episode spending $23 on learning, you’re obviously interested in this. So I think that seems like wow, I’m gonna go buy it. Thank you. Of course. And so do you. Do you do work with authors individually, though?

Shelby Leigh: I do. Yeah. At the moment, I offer like consultations, and I do audits for TikToks and Instagram profiles to kind of help you optimize once you’ve been using the platform if you’re not seeing the results you want. So I give specific recommendations there. And then I also have a variety of other guides like an Instagram guide and a digital marketing foundations course.

Anna David: And would you say you found TikTok to be more effective than Instagram in terms of book sales?

Shelby Leigh: I have yes. And I’ve had like reels blow up and get more than 10 million views. And it just doesn’t translate to the amount of sales as TikTok has for me. So I find that and other authors have echoed that same sentiment that TikTokers are quick buyers, they want to go buy the book as soon as they see that they like it, which I love and appreciate. So Instagram is really great for community building. And I think I connect with readers on a deeper level on Instagram. But in terms of actual sales, TikTok is king.

Anna David: Now, oh I just had two questions at once. So my mind like froze for a second, what other opportunities have come to you as a result of being an author who’s blown up on these platforms?

Shelby Leigh: Well, the first and foremost would be that I was able to get an agent and a couple of different book deals for my book. So the book that blew up on TikTok was originally self-published. And it was republished in July by Simon and Schuster. And then I was able to do an audio book for that book, which was awesome, because I had the proof that people liked my voice because I was reading my poems on TikTok all the time. So that was a dream come true. And then my second book is coming out in January, and I was able to pursue this full time and also launch my book marketing business. So that was also amazing, of course, and a dream come true.

Anna David: What was it like to go from self-publishing to traditional? Did they change a lot? How much control did you have?

Shelby Leigh: I was really happy with the process, they changed, or I was about to say they changed a lot. They did not, they kept pretty much all of it the same, which I really liked. They liked the cover, I think we changed some formatting of some of the poems and like the design of the book, but the poems stayed the same, the inside stayed the same. And of course, the added audio book was a done deal for me it was so fun to record that.

Anna David: And so what and so okay, so the book mark the marketing company, so let’s say can we talk about prices? Let’s say somebody wanted to work with you one on one, how does that work?

Shelby Leigh: Well at the moment so if they want to come with come to me for like a consultation. That’s pretty affordable, like 30 minutes for like, I think 50 or something dollars an hour for like 100 And then if we want to do like a coaching package I offer at the moment like months of support where we kind of go back and forth for like audio messages I’ll audit your work, all of that that starts at 400 for the month. I definitely work to make it as affordable as possible. I made custom packages for a lot of people, which is always fun, but that differs depending on the author.

Anna David: Okay. I think you need to raise your prices.

Shelby Leigh: I know

Anna David: But after all of you listening buy that. Because that is that is crazy value and I just think I just think you should charge more.

Shelby Leigh: I know, I know, I know, I’ve yeah, I’m planning on it. But I’m having a lot of fun.

Anna David: But not till after this after this episode.

Shelby Leigh: Not till after this after this episode. I’ll give you all a couple of weeks.

Anna David: Yes. Well, this has been fabulous, what am I failing to ask you that that my listeners need to know?

Shelby Leigh: I think if you’re hesitant, just start, just get on the app and just start make your accounts. Say that you’re an author on the account and then just start scrolling through book tok. Start liking people’s videos, search for your genre and find some readers who are really excited about the books they are reading in that genre. And I think you’ll get a sense of how great this platform can be. Because whenever you first join it, the algorithm doesn’t know you, it’s going to give you a lot of random stuff to show you. And you’re not going to like any of that. And that’s okay. But once you see like the book tok community and how valuable this platform can be, do that. Do it for a few days before you try posting because the algorithm will get to know what you like. And then just just try just experiment, flip through your book and add some text and make it really easy and just see how it goes.

Anna David: Okay, wait, this is reminding me of something else. There’s this misconception perhaps and I have it that if you don’t do it right away, okay, my boyfriend and I started TikToks, the same day. His was like an anonymous kind of heat, he’s like all nervous about people knowing, political one. Went crazy. He knows nothing about social media, like me and my videos about like the publishing business, no one cared. I mean, whatever. It’s all relative. And so I felt like I was constantly digging myself out of this hole, whereas he just kept going viral over and over again. Is that just what, does that happen?

Shelby Leigh: Yeah, that happens. And I think we all have our low moments, too. Like I don’t, every single video does not do well, for me. And I’m at like, 400,000 followers, like, it really doesn’t mean that you’re going to blow up every single time. So yeah, I think don’t let that get you down. Don’t let that stop you from pursuing it. Because one video can be life changing, honestly.

Anna David: And it’s not like it’s the truth isn’t just that the algorithm is like, oh, she didn’t do well from the out of the gate. So forget her like it can happen at any time.

Shelby Leigh: Yeah, I think so. I don’t really believe in the whole shadow ban type of thing. I believe that there are different words like the more again, like spicy romance authors will say that there are words that they kind of, don’t use, because TikTok will like not like that. And you might experience some sort of blocking or shadow banning from that if you are using like, inappropriate words is all I will say. So that sort of thing. But I don’t believe that they would not show your videos because of one bad performing video, or if you haven’t blown up yet. They take your video whenever you post it, and they show it to a small group of people. And if those people interact with it, they’ll show it to more. And then they’ll show it to more, and then they’ll show it to more. So it’s really dependent on each video.

Anna David: Okay, you’ve totally motivated me to get to go back there and try harder. Because, you know, my philosophy right now is like, I just try to do a little bit everywhere. I used to just be like, put it all into Instagram and just Instagram and then, and then I’m like, you know, billionaires can buy things and then they go away. Like, I don’t want to put it all in one place.

Shelby Leigh: Yes

Anna David: Is that what you would say?

Shelby Leigh: Yeah, definitely. I definitely agree with that.

Anna David: Um, fabulous. So if people want to find more about you, they should obviously follow you in all the places, but can you tell me where they should go?

Shelby Leigh: Definitely, my main website is My books are there. But you can also find links to the different marketing support that I offer. The TikTok guide is there as well. And then I’m at Shelby Leigh Poetry for my writer accounts on Instagram and Tiktok. And then I’m at writers dot poets on Instagram and Tiktok, where I share book marketing tips and connect with authors as well.

Anna David: And let’s clarify it’s L-E-I-G-H in case you’re like, oh, L-E-E. So Shelby, thank you so much. It was so valuable. And you all thank you so much for listening.

Shelby Leigh: Thank you for having me.

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Anna David

NY Times bestselling author of 8 books, publisher, TV/TED talker. Want to launch a life-changing book?