Biblioracle: Publishing has not seen a phenomenon like Colleen Hoover and ‘It Starts with Us’ in years

Chicago Tribune
Chicago Tribune

Colleen Hoover’s “It Starts with Us,” a sequel to 2016′s “It Ends with Us,” sold an astounding 800,000 copies on the first day of its release, a number that includes preorders. This set a record for publisher Simon & Schuster.

Hoover is having an amazing year to top off an amazing decade of relentlessly building the audience for her books. In the span of 10 years, she went from self-published author to outselling well-established favorites like James Patterson and John Grisham. Hoover’s story is an inspiring testament to hard work, self-belief and engaging with your audience, which she has done for the duration of her career, interacting with her army of “CoHorts” on TikTok and Facebook.

Publishing has not seen this kind of phenomenon in years. Hoover is a unique force that I imagine others are trying to emulate, but I’m also guessing no one will figure out the formula because that formula is embedded in Hoover’s unique sensibilities.

As amazing as it is, in a way, Hoover’s massive publishing success makes me think about how small publishing is, relative to other media industries. Hoover is a big deal for book readers, but it’s rare for books to break through in bigger ways.

Hoover has reportedly sold over 8 million copies of her books this year. Again, amazing.

But consider that “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” the final installment of J.K. Rowling’s series sold over 8 million copies on the day of its release. For sure, it’s unfair to compare Hoover’s numbers with a once-in-multiple-lifetime phenomenon like “Harry Potter,” but this is my point about scale and books. Hoover is an undeniable phenomenon that is still many times smaller than a true culture-wide breakthrough occurrence.

As another point of comparison, Taylor Swift’s recently released album “Midnights” was streamed on Spotify 88 million times in the U.S. and 185 million times worldwide in the 24 hours after its release.

Swift even managed to sell half a million vinyl (what us olds used to call “records”) copies of “Midnights,” a niche format that may be making a comeback, but one that can’t even be listened to in the vast majority of households.

Hoover and Swift share some similarities in approach, marching to the beat of their own drummers, rather than being confined by the way their industries have worked in the past, but in music, that boldness is rewarded with an audience literally 100 times bigger than in publishing.

As someone whose life revolves around books, it is sobering to remember how truly marginal reading books is in the lives of most people. I mean, I’ve seen the sales of my own books, so I know what it’s like to be unimpressed by puny numbers, but when even supersized publishing numbers can seem relatively small, it gives you pause.

This is not where I’m going to turn this piece into a “death of culture” lament. Times change, and to try to turn back the clock begets only frustration.

I think one of the mistakes book people make is to suggest books deserve a more exalted space than other forms of media. Turning books into cultural medicine that’s good for you is no way to get people reading.

I’ve written in the past that after reading “It Ends with Us” I recognized that Hoover was not necessarily for me, but I still think we could use a dozen or a hundred or a thousand more of her, people who have stories they want to tell to the world in their own way.

John Warner is the author of “Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities.”

Twitter @biblioracle

Book recommendations from the Biblioracle

John Warner tells you what to read based on the last five books you’ve read

1. “Miseducated: My Journey” by Brandon P. Fleming

2. “Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow” by Gabrielle Zevin

3. “This Is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor” by Adam Kay

4. “Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands” by Kate Beaton

5. “I Know This Much Is True” by Wally Lamb

— Margaret M., Syracuse, New York

It’s been a while since I recommended one of my go-to books for wide-ranging readers like Margaret, “Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk” by Kathleen Rooney

1. “Less Is Lost” by Andrew Sean Greer

2. “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” by Douglas Adams

3. “Notes on an Execution” by Danya Kukafka

4. “Born to Be Hanged: The Epic Story of the Gentlemen Pirates Who Raided the South Seas, Rescued a Princess, and Stole a Fortune” by Keith Thomson

5. “Dark Matter” by Blake Crouch

— Ben U., Chicago

Dexter Palmer is one of the more inventive writers I’ve ever read. His books keep you interestingly off-kilter, and I think Ben might appreciate this sensation. The specific recommendation is “Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen.”

1. “It Ends with Us” by Colleen Hoover

2. “The Woman in Cabin 10″ by Ruth Ware

3. “Emma” by Jane Austen

4. “The Summer I Turned Pretty” by Jenny Han

5. “The Palace Papers: Inside the House of Windsor — the Truth and the Turmoil” by Tina Brown

— Beth T., Chicago

For Beth, I’m recommending a quasi-romance from a different era, by a writer that’s as distinctive in her own way as Colleen Hoover is in hers, “Innocence” by Penelope Fitzgerald.

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