At traffic lights in New Delhi, vendors hawk an impressive array of products from checked dusters to bestselling (and usually pirated) books. As an author, I deplore book piracy, but our local traffic-light entrepreneurs have drawn my reluctant admiration over the years for their ability to understand exactly what the Indian reader wants from bestseller lists.
A decade ago, book pirates helped to make local celebrities out of authors such as Arundhati Roy and Amitav Ghosh, Chetan Bhagat and Devdutt Pattanaik. This year, the bulk of traffic-light book sales has faithfully mirrored a growing trend — the rise of the viral author, across genres and countries. Many of these literary stars have become brand names because of the power of book communities — including but also beyond #BookTok influencers, Substack newsletters and Goodreads reviews — that are transforming both traditional and self-publishing.
Colleen Hoover, who began as a self-published author with her 2012 novel Slammed, is now a global phenomenon who has sold more than 20mn books, including her romance novels Ugly Love (2014) and Verity (2018). In an interview earlier this year, Hoover, 42, who lives in Sulphur Springs, Texas, paid tribute to her online supporters: “Any success of mine that came from TikTok did not come from me, it came from the readers who have made videos about my books and shared them on the app.”
But while CoHo, as she is known, is often written about as a BookTok phenomenon, she has something in common with many writers who have found viral fame — years of work on the ground, connecting with fans and reading communities, before that moment of apparently overnight success.
Over the past decade, authors around the world have increasingly turned to digital tools and online platforms, as book advances and royalties in traditional publishing shrink. Hoover first connected with readers on Instagram, long before BookTok took off. And like many writers, she has opted to self-publish some of her books, even after her initial success, as well as being published by traditional houses. I’m betting that more authors will adopt this hybrid model in the future, linking the formerly distinct worlds of self-publishing and legacy publishing.
If a 2019 survey by the Authors Guild showed a “drastic, 42 per cent” decline in earnings by American authors from traditional publishing (a downwards trend confirmed by reports in the UK and elsewhere), there are huge opportunities for writers willing to go beyond festival appearances to nurture their fans directly — in short, to become entrepreneurs.
Earlier this year, Brandon Sanderson, a writer of several fantasy bestsellers, including the Mistborn series, set an unusual record by crowdfunding one of the biggest book deals in publishing history. He appealed to his fans via Kickstarter, hoping to raise about $1mn for four unwritten standalone novels — and raised $41mn in a few days. As a thank you to the community, Sanderson announced he would back every Kickstarter publishing appeal, funding 316 other book projects from the deal.
Authors of literary fiction have tended to be less adventurous than genre writers, less at home in the new digital ecosystem and more dependent on legacy media. But that is slowly changing as authors such as Nicole Chung, Anita Anand, George Saunders and others try their hand at newsletters and podcasts.
Some years ago, American jazz critic and music writer Ted Gioia discovered a new audience on Substack at a time when mainstream newspapers had shrinking space for profiles of jazz musicians or long-form articles about music. Today, he has tens of thousands of readers for his newsletter, The Honest Broker. In a recent post, “Has The Internet Reached Peak Clickability?”, Gioia writes: “Audiences are hungry for something more than clickable diversion in 10-second instalments” He goes on to add: “The readers here prefer in-depth articles. Who would’ve guessed?”
Most writers, contrary to the myth, are not recluses, and many, like contemporary artists, are more business-minded than they seem. Publishing itself might adapt slowly to the rollercoaster promises of the emerging creator economy, but for buccaneering authors with an appetite for risk, this is the start of a new, potentially golden age.
Join our online book group on Facebook at FT Books Café