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Why a bestselling author’s email to book influencers is sparking controversy

"No one’s ever stripped on camera for a spicy book."
BookTokers react to the latest controversy taking the social media community by storm.@liz_zarb / @chrissysbookshelf Via Tiktok
/ Source: TODAY

Bestselling author J.D. Barker is facing scrutiny for a Jan. 23 email campaign sent to book influencers, asking them to take risqué videos with his latest book in exchange for payment.

“I cannot believe this is an actual email that I received this week from an author about making a promo video for one of their books,” TikToker Marissa Bologna said in a video, teeing up the latest controversy to take over BookTok, the bookish corner of the social media platform TikTok.

BookTok is known as a space for book influencers, enthusiasts and commentators to share their opinions on their latest reads and occasionally uncover controversy, like author Cait Corrain's involvement in a Goodreads review bombing campaign in December 2023.

"BookTokers hold each other and authors accountable. We’re aware that it reflects the whole community," 28-year-old BookToker Amanda Zarb says of the community's reputation for making news.

However, Amanda Zarb distinguishes this from other instances of BookTok drama by classifying the email as "a safety concern."

"At this point it's the safety of the whole community," Amanda Zarb, who received the email, says of the outpouring of videos. "The whole point was to make sure the community was aware this was happening." has reached out to Barker and publisher Hampton Creek Press for comment and has not heard back at the time of publication.

Barker apologized to recipients in an email reviewed by sent two days after the initial message. Barker said the first email "was not issued by me nor was it approved by me" but was "sent by one of the many PR firms I hired to promote my latest title."

What is this email, and why was it sent?

Barker is a New York Times bestselling author of thrillers. The email, which has been reviewed by, was sent as part of a publicity campaign for Barker's upcoming book "Behind A Closed Door," about an "app craze" that sends couple Abby and Brendan Hollander "down a dangerous game of life and death."

"When the app assigns them a series of increasingly taboo tasks, they soon find themselves caught up in a twisted web of seduction and violence in this sexually charged dark thriller from the New York Times bestselling author of 'The Fourth Monkey' — master of suspense, J.D. Barker," the email reads.

The email was sent to BookTokers who could receive a free copy of the book and possibly payment, should they submit a video personally accepted by Barker.

What, exactly, was so controversial about the email?

The controversy arose from the sexual nature of the email's four video prompts, which appear to be inspired by the book's content.

"This book is SPICY! Here are few video ideas currently in the works by other influencers," the email read.

One prompt encourages BookTokers to post a video with the text, "Who doesn't like to relax with a good book?" The accompanying video would be a "a camera pan up or down the body using only the book to cover up your naughty bits."

Another prompt had the text, "What is the most taboo place you've ever had sex?"

"These are questions I've never received from a publisher, and never thought I would ever receive," Amanda Zarb says of her reaction to the email. "That's when it started and I was like, Hm. This is uncomfortable."

The email explaining the publicity campaign for Barker's upcoming thriller.Best of Book Tok via Email

While "spicy" books — the term for erotica-leaning romance novels — are popular on BookTok, Bologna, 30, says if she came across videos inspired by these prompts, it would seem unusual compared to the rest of her feed.

Typically, she comes across videos that feature quotes, fan art or imagery associated with the book's aesthetic to draw readers in.

"Listing tropes is a really popular thing," Bologna, whose niche is in the spicy book space. "I've never seen videos like what was suggested in this email."

Amanda Zarb's sister, Liz, also a BookToker, posted a video about the controversy because she was concerned that there was "nothing in the email about age" or that it was limited to readers over 18.

"I know how easy it is if you'e younger to think, 'If I do this, this will be my big break,'" Liz Zarb, 24, says. "There being absolutely no age verification ... it got very scary."

Were BookTokers offered payment?

The campaign offered payment for videos that were selected via a submission process, the rationale being that Barker “understands how much work goes into those videos,” according to the email.

The payment scale ranged from $100 for accounts with 3,000 to 5,000 followers through $2,400 for those with upwards of 700,000 followers.

The rate scale.Best of Book Tok via Email

In order to receive payment, users — after receiving a free book — had to upload a video for review.

"Barker will personally review each video and either approve it (triggering payment) or offer suggestions to get it approved. Once approved, you’re free to post," the email read.

Book influencers are often given free books in exchange for a review, Liz Zarb confirms. She has also worked with publishers in exchange for compensation. In those cases, she submits the video to the publisher first.

“In those cases, it’s more an advertisement than an honest review," she says. What made this ask a "gray area" is that in addition to the prompts, the videos weren't called advertisements in the email.

One BookToker summarized the prompts and the payment scale as follows: "It blows my mind that they're offering to pay BookTok creators for sexual content."

TikToker @jerseybookguy equated it to "asking women to take their clothes off" to promote his book.

The email didn't indicate what Barker or the publishing house planned to do with the videos. "The concern becomes, well, if my video isn't approved, what are you going to do with it?" Liz Zarb says.

The email does not require BookTokers to film videos only responding to those specific prompts in exchange for payment. The email says the prompts “are just suggestions,” and, underlined, writes, “The content of the video is entirely up to you.”

Still, Amanda Zarb says that since all the prompts were suggestive, “It feels like I don’t send in something racy, I won’t get approved or get paid."

Has Barker apologized?

Barker apologized "for the inconvenience this may have caused" in an email sent Jan. 25, two days after the first email.

In the three paragraph-long message, he explained the origin of the prompts and said he had "not approved" the email.

"The message you received from my account was not issued by me nor was it approved by me. It was sent by one of the many PR firms I hired to promote my latest title," the email read.

"We are working with influencers on multiple social media campaigns and while some of those influencers have suggested racier posts to tie in with the theme of the book, that is not the heart of the campaign. The individual who edited this message chose to include these racier suggestions while editing out the others. Again, that was not the intent of the campaign. Had I seen this message before it went out, I would have stopped it.

"Ultimately, this is on me. I should not have allowed an outside firm access to my email account. That has been corrected," he continued, before concluding, "I apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused you."

Bologna sees a lesson in this saga for authors and book influencers. “I wrote (in my video), ‘Authors, please don’t do this.' It was a PSA,” she says.

As for book influencers and all social media users? "Read emails and make sure you are thinking them through."