Colleen Hoover’s Formula for Writing Best-Selling Books

From a Wall Street Journal story by Ellen Gamerman and Ashley Wong headlined “Cracking Colleen Hoover’s Bestselling Formula”:

In book clubs and on social media, at libraries fielding hold requests and through the ranks of publishing houses marveling at her 20 million copies sold worldwide, people want to know: How does Colleen Hoover do it?

Ms. Hoover, 42, stands at the helm of a massive book-publishing empire that spans thrillers, coming-of-age stories and romance. With the help of fans who call themselves CoHorts, her books—initially self-published and now released by the Simon & Schuster imprint Atria and other publishers—dominate the New York Times paperback bestseller list, currently occupying eight of the top 15 spots. On social media, readers often show off heavily annotated copies while swooning over their “book boyfriends” from her stories and sharing emotional time-lapses of themselves reading her novels.

Her latest book, “It Starts With Us,” the sequel to her 2016 novel “It Ends With Us,” is out Tuesday. On the eve of its publication date, it was already leading Amazon’s bestseller list. The story was a direct result of her fans on TikTok, who clamored for a happy follow-up for the main characters, Lily Bloom and Atlas Corrigan.

“It might not always be a happy ever after forever, but there’s resolution that feels right,” Ms. Hoover said in an email Monday. “I try my best to avoid ending books in a way that will leave the reader feeling unsatisfied and empty. I write as an escape, and I enjoy it. I want the readers to get the same feeling from reading that I do while writing.”

Here, through a close reading of 12 Colleen Hoover novels, we attempt to decode what keeps her fans coming back for more.

Past Scars

The emotional baggage definitely can’t fit in the overhead compartment, with lovers in these books haunted by cruel and abusive parents, deaths, illness, accidents and infidelity.

As popular as her books are, Ms. Hoover has faced scrutiny from readers who have said her stories risk romanticizing traumatic situations. Fans have argued that she is tackling grim realities in life head-on, and that her books emotionally resonated with them for doing so.

The new book, “It Starts With Us,” explores the stoic character of Atlas, revealing a mother who put him on the street as a teenager. “Hopeless,” on its face a love story, rehashes the repressed trauma of protagonist Sky, whose adoptive father molested her.

In “November 9,” Fallon is physically scarred from a fire, while love interest Ben has scars of his own—on the inside. Members of the title character’s family in “Verity” call themselves “Chronics” because of the constant tragedies that befall them.

Troubled Romances

Love never seems to come easy in Colleen Hoover’s literary world. Instead, it’s often a reward for overcoming trials in life, or a prize to fight for. Take “Confess,” in which Auburn and Owen fall in love at first sight, then have their happy ending continually sabotaged by Auburn’s dead teenage boyfriend’s family. Eventually, Auburn and Owen win out, but not without many chapters of tears and anger.

It’s also sometimes doomed to fail, such as the romance between Ryle and Lily in “It Ends With Us.” Though Ryle and Lily fall in love, get married and have a daughter, Ryle turns out to be physically and emotionally abusive. Even after Lily divorces him at the end of the book, his jealous presence still poses problems for her budding relationship with Atlas in the sequel.

It’s this “hurts-so-good” angst that induces the raw emotion some fans said is exactly what’s kept them hooked.

“If you read any of her books, you will cry and maybe scream and probably want to throw the book, and there’s just going to be this little ache in your heart for a little while,” said Lia Smith, 21.

Lots of Sex

Steamy scenes pervade Ms. Hoover’s books. There’s love and hate, staring and biting, electricity and head-to-toe lust. “…I feel his touch surge through me like a current,” Ms. Hoover writes in “Reminders of Him.” From “It Ends With Us”: “His voice is decadent. Smooth. It travels straight to my toes.”

Still, intimacy issues abound. In “Ugly Love,” taciturn airplane pilot Miles pointedly avoids eye contact during passionate booty calls to the obliging nurse Tate. In “Maybe Not,” Warren has sex with his roommate Bridgette 30 times in three weeks, but she refuses to interact with him during the day. “What did I say about being clingy,” she tells him after one of their liaisons.

Then again, there’s eye contact galore in “Hopeless,” where heroine Sky says her love interest “never once breaks my stare” in a bedroom scene.

In “Verity,” up-and-coming fiction writer Lowen is offered an opportunity to ghostwrite for hit author Verity Crawford. In an unpublished memoir that Lowen reads as research, Verity writes in detail about the great sex she has with her husband, Jeremy. At one point, Lowen can’t shake an image from Verity’s manuscript of below-the-belt action at a Steak ‘n Shake. Verity describes biting down on a headboard to stifle her screams during encounters with Jeremy. Later, Lowen bites the same tooth marks on the same headboard with the same man.

Plot Twists

Ms. Hoover is known for flipping the script in her books, sometimes in the final few pages (as anyone who has read “Verity” knows).

Maryse Black, whose book blog gave Ms. Hoover’s first novel “Slammed” pivotal exposure, mentioned the surprises in the debut. “I’m so into this,” Ms. Black wrote. “I swear, I gasped, and then immediately hooted with joy at what I realized I was in for…”

Allison Smith, an avid fan from Louisiana, said her favorite plot twist was from “Regretting You”—though the revelations in that story, a complicated tale of first love, death and infidelity, left her particularly fearful and angry for the characters.

“I even threw the book across the room at one point,” Ms. Smith said.

Deciphering the clues on book covers is another sport for Ms. Hoover’s avid readers. Why is there water on the front of “Ugly Love,” a book about pilots? Shouldn’t it be sky?

Fans petitioned for a sequel to “It Ends With Us” after that book’s final twist, and Ms. Hoover obliged them with “It Starts With Us.” The novelist understands that certain plot turns would make her audience revolt. One fan begged her not to kill the love affair between Atlas and Lily in the sequel. Writing on TikTok, Ms. Hoover promised her reader: “I would neverrrrr.”

Speak Your Mind