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The Shadow Work of Publishing: What Shaheen's Success Can Teach Us About BookTok, Self-Publishing, and the Value of Traditional Publishing

The Shadow Work Journal has erupted across TikTok -- and publishing is taking notice.

If you haven't seen this cover yet or heard the title by name, this self-published volume distilling the work of Carl Jung "offers readers prompts and activities for interrogating the unconscious." Videos on the app tagged or mentioning this book have accrued over 1 billion views and has become a bestseller not only on the TikTok Shop but also in industry lists that value self-published works like The Hot Sheet.

And no, its author, Keila Shaheen, isn't a therapist or a licensed clinician, though she has taken a course on cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).

Instead, quite brilliantly, she's in marketing and brand strategy. In writing this volume, originally published in 2021 but reaching virality last August, Shaheen hoped to inspire others to seek mental health resources with an unintimidating introduction to the various aspects of "therapy-speak."

Shaheen's success in the self-help space has risen so meteorically she outsold Oprah Winfrey's latest title, Build The Life You Want. During a time when many consider #BookTok to be a unpredictable influence on print sales, Shaheen seems to have captured it through-and-through. Which is why, on the back of a viral and misleading blog post stating that "books don't sell," it's surprising to many that this self-publishing savant has made a multi-book deal for her next title with Simon & Schuster.

When asked why she sought traditional publishing support, Shaheen told The Atlantic: "I think I was just at a time and place where I couldn't control what was going on...[I realized that if I] wanted to continue helping people and grow the impact of this journal [then I] would need help from a traditional publishing company."

So what can we learn about this epic? We see the recent trends: Shaheen captured the virality of #BookTok to catapult a title that isn't frontlist or backlist for a traditional publisher but a self-published workbook (incredibly difficult as a standalone from any publishing model) and then acknowledged and enlisted the support of a traditional publisher for title management.

But what industry and reader precedents made this possible?

And what can we take away from this to understand #BookTok? To identify our reader base? And to truly value each publishing model for what it offers?

#BookTok for Beginners

The TikTok hashtag #BookTok skyrocketed in popularity in 2021 and stoked backlist sales for titles enough to cause appearances on bestseller lists -- even those with close a decade of time between release and bestseller notability. For example: Madeline Miller's The Song of Achilles published in 2012 with an initial print run of 20,000 copies. Its publisher (Ecco) saw an unprecedented spike in sales in August 2020 after the book was featured in a TikTok video titled "books that will make you sob." Nearly a year later, Ecco announced in 2022 that The Song of Achilles had sold over two million copies across all formats.

Spurning the review system of days before that featured the style, plot, or writing found within a book's pages, app users would post and gravitate toward videos that showed visceral, powerful emotions. As Milena Brown of Doubleday told The New York Times in 2022, the exchange is often quite formulaic: "'This is how it makes me feel, and this is how it's going to make you feel'...And people are like, 'I want to feel that. Give it to me!'

In a separate article by The New York Times, Shannon DeVito (Barnes & Noble) echoed this argument for the dynamic connection between #BookTok content creators and their follower base: "These creators are unafraid to be open and emotional about the books that make them cry and sob or scream or become so angry they throw it across the room, and it becomes this very emotional 45-second video that people immediately connect with."

And to be clear: these types of emotionally-charged sales are unique to TikTok and the #BookTok base.

Nonetheless, The New York Times reported in 2022 that the social capital of #BookTok was the impetus for 20 million printed book sales in 2021.

A Haven for Fantasy, Sci-Fi, and Genre Fiction

For the most part, genre fiction dominates the #BookTok discussion, with an emphasis on fantasy and romance. Science fiction has lately enjoyed a small bump, with some arguing that the genre has been blended into fantasy more and more with recent titles. This is not new. The abbreviation "SFF" for science fiction/fantasy has long been used within the industry to bundle these specific yet blendable genres.

Which is why it's worth noting and sharing that in tandem, SFF book sales rose 93% in value and 53% in volume between 2018 and 2023, per Nielsen BookScan.

Most recently, The Bookseller interviewed #BookTok creators on the potency and interest in fantasy and sci-fi titles across the base. These two genres have long been sidelined, similarly to memoir, for being formulaic, escapist, or -- my least favorite -- unserious.

But those first two qualities are a large reason as to why the genre succeeds on the app.

Lewis (@achilleanshelves) told The Bookseller that "[Fantasy] is an escape from our reality and a complete and utter immersion in another." Alice (@bookswithalice) supported this argument saying, "I think [the desire for] escapism is at an all-time high right now and where better to escape to than a whole new world?"

As for the third negative preconception, Samantha (@samfallingbooks) told The Bookseller that "[The SFF genre]'s also becoming a space that is diversifying...I've seen queer main characters and stories inspired by areas of the world I wouldn't have seen on shelves when I was growing up."

#BookTok in the Social (Millennial + Gen Z) Landscape

By now, the dates in this article should be raising flags for all readers. It goes without saying that the quarantines and global response to Covid-19 between 2020-2021 marked a time of immense uncertainty, numerous lifestyle changes, and undefinable distress.

From our seat in 2024, we're allowed some retrospective clarity. Studies are beginning to emerge about the longstanding effects on the changes experienced during this time on our mental and social wellbeing.

A cross-sectional study on the "Social Media Behaviors and Lifestyle Changes in Young Adults (Ages 18-28 years) During the COVID-19 Pandemic" published January 2024 by J Prim Care Community Health, reported that across the 183 study participants there was an increase in screen time, physical activity, and sleeping habits during the defined period from September 2020 to January 2021. Concurrently, the participants noted "decreased socialization, physical activity, and going outdoors." In the study's discussion, the authors state "This finding corroborates with current consensus, with research indicating a sharp increase in [screen time] due to social isolation and moving education and work online."

In the 2021 article "How Crying on TikTok Sells Books," two leading #BookTok creators were interviewed by The New York Times about their rise to virality. The two sisters, based in Brighton, England, cited their reason for experimenting with #BookTok reviews "while bored at home during the pandemic."

Just two years later, TikTok erupted with concerns about the "epidemic of loneliness" among users in their 20s and 30s. Business Insider reported that the search term "loneliness in your 20s" in 2023 returned hundred of videos, largely from women talking about their experiences. The article followed this up with a definition of loneliness provided by Natalie Pennington, a professor of communication studies: "Loneliness is a product of a need to belong and relate to other people...Just like we have the need to eat, to sleep -- as humans we want to connect."

The Business Insider article featured a case study of the impacts of moving from a remote-first social network to seeing lives begin to pick up their prior rhythms as quarantines were ended and vaccines were distributed. The interviewee, Kelda Manley of Wales, was described and quoted as the following: "While she was once invited to countless Zoom parties and quizzes, the majority of people she knows are now back to living their normal lives, which she sees on social media...'I think it's lumped quite a lot of people suddenly into not having social avenues that they had for two years." She had found solace in the TikTok when posting videos of her "day[s] in the life as a lonely person," which received support and sympathy within the virtual community.

Last year, KFF noted that there are elevated concerns about a mental health crisis in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, with a range of symptoms and causes including "isolation and loneliness, job loss and financial instability, and illness and grief." As of 2023, "fifty percent of young adults (ages 18-24) reported anxiety and depression symptoms in 2023." These symptoms were also elevated among women.

For those under 29 who lived at home (approx. 52% as of September 2020) or continue to live at home with their parents or closest relatives since the height of the pandemic, 47% of parents surveyed said "the pandemic had a negative impact on their child's mental health, including 17% who said it had a 'major negative impact.'

Given the shift to a virtual community across schools, workplaces, and socialization during 2020 - 2021, it should come as no surprise that there was also a large shift in how, where, and when Americans (for the purpose of this article) could receive help for their mental and physical wellbeing. Further pulling from the KFF article: "By 2021, nearly 40% of all mental health and substance use disorder outpatient visits were delivered through telehealth."

But this isn't just a step toward better access to mental healthcare: Esther Perel, bestselling author of Mating in Captivity and The State of Affairs and pro-therapy thought leader, argued to Vanity Fair in 2023 that there's a "paradox" to the increasing use of therapy-speak in day-to-day lives. "There is such an emphasis on the 'self-care' aspect of it that is actually making us more isolate and more alone, because the focus is just on the self. The focus is not about the mutuality of relationships -- the reciprocity, the way you weave fabric, you know, between people who are relying on each other."

What we now call "therapy-speak," Perel points out, was once called psychobabble. It's integrating clinical terminology into the untrained vocabularies. And therapy, at its core, is relational. As Perel points out, "That is very different from what you get on TikTok or IG or your friends in armchairs."

What The Shadow Work Journal's Success Further Proves About #BookTok

But there are many who have found that relational, therapy-proxy through TikTok. The global self-improvement industry has most recently been quoted in 2023 to value USD 41.2 billion, with a projected increase in value to USD 81.6 billion by 2032. This industry spans from the financial self-improvement gurus of Tony Robbins and Dave Ramsey to the mental health juggernauts and motivational speakers/brands including Oprah Winfrey and BetterHelp.

Specific to the self-help book market, the industry sector is expected to grow to USD 14 billion by 2025 according to Medium's The Writing Space. This sentiment was echoed by Publisher's Lunch during their roundup of sales for 2023: advice/relationships/self-help was reported as having significant gains within the nonfiction space, tailing just behind science/technology which had the largest growth in deals during the year.

From even this cursory review of the data and discourse of the last four years, Keila Shaheen's success with The Shadow Work Journal seems to benefit largely from the momentum established within the genre fiction space for emotive, remote connection on TikTok while responding in real-time to the shifting needs of the primary demographic: users in their 20s and 30s who are seeking to understand -- i.e. diagnose -- their current mental health. As noted in The Atlantic, "In one video posted on TikTok, which has more than 50 million views, a reader has circled almost all of the [inner child wound statements]: 'Realizing I have more issues than I thought,' the caption reads."

And, as cited, capital-p Publishing is aware of the rising interest in self-help titles. Keila had simply already entered the market with a short, accessible volume and marketed it on the app where it was most the potent because it answered a need in the primary user demographic.

If Keila had initially gone through the traditional publishing submission process, I feel confident that she -- an unlicensed author of a standalone workbook -- would have been rejected without a second look. But once she had proof of an engaged, sizable readership (i.e. consumer base), it's a no-brainer for publishers who operate within a P&L-driven corporate business model.

And if you're wondering why Shaheen accepted a traditional deal, and a multi-book deal, no less -- well, it comes down to exactly what she said about needing the support. Traditional publishers are armed with industry experts and passionate professionals who provide excellent work. So while there is quite a bit of negative preconception around the industry's corporate structures, that comes down to a matter of finite resources for multiple, full-scale creative dreams. If there's an argument for where resources are applied, it's where there is business viability -- something that Shaheen provides ten-fold.

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@Rose Friel! What an outstanding article! And what a beautiful case study for 'you never know' where or what is going to sell, until after you have tested and refined your BETA product. There is no doubt she dialed in her messaging. Tested her Journal on friends and colleagues, and when she finally nailed the recipe. . . well, the rest is herstory!!

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