‘More Zeros Than I’ve Seen in My Life’: The Author Who Got a Six Figure Deal Through ‘BookTok’ | Books

huhWhen she finally published her first novel, Alex Aster felt discouraged. The book had failed during the pandemic and she had been dropped by her literary agent. Then on March 13, 2021, she decided to go to TikTok and ask her followers: “read a book about a cursed island that only appears once every 100 years to host a game that gives the six rulers of the empire a chance. to break their curses.” One of the rulers must die, the short video revealed, “even if love complicates everything” for the heroine, Isla Crown.

Aster wasn’t expecting much, especially when she checked in a few hours later to find that her post only had about 1,000 views. Maybe the book world was right, she thought. Perhaps there was no market for Lightlark, a young adult story she’d been writing and rewriting for years, with no publisher interest. 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 had a six-figure deal with Amulet Books. Universal last month preemptively bought the film rights to, in her words, “more zeros than I’ve seen in my life”.

It hits shelves on August 23, and BookTok — a thriving sub-community of avid readers on TikTok — is going nuts with this story hitting the sweet spot between The Hunger Games’ deadly competition and the “romance” of Sarah J Maas’s A Court of thorns and roses. It’s wonderfully overdramatic and passionate, just the way BookTok likes it. Isla’s first encounter with Grim, the Nightshade Ruler with a “cruelly carved face” and a voice “dark and striking as midnight” finds his “eyes over her” and her skin feels “inexplicably electric”. There are certainly fireworks ahead, and teenage readers will enjoy Aster’s intricate details about 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 their bodies…loved wild, lived freely and fought fiercely”. Their curse is an unfortunate one – to kill everyone they fall in love with – and to “live solely on human hearts”.

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

“Ever since I saw Alex’s video on TikTok detailing the plot, I knew this was going to be the book for me and it’s one of my most anticipated fantasy releases for this year,” said Emily Russell, who has won 2.3 million. likes for her has @ emilymiah reads account. Kate Wilson, who has 13.7 million likes for her @kateslibrary TikTok account, agrees. “I’ve seen a lot about it on BookTok and think it has the potential to get really big there — looks like it has the perfect fantasy-to-romance ratio that people are looking for.”

Aster: 'I had no plan.  I just wanted to be part of this community'
Aster: ‘I had no plan. I just wanted to be part of this community.” Photo: Jennifer Trahan

Aster, who is 26, started trying to get a book deal when she was 12. “Of course my books weren’t good enough to be published, but it hurt to get all those rejections — maybe if I’d told people I was 12 they would have been nicer to me.” She wrote one novel as a young teen, another in high school and three in college — including an early draft of what would eventually become Lightlark. None sold. Her sixth book, Curse of the Night Witch, inspired by the Latin American myths told to her as a child by her Colombian grandmother found a publisher, but no huge sales, and her agent, frustrated with Aster’s focus on rewriting versions of Lightlark, dropped her.

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

'Love Makes Everything Complicated'... the cover of Lightlark.
‘The perfect balance between fantasy and romance’… the cover of Lightlark, chosen by TikTok

Publishers again said “no thanks”. “People said, ‘Oh, I really like it. But I don’t think it will sell,” said Aster, who believes the book industry has been slow to wake up to the power of BookTok. (No longer: Any YA publisher worth their salt now works with “book influencers” on the platform, after seeing how they sent sales through the roof). “There’s such a big gap between the people who make decisions in boardrooms and the readers who are hungry for these kinds of books,” Aster says.

Aster already had a small name for herself on TikTok; she wrote the song Divine, which started on the platform during the lockdown. But she had no real knowledge of BookTok when she posted her video about Lightlark. “I got lucky with the way I threw it,” she says. “TikTok is so picky. If I didn’t describe it in the right way, if I didn’t choose the right sound… The way the algorithm works is that if the first people who see it like it and share it, it will spread to more and more people will show people. So I think it’s really a testament to how well that video was able to convince people.”

But TikTok isn’t, she says, “something anyone can game.” “People see what happened to me. And they say, ‘Oh, I can just shoot a video and get a six-figure deal.’ I wish it were. I wish it had been that easy,” she says. For Aster, BookTok is about the BookTokers – the reviewers who read a book, love it and send it viral – like @thecalvinbooks; @moongirlreads and @aymansbooks. The latter is the handle of Ayman Chaudhary, who is particularly enthusiastic about Lightlark. “Alex perfectly connects a complicated world [while] also gives us a heartbreaking romance,” she says.

The TikTokers lured into Aster’s storyline last March have followed her journey to a book deal, a movie deal, and a recent book cover unveiling in New York’s Times Square — a cover that BookTok itself voted for. “I have told my publisher how grateful I am to BookTok. That’s why I bought this book and I wanted them to pick the cover,” says Aster. “I have not tried to mask that I have failed for so long. I had no plan. I just wanted to be part of this community. And it led to great moments.”

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