Alex Aster grips a tall Starbucks hot chocolate in her right hand as she guides me through the second floor of the world’s largest Barnes & Noble bookstore.
“I come here several times a week,” she says, pointing to a corner of the Young Adult section that often acts as a background for her many viral TikToks. “I usually stack two or three books to create a sort of stand.”
She demonstrates her typical filming strategy, which is a test of both physics and balance, and points out the spot where her anticipated YA novel, “Lightlark,” will sit on the shelves; it’s just above best-selling authors Victoria Aveyard and Leigh Bardugo.
We spend the next 30 minutes wandering the stacks hunting for Jennette McCurdy’s hotly debated memoir, “I’m Glad My Mom Died.” Despite our best efforts — and introverted refusal to ask for help — we can’t find the book. Instead, she buys a beige tote bag with a picture of her second home, the famed Union Square B&N in New York City, and “Big Magic” by Elizabeth Gilbert. She gives me the book, recounting how it completely changed her life.
While the “Eat, Pray, Love” author might have bettered Aster’s insight into her own creativity, it’s not the only thing that changed the course of her life. That accolade goes to TikTok — or, more specifically, BookTok, a community on the social media platform dedicated to readers and authors who share their favorite books, characters and literary anecdotes.
After hundreds of rejections — seriously, she’s been writing books and querying agents since she was 12 years old — Aster joined TikTok in March 2021 to share the concept of a young adult novel she’d been working on for several years. The novel, “Lightlark,” had recently received tons of rejections from publishers and she was determined to prove that she wasn’t the only person in the world who wanted to read it.
“Every single publisher was mainly saying that the genre is so saturated. That’s when I decided to make the TikTok video … I put everything I love into [“Lightlark”] and so it [was] me asking the void, asking the internet, ‘Would you read this book?’”
The video, which has since received over 1.8 million views, over 363,000 likes, and more than 56,000 saves, shows Alex scrolling through her manuscript before cutting away to a series of fantasy-inspired Pinterest photos to what sounds like a new-age ballad. The captions on her video read: “Would you read a book about a cursed island that only appears once every hundred years to host a game that gives the six rulers of [each] realm a chance to break their curses? Each realm’s curse is deadly and to break them, one of the six rulers must die. To survive, Isla Crown must lie, cheat, betray even as love complicates everything.”
With fate, an enticing story, and the algorithm on her side, her video went viral overnight. Her novel went to auction and sold two weeks later in a deal that was 10 times what she was paid for her critically acclaimed, award-winning middle grade series “Emblem Island.”
“It was like a bunch of years of work mixed with, like, luck that I could never have anticipated,” Aster says of the viral video. She even accidentally started her own trend, with hundreds of other writers pitching their novels in a similar format with the same audio.
Aster and her publisher, Abrams Books, have used TikTok ever since to help market the novel. They even went as far as to let BookTok pick the cover of the novel, an unheard of option in the realm of traditional publishing, which usually takes years of marketing research and trend reports into account. The cover, which received over 10,000 votes in a weekend, was then revealed on a massive billboard in Times Square.
“My publisher has been extremely open and collaborative; this is a new generation, Gen Z is shopping differently and they really care about the person behind the book,” Aster said. “If I’ve done anything revolutionary, it’s probably that I crowdsource my audience for publishing … it’s been very cool to see this very old industry be able to shift so quickly to meet with this new trend that is BookTok that’s literally changing the industry.”
A year and a half after posting her initial video to TikTok, “Lightlark” is on the shelves, a timeline considered rushed by publishing standards. Even before the novel came out, Aster landed a massive movie deal with the producers of “Twilight” — she’s Team Edward, by the way — and her agents secured publishing rights in 13 languages. She also became one of the most followed authors on TikTok with nearly 1 million followers and started work on a sequel to the novel. “Lightlark” had a first-print run of over 200,000 copies, almost unheard of in the publishing industry.
While some authors claim BookTok doesn’t move the needle in terms of sales, Aster’s proved them wrong, becoming an instant New York Times bestseller. “Lightlark” debuted at No. 1 during its first week of publication — proof that the community she cultivated did buy her novel. The year’s worth of daily TikTok posts and Instagram questionnaires were well worth the time and effort, despite the naysayers.
Now, she’s well on her way to becoming Gen Z’s Stephanie Meyer — sans questionable BIPOC representation — at just 27 years old. In between writing the sequel to her novel at coffee shops with fellow Gen Z author Chloe Gong, sharing her custom-made “Lightlark” mugs on Instagram or taking followers on one of her mid-afternoon iced coffee runs on TikTok, Aster’s giving us a behind-the-scenes look into the life of a published author. And this might be the new norm for up-and-coming authors of this generation and those who come after. They’ve grown up with social media and know how to navigate each app to build a connection with their readers in a way that feels authentic, not elitist, and inspires them to pursue their own dreams.
“It’s really cool because we’re just peers with our readers. It’s not like the author is above the reader anymore. We’re one of the readers, and I think that lends to a community of discussion and collaboration that wasn’t really there before,” Aster said. “I get to interact with people in a way that maybe wasn’t possible before. I recognize people’s names when they message me and it just gives me access to my readers in a way that I don’t think was possible before. We want to be a part of these communities. We don’t want to be separate from them.”
“I think what really resonates with people is that I’ve never shied away from sharing my struggles,” she said of her journey. “I just never wanted to gloss over the negative part [of this industry]. I was never the best writer, I was never the best person, the best author, I was literally just the person who didn’t give up … why paint a pretty picture when it’s just not the truth? I have failed way more than I’ve succeeded in my life. I just didn’t stop.”
Still, despite her hard-earned success, some BookTok creators have questioned whether or not Aster is a “industry plant.” Aster grew up on television, where she and her twin sister, Daniella Pierson — one of the youngest multi-millionaires in the world — starred in her parent’s Jacksonville Toyota dealership commercials. She acknowledges the financial privilege she has, noting in the comments of one TikTok video that she has zero student debt, was able to live with family while she wrote her novels, and is on her fiancé’s health insurance, but stresses that she had no industry connections in publishing or film prior to her viral success. She also confirmed to HuffPost that she did not put any paid promotion behind any of her TikToks.
“I know people are confused about how I got a movie deal before the book is published, but the truth is that happens all the time … I’m proud to say that I didn’t have or use any connections to get my book or movie deal,” she said. “I think people only see the last year of my life that has been rapidly successful, but the truth is I’ve been writing and trying to get published for over a decade. Also, industry plants in publishing are not a thing. I think it’s unfortunate people will grasp at straws to try to invalidate someone’s success, but ultimately I think it’s more of a reflection on them than it is on me.”
In fact, it might be Aster’s minor in consumer psychology that makes her such a powerful marketer for rapid success. She knows how to relate to the audience she’s appealing to and is open and honest about all her experiences, even if they sometimes seem too good to be true. Even before the original “Lightlark” TikTok went viral, Aster had become an up-and-coming TikTok star with several of her own songs becoming trending sounds. Bella Poarch, who now has over 91 million followers, used her song “You Think You’re” in a video in late 2020. While Aster has since removed the music from the app — she says the music industry is “even worse than publishing” and didn’t want her new followers to be confused when finding her through BookTok — her aptitude for consumer marketing and the TikTok algorithm remain. That, and her passion for publishing the best book possible.
Aster had always wanted to be a novelist. She spent every day after middle school writing in her room or Barnes & Noble and even spent a majority of her high school lunches hunched over a laptop working on yet another manuscript. By the time she graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2017, she’d written four books and finally had gotten an agent. In fact, she landed her agent the day she graduated and even skipped her commencement ceremony to finalize her choice among three offering agents. She describes the moment “like fate,” until it all came crashing down.
After her first book, an adult thriller, didn’t sell to a publisher, she left her agent and started working on a middle-grade series based on her Colombian heritage. Unfortunately, despite starred reviews and awards, “Emblem Island” was released during the pandemic and, like many other debut works during this time, saw slow sales. She eventually parted ways with her second agent and wrote the first draft of “Lightlark” sans representation. Even after landing a third agent, “Lightlark” continued to be rejected. It’s for this reason Aster attributes her latest novel’s publication entirely to the BookTok community. She says she feels both indebted and grateful that they saw something in her plea to the void. “I would have never been in this position if it wasn’t for their support.”
Transparency is at the heart of Aster’s own approach to social media. She posts several times a day on TikTok and Instagram, giving readers an intimate look into her life as an author. From signing copies of her novel for seven hours straight to flying across the country on short notice for secret “Lightlark” business trips, she documents every part of her writing journey.
“I’m on social media more than I write,” Aster said. “I think it’s a new thing for authors to be required and also expected to have a social media platform. There is a lot of pressure … it has played such a huge role in my career that I can’t stop and so it’s the biggest blessing and something I’m extremely grateful for, but it’s a lot of additional work. I have to keep up with it because of the algorithm and because now people are expecting it from me.”
While she might spend upward of five hours every single day filming TikToks that’ll never see the light of day (seriously, she says she has thousands of unposted drafts), she says she can’t complain because the entire community has made her lifelong dream a reality.
Still, with her newfound internet stardom comes a host of trolls and people who want to discount her years of hard work and dedication. Even worse, some of the commenters on her videos have referred to her as a white author (she’s of Indigenous Colombian ancestry). Aster says she’s even noticed this happening within the publishing industry itself. As a Latina who previously wrote a book inspired by her Latin roots, she says there was a sort of tokenization that happened for “Emblem Island” that isn’t happening for “Lightlark.” While “Lightlark” might not be marketed as a Latinx book, it is still written by a Latina author and contains tons of nods to Aster’s heritage, like the main character’s name being Isla, which means island in Spanish.
But, Aster’s not letting TikTok or the publishing industry erase her identity. She doesn’t shy away from correcting people who incorrectly call her white and she isn’t afraid to talk about the pigeonholing that happened when she was on submission for “Emblem Island.”
“I did hear some of the stuff that you think of as horror stories … like big editors said ‘Oh, we already have like a Latinx book, and it’s better than this one.’ And to get that feedback, I saw at that point, there’s only a limited number of spaces for Latinx books and Latinx authors. And so it’s really interesting now that [“Lightlark” wasn’t marketed as a Latinx book] that suddenly there’s all this space.”
Even when it comes to the panels she’s asked to speak on now. Before, she was only invited to Latinx author panels. Now, she’s been invited to speak at Comic-Con on a panel that has nothing to do with race or ethnicity.
“It’s definitely interesting to see the different response when this isn’t blatantly marketed as a Latinx book. I’ve seen both parts of the industry, the industry that doesn’t have enough room for me because they have a certain amount of books and then the industry that opens up because suddenly like, for some reason, this book is different. It’s a complicated feeling.”
Aster notes that when her publisher was marketing “Emblem Island,” it was usually referred to only as a Latinx fantasy. While she was grateful that people who were looking for that specific type of book could find it, she got to a point where she wanted the series simply to be referred to as a fantasy. “At some level, it’s not like you talk about a book and say, ‘It’s like a Russian magic system’ or ‘It’s a French magic system’; no, you just talk about it as a fantasy.”
Thankfully, BookTok influencers are saving the day when it comes to making sure novels by people of color are getting their flowers. Aster shouted out a few creators like @aymansbooks, @thecalvinsbooks, and even the founder of BookTok herself, @caitsbooks, who act as trendsetters in the book community.
“They’re deciding what people are reading … they’re the new tastemakers of the industry,” she said, noting that even someone with a thousand followers can go viral and become an instant literary arbiter. “I think [TikTok] is changing the book industry. [Now,] it’s not just whatever books are in the front row with a shelf that’s what’s going to sell. It’s whatever books are resonating with people and I think people are getting a lot more chances. I think there’s a lot of power in that anyone, even if you have one follower or a million followers, you can go viral. There’s a lot of hope in that.”
Needless to say, Aster’s come a long way from writing novels in her childhood bedroom. “Lightlark” is just the beginning of what’s sure to be an incredibly successful career. The YA novel is full of wonder, magic, and even a to-die-for love triangle that easily rivals “Twilight” (she’s Team Isla, for what it’s worth). And, while she’s thrilled with the reception “Lightlark” continues to get from fans around the world, she wants other aspiring authors to not be so hard on themselves.
“I was really sad for many years because I thought I was a failure. But, looking back, I see everything happened the way it was supposed to, I just needed to be a little more patient and a little kinder to myself.”
It’s this kindness that, perhaps, makes Aster a breath of fresh air in the world of publishing. And part of the reason she identifies so closely with the Starling realm in her book. She’s ethereal, dedicated, creative and ready to start a new era in the publishing world.