‘More zeros than I’ve seen in my life’: the author who landed a six-figure contract via ‘BookTok’ | Books


HAfter finally publishing her first novel, Alex Aster feels discouraged. The book had sunk during the pandemic and she had been let go by her literary agent. Then, on March 13, 2021, she decided to take to TikTok, asking her followers if they would: “read a book about a cursed island that only pops up once every 100 years to host a game which gives the six rulers of the kingdom a chance to break their curses. One of the rulers must die, the short video reveals, “even though love complicates everything” for the heroine, Isla Crown.

Aster wasn’t expecting much, especially when she arrived a few hours later to see that her post had only garnered around 1,000 views. Maybe the world of books was right, she thought. Maybe there was no market for Lightlark, a young adult story she had been writing and rewriting for years, with no interest from publishers. The next day, however, she woke up to find that her video had been viewed over a million times. A week later, Lightlark had gone to auction and she had a six-figure contract with Amulet Books. Last month, Universal preemptively bought the rights to the film for, in its words, “more zeros than I’ve seen in my life.”

It hits shelves August 23, and BookTok – a thriving sub-community of avid readers on TikTok – is going wild for this story that strikes the sweet spot between deadly competition from The Hunger Games and Sarah J Maas “romance”. . A court of thorns and roses. It’s gloriously dramatic and passionate, just the way BookTok likes it. Isla’s first encounter with Grim, the ruler of Nightshade with a “severely cut face” and a voice “dark and striking as midnight” finds her “eyes all over her” and her skin feeling “inexplicably electric”. There’s sure to be fireworks to come, and teenage readers will love Aster’s intricate detailing of the various realms that make up the world – Wildling, Starling, Moonling, Skyling, Sunling, and Nightshade. Isla, we learn, is a Wildling – one of a breed that has “always been proud of its body…loved wildly, lived freely and fought hard”. Their curse is unfortunate – to kill anyone they fall in love with – and to “live exclusively on human hearts”.

“If you take a look at TikTok, it’s easy to see that Lightlark is one of the most anticipated new books,” says Florentyna Martin, head of children’s books at Waterstones. “Booksellers and critics are already excited about this magical new world.”

“Since I saw Alex’s video on TikTok describing the plot, I knew this would be the book for me and it’s one of my most anticipated fantasy releases for this year,” says Emily Russell , who has 2.3 million likes for her @emilymiaahreads account. Kate Wilson, who has 13.7 million likes for her TikTok account @kateslibrary, agrees. “I’ve seen a lot of it on BookTok already and I think it has the potential to get really big there – it looks like it has the perfect balance of fantasy and romance that people are looking for.”

Aster: “I didn’t have a plan. I just wanted to be part of this community. Photography: Jennifer Trahan

Aster, who is 26, started trying to get a book deal when she was 12. would have been nicer to me. She wrote one novel as a preteen, another in high school, and three in college – including an early draft of what would become Lightlark. None sold. His sixth book, Curse of the Night Witch, inspired by Latin American myths told to him as a child by his Colombian grandmother, found a publisher but not huge sales. Her agent, frustrated with Aster’s focus on rewriting Lightlark’s releases, dumped her.

“I was back to square one,” says Aster. “So I wrote Lightlark, this book that everyone told me wouldn’t break through in the saturated market. I wrote the book I wanted to read, with everything I loved in it.

'Love Complicates Everything'… the cover of Lightlark.
“The perfect balance between fantasy and romance”… the cover of Lightlark, chosen by TikTok

The editors, again, said “no thanks”. “People were like, ‘Oh, I really like that. But I don’t think it will sell,” says Aster, who thinks the book industry has been slow to wake up to the power of BookTok. (Not anymore: every YA publisher worth their salt now works with “book influencers” on the platform, having seen them send sales through the roof.) “There’s such a big disconnect between the people making decisions in the boardrooms and the readers who crave these kinds of books,” says Aster.

Aster already had a nickname for herself on TikTok; she wrote the song Divine, which took off on the platform during confinement. But she had no real knowledge of BookTok when she posted her video on Lightlark. “I was lucky in the way I threw it,” she says. “TikTok is so temperamental. If I hadn’t described it in the right way, if I hadn’t chosen the right sound… The way the algorithm works is if the first people who see it like it and share it, then it will show it to more and more people. So I think that’s really a testament to how well this video was suited to convincing people.

But TikTok is not, she says, “something anyone can play.” “People see what happened to me. And they’re like, ‘Oh, I can just make a video and get a six-figure deal.’ simple,” she says. For Aster, BookTok is about BookTokers – reviewers who read a book, like it and send it viral – such as @thecalvinbooks; @moongirlreads and @aymansbooks. The latter is Ayman’s handle Chaudhary, who is particularly enthusiastic about Lightlark, “Alex perfectly embraces a complex world [while] also giving us a heartbreaking romance,” she says.

Those TikTokers drawn to Aster’s storyline last March followed his journey to a book deal, a movie deal, and a recent unveiling of the book’s cover in Times Square in New York – a cover voted for by BookTok itself. . “I told my publisher that I’m very grateful to BookTok. They’re the reason I got this book deal and I wanted them to pick the cover,” Aster says. “I didn’t tried to hide the fact that I failed for so long. I had no plan. I just wanted to be part of this community. And that led to some great moments.


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