How Colleen Hoover Rose to Rule the Book Best-Seller List

From a New York Times story by Alexandra Alter headlined “How Colleen Hoover Rose to Rule the Best-Seller List”:

Colleen Hoover has sold more books this year than Dr. Seuss. She’s sold more books than James Patterson and John Grisham — combined.

To say she’s currently the best-selling novelist in the United States, to even compare her to other successful authors who have landed several books on the best seller lists, fails to capture the size and loyalty of her audience.

She holds six of the top 10 spots on The New York Times’s paperback fiction best-seller list, a stunning number of simultaneous best sellers from a single author. She has sold 8.6 million print books this year alone — more copies than the Bible, according to NPD BookScan.

And her success — a shock that she’s still processing, she said — has upended the publishing industry’s most entrenched assumptions about what sells books.

When she self-published her first young adult novel, “Slammed,” in January of 2012, Hoover was making $9 an hour as a social worker, living in a single-wide trailer with her husband, a long-distance truck driver, and their three sons. She was elated when she made $30 in royalties. It was enough to pay the water bill.

Hoover, 42, didn’t have a publisher, an agent or any of the usual marketing machinery that goes into engineering a best seller: the six-figure marketing campaigns, the talk-show and podcast tours, the speaking gigs and literary awards, the glowing reviews from mainstream book critics.

But seven months later, “Slammed” hit the New York Times best-seller list. By May, Hoover had made $50,000 in royalties, money she used to pay back her stepfather for the trailer. By the summer, with two books on the best-seller list — “Slammed” and a sequel, “Point of Retreat,” — she quit her job to write full time.

Her success has happened largely on her terms, led by readers who act as her evangelists, driving sales through ecstatic online reviews and viral reaction videos.

Her fans, who are mostly women, call themselves CoHorts and post gushing reactions to her books’ devastating climaxes. A CoHo fan who made the following plea on TikTok is typical: “I want Colleen Hoover to punch me in the face. That would hurt less than these books.”

So far in 2022, five of the top 10 best-selling print books of any genre are Hoover’s, according to NPD BookScan, and many of her current best-sellers came out years ago, a phenomenon that’s almost unheard-of in publishing.

“She’s defying the laws of how the market works,” said the publishing industry analyst Peter Hildick-Smith.

Most blockbuster authors break out because of a popular series, like “Twilight” or “Harry Potter,” or build a brand by writing in a recognizable genre. Hoover is eclectic. She’s written romances, a steamy psychological thriller, a ghost story, harrowing novels about domestic violence, drug abuse, homelessness and poverty. Though her books are hard to categorize, most of them have an addictive combination of sex, drama and outrageous plot twists.

“I kept being told that authors need to brand themselves as one thing. And I was like, well, why can’t I brand myself as everything?” Hoover said. “Why can’t I just brand myself as Colleen Hoover?”

Hoover’s devoted fan base has given her a degree of control over her work that is unusual in publishing.

She got her start self-publishing and has continued to do so on occasion, but has also struck deals with multiple publishers, sometimes selling print rights and keeping the e-book rights. She is currently under contract to release six books with three publishers over the next five years: three new thrillers with Grand Central, a Hachette imprint; two new romance novels with Atria, a division of Simon & Schuster; and a new novel with Montlake, Amazon Publishing’s romance imprint.

“You think about John Grisham or Lee Child or James Patterson, those guys are creatures of the traditional publishing market. They were made by big publishers, they’ve been working with the same publishers for many years, they have a strong formula — it’s like a machine,” said Kristen McLean, the primary industry analyst for NPD BookScan. “She’s just different. She’s in charge.”

Hoover’s books are now dominating the best seller lists years after they were first released. Her top-selling book, “It Ends With Us,” a drama about a florist who falls for a brooding, abusive neurosurgeon, came out six years ago, but reappeared on the best-seller list in 2021 and has remained a fixture there: It’s currently No. 1 on The New York Times paperback list, and has sold four million copies. After fans begged for a sequel, Hoover wrote a continuation, titled “It Starts with Us,” which Atria will release on Oct. 18, with a first printing of 2.5 million copies.

Hoover’s deft use of social media, where she has 3.9 million followers across platforms and posts goofy, self-deprecating videos, helped grow her audience. So did timing: While she built a strong fan base early in her career, her sales soared during the pandemic, when her books became a sensation on TikTok. To date, the hashtag #colleenhoover has amassed more than 2.4 billion views.

Libby McGuire, the head of Atria, Hoover’s main publisher, called the phenomenon “the reverse of the Oprah book club.” Whereas Oprah was one woman making a recommendation, and sometimes selling two million books, now it’s a hundred people making a recommendation — and selling four million books, McGuire said.

“We’re all just sitting back going, ‘OK, what’s the next one they’re going to pick?’” McGuire said.

Hoover, who says she suffers from “the worst case of impostor syndrome in the world,” seems bewildered by it all.

“I read other people’s books, and I’m so envious. I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, these are so much better, why are mine selling the way they are?’” she said.

Libby McGuire, the head of Atria, Hoover’s main publisher, called the phenomenon “the reverse of the Oprah book club.” Whereas Oprah was one woman making a recommendation, and sometimes selling two million books, now it’s a hundred people making a recommendation — and selling four million books, McGuire said.

“We’re all just sitting back going, ‘OK, what’s the next one they’re going to pick?’” McGuire said.

Hoover, who says she suffers from “the worst case of impostor syndrome in the world,” seems bewildered by it all.

“I read other people’s books, and I’m so envious. I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, these are so much better, why are mine selling the way they are?’” she said.

On a scorching summer day in Dallas, Hoover sat in a corporate conference room, looking anxious as a makeup artist fussed over her. When the stylist cheerfully asked what kind of look she was going for, Hoover seemed stumped.

“Whatever you think will help,” Hoover said. “This is so awkward for me.”

Later, hair curled into long beach waves and eyelashes applied, Hoover made her way to a cavernous underground convention hall. She took her place at a folding table, prepared for a keyed-up crowd at Book Bonanza, an annual charity romance convention she organizes.

For the next five hours, fueled by a steady stream of Diet Pepsi, Hoover signed books and posed for selfies with more than 500 fans. Many of them towed dozens of Hoover’s books in wheeled crates. Some were giddy, presenting gifts of chocolates and unicorn erasers. Others were overwhelmed, shaking and teary.

Hoover’s signings are well-oiled operations that unfold with the precision of an assembly line. A team of assistants kept the line moving: One greeted fans and scribbled their names on sticky notes. Another handed out goody bags. A third took readers’ cellphones and snapped photos of Hoover smiling with them as she signed.

The encounter often lasted less than a minute, but for CoHorts, meeting her is akin to making a religious pilgrimage.

“I’m going to cry,” one reader, Angie LePine, from Denton, Texas, told Hoover. “You are part of my life.”

LePine said she started reading Hoover’s books in high school, and returned to them a few years ago when she was struggling with postpartum depression.

“Her writing helped me laugh, cry, fall in love,” she said. “The books helped me learn how to feel again.”

A fan who had come from Cape Cod sheepishly set 18 books in front of Hoover. “I may have gone overboard,” the woman, Marie Kade, said.

By 7 p.m., Hoover had signed thousands of books, as well as T-shirts, mugs, a phallus-shaped wooden charcuterie board, and a baby onesie that said “Future CoHort Member.” Her attention to fans never flagged, but afterward, she seemed depleted, and made a stealth exit through a back service tunnel.

Hoover grew up in Saltillo, a small town about 90 miles east of Dallas. Her earliest memory is from when she was two: She woke up one night to her father yelling, and saw him throw a television set at her mother, knocking her down. Her parents divorced shortly after. Hoover later learned that her father, who died when she was 25, had been an alcoholic and had physically abused her mother.

When she was four, her mother remarried. Money was tight. Their family owned a small dairy farm with about 50 cows where Hoover and her older sister, Lin, worked in the early mornings and weekends.

When Hoover filed for financial aid to attend a community college in 1997, she learned her family made $13,000 that year. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in social work, and spent years working in social services: at a child advocacy center, a home health hospice, then a state agency that offers nutrition counseling.

In 2011, when her youngest son was 7, he was cast in a play at a local theater. Hoover borrowed her mother’s laptop to entertain herself during his rehearsals. Watching slam poetry videos on YouTube gave her an idea for a novel about a lonely teenage girl who discovers slam poetry.

She shared chapters with family members and friends. Her boss at the nutrition center, Stephanie Cohen, loved it so much that she took some case work for Hoover, allowing her to write during the day. In January of 2012, Hoover uploaded the book — “Slammed” — to Amazon’s self-publishing platform.

“She called me one day and said, ‘Mom, six people I don’t know bought the book’,” Hoover’s mother, Vannoy Fite, recalled. “The next day, it was 60 people.”

When the trickle of sales turned into a flood, publishers pounced. Hoover signed with a literary agent, Jane Dystel, and sold rights to her first two novels to Atria. Atria made an offer on her third novel, but Hoover liked the freedom of self-publishing, and released it herself. It hit No. 1 on The New York Times’s best-seller list.

Heath, her husband, started watching their boys so Hoover could write, and she hired Cohen, her former boss, to help run her business. “I still call her my boss,” Hoover said. “She runs our whole life and I don’t spend a penny without her permission.”

After “Slammed,” she wrote more than 20 books, jumping from young adult romance to erotica to a thriller. But it was in 2020, with the pandemic, that Hoover’s sales really started to pick up. That spring, Hoover made five of her e-books free. Readers devoured the free novels — and started buying her entire backlist. Hoover thought it was a fleeting moment, but it persisted. Novels that were years old popped back on the best seller lists.

“We were like, ‘Where is this coming from?’” said Melanie Iglesias Pérez, Hoover’s editor at Atria. “That’s when we started to see the TikTok videos.”

It was better publicity than anyone in sales or marketing could have engineered, she said.

Neither Hoover nor her business manager, Cohen, offered exact sales figures, and the total is hard to calculate, since royalty rates are different for self-published books, and she spreads her titles across several publishers. But there’s no question her books, now carried by chains like Walmart, Sam’s Club and Costco, have made a fortune: Collectively, Hoover’s publishers have sold more than 20 million copies.

“I used to get excited if I went into a bookstore and saw a paperback. Now I walk into a Barnes & Noble and they have a Colleen Hoover table,” Hoover told me. “It’s insane.”

Fame has come as a shock to Hoover, who is almost painfully introverted, and dislikes being in the spotlight. “I’ve been so nervous about this,” she said about participating in this article. “I don’t do well with interviews.”

She still shops at Walmart in her pajamas, and lives on the same 100-acre plot of land where her family’s farm used to be. Her uncle still harvests hay for his cattle on the property.

In 2015, with profits from her books, her family demolished the old dairy barn and built a spacious but homey single story ranch house. Hoover allowed herself a few indulgences: Her living room has built-in display spaces for gem stones and crystals. In her home office, a bookcase opens onto a secret second office where she sometimes hides away to write.

Her mother lives on the property. They are extremely close, and have matching heart tattoos on the inside of their wrists; Hoover writes about her admiration for her mother in an author’s note for “It Ends With Us,” her book about domestic abuse. Hoover knows almost everyone in her small town, and still keeps in touch with her high school classmates. “We’re not flashy people,” she said.

Some side effects of fame have been unnerving. Earlier this year, Hoover had a large metal security gate — custom designed to feature the same heart shape as her wrist tattoo — installed after some fans posted a video from her driveway on TikTok. The pressure to meet deadlines and to keep her business running has taken a toll, and Hoover canceled her book tour for “It Starts With Us,” because of stress-related health issues.

As Hoover has grown from an indie author with a cult following to an inescapable pop culture phenomenon, there is also, inevitably, a growing chorus of online critics who say she’s overrated. Hoover gets it — she is tired of seeing herself on TikTok, too.

“My feed became all Colleen Hoover stuff,” she said. “I just wanted to see cat videos, you know?”

Occasionally, Hoover has turned to the novelist E L James, the author of the erotica blockbuster “Fifty Shades of Gray,” for advice about navigating sudden success. This summer, they spent a morning together in Dallas before the romance convention, getting blowouts, shopping at Target, where they stealthily signed copies of their books, and eating chicken fried steak at Cracker Barrel.

“I call her all the time about what’s going on with me right now,” Hoover said. “It’s weird and not that many people have gone through it.”

As her audience has grown, Hoover has struggled at times to maintain her close connection with her readers. After the romance convention, Hoover heard complaints from some volunteers and friends who felt slighted. Hoover cried on the drive home, and called her mother.

“She was like, ‘You know what, Colleen? This is the trade off,” Hoover said. “And I was like, you’re right. You know, I’m very thankful for everything that’s happening with my career. It’s also scary.”

Just as she never expected to be a best-selling author, she said, she doesn’t expect it to last.

“Still, in my head I’m like, ‘This is going to end tomorrow,’” she said. “So I need to enjoy it.”

Alexandra Alter writes about publishing and the literary world. Before joining The Times in 2014, she covered books and culture for The Wall Street Journal. Prior to that, she reported on religion, and the occasional hurricane, for The Miami Herald.

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