Would you read a book about an island that appeared every 100 years, where six rulers had the chance to break their generational curses and save their people?
That’s what 27-year-old author Alex Aster had been trying to figure out. But from the publishing side, it was almost a clear no: She had been rejected by more than a dozen publishers, and her agent dropped her over her continued efforts to push a story her agent thought wouldn’t do well.
“I felt very powerless and hopeless,” Aster told TODAY of the chances of her book getting published. “Like, OK, publishing is saying this isn’t going to sell well, but like, I really believe in myself.”
Aster told TODAY that while she has pursued writing for over a decade, and previously published two middle grade books called the “Emblem Island” series, she went out on a whim and posted a TikTok in March 2021 asking if anyone would be interested in reading the plot of what would become her young adult novel, “Lightlark,” publishing Aug. 23.
And at first, it flopped. “And so it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m proving everyone right, no one wants this concept,’” she feared as she went to bed. “No one cares. But it’s like again, I had literally nothing to lose.”
But the next morning, she checked TikTok, and it had over a million views and thousands of comments asking how to purchase the book and how to read it. And because of the user interest suggested by that TikTok data, the novel went to auction between a handful of remaining publishers.
“So (TikTok) really gave us leverage,” she said. “The thing that I’ve learned from TikTok is that it’s almost like a market validation tool, or that’s at least what I used it for. I was able to kind of shout into the dark void of the Internet and say ‘Hey, would you read this?’ And like a million people were able to shout back like, ‘Yes, we would.’”
Aster walked away with a six-figure advance from Abrams Books as part of a two-book deal — nearly unheard of for a first time young adult author. “I’m Latina, I’m Colombian, and unfortunately, books from POC authors don’t necessarily always get the strongest publisher support,” she said. “I have seen BookTok be kind of a level playing field because like anything can go viral. Anyone can go viral.”
Neither of Aster’s previous middle-grade novels published in 2021 and 2022 had the amount of success — or hype — as “Lightlark” had buzzed, so then the waiting period began to set in for the books to be printed and to get an official release date.
“There was this really big gap between then and when someone preordered,” Aster said. “I was getting so many followers and everything, but it’s like, people can forget … I knew to be afraid of that.”
Keeping the hype
In the meantime, Aster worked on ideas to keep TikTokers who are into books, an online community nicknamed BookTok, engaged with her story, including a contest where BookTok chose the cover of “Lightlark.” Aster’s publisher created two mock covers of the book, and users were able to vote for their favorite.
BookTok has been a massive influence on the publishing industry, and even played a part in 2021 being the biggest year for print book sales. Books that go viral on the app rapidly rise to the top of the bestseller charts, leading titles like “The Song of Achilles” by Madeline Miller and “We Were Liars” by E. Lockhart to top spots years after they were originally published. Other BookTok favorites like “The Spanish Love Deception” by Elena Armas and “They Both Die at the End” by Adam Silvera have been optioned into a movie and TV series, respectively.
The cover of “Lightlark” was revealed on the NASDAQ sign in New York City in March 2022, almost a year after she posted the first TikTok about the book — and it went viral again.
“It was really satisfying to see that people were still interested in it because that viral video had people remembering, ‘Oh my gosh, I remember last year I saw this video,’ and ‘Oh my gosh, it’s gonna be a book,’” she said. Pre-orders also went live for “Lightlark” the same day, and instantly became a bestseller at Barnes and Noble — all more five months than before the book was even coming out.
“Truly it was the craziest business problem, or just the craziest thing to ask in the world,” Aster said of pre-orders for “Lightlark.” “It was over six months before the book was going to come out. So it was a huge ask to ask someone, ‘Hey, spend $18 on a book that you just saw the cover of.’ You don’t see anything else. I hadn’t even revealed anything about the book, except for what was in that original video.”
“It’s the craziest thing I’ve ever done,” she continued. But BookTok was intrigued and readers purchased thousands of pre-orders. The the book reached No. 1 on the Barnes and Noble bestseller list more than three months before its release, and has hit the top spot several times since.
Over the summer, Aster’s team continued to clinch deals for “Lightlark.” TODAY can exclusively reveal foreign rights in over 30 countries sold for more than $300,000, meaning “Lightlark” will be published in at least 12 languages — along with an initial print run of 200,000 copies in English.
And in late July, Universal landed the preemptive film rights for “Lightlark” in a partnership with Temple Hill — the production company behind the “Twilight” series and “The Fault in Our Stars” — again, more than a month before readers could even open the novel.
The release — and some controversy
So BookTok launched Aster’s book — and now BookTok is reading her book. Users getting access to “Lightlark” have had mixed reviews after reading, and are starting to respond on the app.
Reviews on TikTok range from accusing Aster of removing scenes from the book that she talked about on TikTok and having been “lied to, scammed (and) taken for fools,” while others have praised it as a “cinematic masterpiece” and proclaimed “other books aren’t going to be hitting this way.”
Aster said in a statement to TODAY some of the scenes she described online will be included in a special edition of the book, or in the novel’s upcoming sequel.
“I’ve made an effort to bring my followers along my journey to publishing Lightlark, including in the editing process which inevitably includes changes,” Aster said in the statement. “The early scenes I shared are all in the series in some capacity — either exactly as I posted or with edited wording.”
Reviews for “Lightlark” on the reading social media app Goodreads also plummeted significantly the week before the novel was published, which some TikTokers attributed to “review bombing,” when a large number of people leave negative reviews over a short period of time.
Abrams Books, Aster’s publisher, said in a statement to TODAY it strongly condemns bullying, harassment and online abuse of any kind.
“Like any creative endeavor, the writing and editing process involves change and development. ABRAMS stands in full support of Alex, her journey in creating Lightlark, and her tireless efforts to genuinely connect with her large and diverse readership,” Abrams said. “Moreover, we appreciate the efforts of Goodreads which is diligently working to address the numerous prepublication reviews that violate their code of conduct.”
“Lightlark” publishes Tuesday, and Aster thanked the BookTok community in the acknowledgements of the book, and still credits the community for much of her success.
“(TikTok) truly has afforded me things — I would never have this wide of reach," Aster said. "And it’s something that has never been done before. I’m pretty sure I’m the only person we’ve ever gotten like a book deal from TikTok, like literally from just like a post.”
“It’s been like 14 years of me trying to be in this industry,” she continued. “I like to think that I have huge dreams, huge ambitions. But I truly never knew this could even happen to people.”