Marketing Books Through Tropes: Tropification of Book Marketing and How it Affects the Publishing Industry

Marketing Books Through Tropes and How It Affects the Publishing Industry

If you’re a part of any bookish community, whether it’s on YouTube, TikTok, or Instagram, you’ve probably noticed a (not-so-recent) trend marketing books through tropes. Instead of getting a full synopsis or a book review, you will usually see videos that mention various tropes used in a certain book. Alternatively, you’ll see a list of book recommendations based on a single trope.

And if you were, like me, tricked into reading one of these books based on the tropes it had (only to promptly dislike it), you may be wondering where all of this comes from and how it benefits anyone. 

Some people absolutely despise this trend, especially since publishing houses and bookstores have adopted it as well. Some people love it. But it’s important to have a nuanced discussion on how this all started, why it sometimes works, and why it definitely doesn’t in some cases. 

What Are Tropes?

So, in recent times, trope is a term used to describe a storytelling device that might also be a characteristic of a specific genre. As such, it was first mentioned in 1975 in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Its earlier definition — a figure of speech, like a metaphor, simile, etc. — dates back to Aristotle. These two are related: as figures of speech, metaphors, and similar became commonplace, they turned into literary devices to signal motif or genre. 

The true shift to the more recent definition of the term itself started in the early 2000s with TV Tropes. The word was misinterpreted by amateur movie critics (think the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” or the “Chosen One” trope) and became more widely used to describe an overused or cliche storytelling device. 

Are Tropes Inherently Bad?

When we say things like “overused” or “cliche”, we immediately equate that with something bad. However, it’s not quite true. A storytelling device or theme becomes overused because people like it. Certain tropes still exist because people like them, and find comfort in them. 

Of course, this is not to say that a trope can’t be bad — but it’s more about how the author (or movie director, or screenwriter) uses it and adds their own elements to it.

For example, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl may have fallen out of favor and is arguably a bad trope,  but if an author is creative enough, this trope could be enhanced or used interestingly. 

For instance, you could use the Chosen One trope and turn it on its head — have the Chosen One be really bad at everything, so his sidekicks have to do most of the work and end up saving him.

Or have the chosen one be more logical than the standard; instead of rushing off to battle, maybe they have a more “not all is black or white” view of the world and are willing to negotiate with the villain. Or have the Chosen One be someone truly unexpected, like an elderly lady or a soccer mom. 

That’s the beauty of tropes — they can be used in many ways. 

Where Did Tropification of Book Marketing Come From?

In more recent history (think Pandemic-era), the term trope has evolved once again and become one of the main talking points in the bookish community. But even before that, people were leaning into hyper-specific book recommendations.

Book Content Before TikTok

Before TikTok came to be, and the world collectively turned to shorter media formats, the bookish community mostly gathered on YouTube, individual blogs, forums, Twitter, and similar. It’s not that short videos didn’t exist (we all fondly remember Vine), it’s that they were inconvenient and mostly used for general humor. 

But overall, when you wanted to hear other readers talk about books and give you book recommendations or reviews, you’d go to YouTube. Within the BookTube community, there were and still are many sub-communities: fantasy readers, romance readers, classics readers, etc. 

There was a standard set of types of videos most BookTubers had: reviews, genre-based recommendations, tags, hauls and unhauls, shelf organization, etc. And in the early days, this was pretty much all anyone posted. But over time, both the viewers and the creators got tired of this, and you can see a clear shift towards what will later become trope-based book content. 

For example, there were more and more videos like “Highly Specific Book Recommendations” where readers would request books that would either make them cry, have specific scenes, or have certain aesthetics. Some videos got into specific tropes (still pretty general) like “Best Fake Dating Romance Books” and similar. 

So, to say that BookTok alone changed the way we talk about books would be a mistake. The readers wanted this long before and the content creators delivered — it’s only that it evolved more from there. 

Impact of Fanfiction

Some people believe that the tropefication of book content and marketing started in fanfiction — and they wouldn’t be entirely wrong. Long before the bookish community adopted tropes, fanfiction authors and readers used tags to signal what the readers could expect within their fics. 

And they got extremely specific as well. Tags like “only one bed”, “slow burn”, and “friends to lovers” (as well as tags about sexual acts that happen within the fic) were always highly popular. Each author could also get even more specific — for instance, they could say “X character is tired” or “X character really needs a hug” (there are so many more, and they’re often very funny). 

Obviously, as the bookish and fanfiction communities often intersect, the terminology of some of these tags was easily adopted and adapted to fit original works. 

Final Boss: BookTok and Tropification of Books

So, if you take the already shifted tastes of consumers towards more specific book recs, add to that the fact that fanfic tags exist (and work), and mix it all with the extremely short length of TikTok videos when it first appeared, you’ll get the emergence of trope-based book content. 

If you had only ten seconds to describe a book, what better way to get your viewers excited about it than by mentioning tropes? 

And during that time, readers couldn’t just go into a bookstore to get recommendations. We were all stuck at home, on our phones. It was a perfect set of circumstances for BookTok to take off.

Social media has always influenced tastes and the society in general, but during the time we relied on it to stay connected to the world, it truly changed the publishing industry and how we consume content.

BookTok creators became the source of book recs, and again, within the limits they were given, they did the best they could to discuss their hobby. That meant tropes, vibes, aesthetics, emotions. 

For example, we saw an emergence of videos like “Books that will make you cry”, “Books that will make you fall in love with reading”, etc. There are also book recommendation videos based on vibes — “Books to read if you like rainy days”, “Books with dark academia vibes”;  recommendations based on aesthetics — “Books to read if you want to be That Girl”, or “Books for cottagecore girlies”. 

All of this makes sense for the world we lived in then. We were confined to our own homes and really needed to connect, but on a more detailed, specific level, with people who liked the same things. We needed to feel something other than boredom, and BookTok delivered. 

But all of this also worked as a marketing strategy. The publishing industry saw a huge rise in sales and adopted the BookTok terminology — you can see shelves in bookstores based on some of the tropes or vibes, the publishers use tropes in official synopses, the authors use them to market themselves on social media. 

This is why we continue to see this not only exist but grow and expand — and we’ll probably continue to see it until we collectively get tired of it and move on to something new. 

Why Trope-Based Book Marketing Doesn’t (Always) Work 

All of this is not to say that talking about books through tropes, emotions, vibes or aesthetics is bad — just like tropes themselves can be good, so can this phenomenon. It definitely makes it easier for readers to find books that they will like or connect with emotionally, and it makes it easier for content creators to find their audience. 

I would be remiss not to mention how beneficial it has been for indie authors as well. It’s much easier to convince new readers to engage with your book if you introduce it through fan-favorite tropes — and that makes marketing for already overworked indie authors much easier. 

However, it’s not a perfect system.

For one, different people have different interpretations of tropes. If I see a book recommended as a slow burn romance, but the main characters kiss (or acknowledge their feelings, even to themselves) within the first 80%, I will be severely disappointed. 

However, someone else might believe slow burn to be if the characters don’t sleep together within the first 50% of the book. You may believe that a slow burn is not a slow burn unless it’s spread out through a series. 

Tastes are different — so while you may say that you like a trope, what you really mean is you like your own definition of it. And with that, there’s always a risk that you will be disappointed by someone else’s definition. 

For example, “only one bed” by my definition is when characters have to sleep in one bed for whatever reason, but, adjusted to my taste, they wouldn’t have any type of sexual intercourse. Instead, they would either talk or accidentally cuddle. To someone else, this might not be what “only one bed” is. 

There’s also the fact that a trope or a set of tropes doesn’t define a whole book. So, sure, a book may have all the tropes and vibes and aesthetics you like, but it doesn’t mean that you’ll actually the book itself. It’s all about how these tropes are used and interconnected and whether or not they fit. 

A trope tells you nothing about what’s really going on within a book or how that book is better or different than any of the others marketed with the same trope. 

Are Books Becoming Just Collections of Tropes?

All of this is fairly innocent as long as it’s only the bookish community — meaning readers, content creators, etc. — using it. It becomes less so when it’s the authors and publishers using them. 

The biggest issue I see here is the risk of books becoming collections of tropes — and we’re already seeing some of that happening right now. 

Obviously, tropes sell books. And of course, authors see that and as a result, try to cram as many popular tropes as they can into their works, or write books specifically around certain tropes.

But as I already mentioned (several times) tropes in and of themselves do not a book make. They should form naturally through themes, character development, and overall plot, and only be used when needed, sparingly. 

For example, the enemies-to-lovers trope shouldn’t be the basis for a book idea; it’s only after developing the characters and their dynamics, as well as the plot that the author could say that their book features enemies-to-lovers. 

But if an author starts writing a book with only the idea that they want enemies to lovers trope in there, what we get is a dry and often nonsensical rendition of that well-loved trope. Examples that come to mind are the romances in Fourth Wing or The Spanish Love Deception. 

When authors focus on tropes for the sake of marketability, the quality of the work overall suffers and the tropes that are supposed to serve them end up feeling shoehorned and fake. 

The publishing houses are not innocent in all of this either. By pushing books like these, they undervalue what the readers deserve, and it’s definitely not the color-by-numbers, box-checking works like these. Books that are mostly tropes feel cynical, as if someone fed already existing novels into AI and it regurgitated what it felt would work. 

They feel as if they were written for quick consumption like TikTok audios used thousands of times in thousands of same skits. Not to question or improve, but just to exist. 

This issue might stay within the confines of YA, romance, fantasy and all combinations and variations of these genres for now — but we have to take into account that these are some of the best-selling books on the market.

As such, they have the immense power to influence all other genres. Let’s hope we collectively get tired of it before this trend expands and gains more leverage. 

Final Thoughts

The publishing industry and the bookish community overall constantly change and shift. Trends come and go — we’ve seen it many times already. Tropification of book marketing — and arguably, book writing — is just another trend that will some day be part of history. 

However, we can’t forget the impact trends like this can have on the book world in general. The Twilight craze may have passed, but from Twilight came 50 Shades of Gray and with it the tendency to publish more and more fanfiction as original works

We can’t predict the future, of course, but we can hope that the impact of tropification isn’t going to be poor-quality books. Because in its original form, this was a fun trend that helped people connect and relate quickly over shared interests (trust capitalism to make things worse). 

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