Relentless Angst and Uniformly Excellent Sex: How Colleen Hoover Became the Queen of BookTok

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A young woman — dark hair, glasses, sweatpants — sits on her rumpled bed and holds a book up to the frame. She’s armed with Post-it notes in case she wants to mark a good quote. A caption informs us she’s never read this author before, so she’s not sure what to expect. Lana Del Rey plays in the background as she curls up in bed with an emotional-support cuddly toy on standby. She opens the book and begins to read. And then emote.

She sighs. She gasps. She cries. A lot. She holds her phone close to her face so we can see the individual tears falling. This book is destroying her! We are watching her unravel! The comments are full of readers who say they had the exact same reaction. It’s part of the initiation into the fandom of Colleen Hoover.

It’s hard to overstate the staggering popularity of Hoover, known as CoHo to her fans. An immensely prolific writer, she’s released more than two dozen novels and novellas within a decade, both traditionally and self-published. Three of the top 15 books on the “Combined Print & E-Book Fiction” list of New York Times best sellers are hers (that number goes up to seven on the list of trade-paperback fiction.) The Times claims she has sold more than 20 million books. She’s the second-most-followed author on Goodreads, beaten only by Stephen King.

She also has more than 1.1 million followers on TikTok; it’s there where she flourishes as a very big deal. While you can’t escape Hoover’s books in bookshops, where they dominate the shelves and have entire tables dedicated to them, her ubiquity is especially pronounced on social media, where reading her has become something of an online rite of passage. If any author has come to represent the staggering and often inexplicable power of social media as a promotional force, it’s Hoover. As an author who rode the wave of self-publishing and adult-oriented coming-of-age narratives in the post-Twilight world, Hoover can easily lay claim to the title of queen of BookTok. In many ways, it feels like the inevitable culmination of her decade in fiction.

The typical Hoover book is a story about two people in love (always a cishet romantic pairing, always white) who are burdened by trauma from their pasts; in each one, every emotion is dependably turned up to “extra intense.” She’s written rom-coms, mysteries, and kitchen-sink dramas, but even across genres, you know a Hoover novel when you see it. All the characters have preposterous names like Lowen Ashleigh or Layken Cohen; there’s even a florist named Lily Bloom. Everyone harbors relentless angst and has uniformly excellent sex.

In the early 2010s, a new category began to emerge in fiction, one hoping to bridge the gap between what audiences expected from YA (no explicit sex!) and more adult-oriented works. Given the name “new adult” (typically shortened to “NA”), this category allowed the market to take advantage of a literary liminal space, the kind Britney Spears sang about in “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman.” St. Martin’s Press originated the term when it put out a call for “fiction similar to YA that can be published and marketed as adult — a sort of an ‘older YA’ or ‘new adult.” A group of writers emerged from the indie and self-publishing world as its defining figures, and their work followed a similar pattern: contemporary romances with college-age characters who are deeply impassioned, lead tumultuous lives, and, yes, engage in a lot of hot sex. You never have to wait for the good part in an NA book, which was welcome to readers after Stephenie Meyer spent years promising a sexy wedding night for Edward and Bella but then cut to black.

E.L. James, the writer of the 50 Shades series, which popularized BDSM for your mom’s book club, was never sold as a new-adult author per se, but her works operate in a similar space to those that do, and these writers are often grouped together as a result: Anna Todd, a former One Direction–fanfic writer whose After series, centered on a thinly veiled Harry Styles, became a Wattpad sensation and four-part film series; Abbi Glines, a self-published author who quickly climbed up the best-seller list with her racy, high-emotion contemporary romances; Jamie McGuire, the controversial author of Beautiful Disaster, which has been called out for romanticizing abuse (and the author herself has come under fire for social-media posts revealing anti-vaxxer sentiments, referring to Black Lives Matter as a “domestic terror organization” comparable to the KKK, and supporting the January 6 insurrection); and, of course, Hoover. While many of these authors have stuck around, it’s Hoover who has been flung into the stratosphere. Her debut novel, Slammed, a 2012 romantic drama about a woman who finds solace from her troubles with a man who loves slam poetry, became something of a lodestar for this new category.

Hoover’s beginnings as a self-published writer are crucial to understanding her popularity. She has long been one of the savvier self-promoters in an industry that demands so much unpaid labor from already overworked and underpaid authors. She started a Facebook group in 2016, Colleen Hoover’s CoHorts, designed to “share, promote, and discuss her work,” which has more than 156,000 members. As part of her promotions, she would give away Kindles and iPads to competition entrants, a common tactic in self-published marketing albeit with a much higher budget. For her first book, she engaged in extensive blog tours, being interviewed or writing posts for various book bloggers to get the word out among as many readers as possible. None of this was new to Hoover, but her efficiency with the sheer backbreaking labor of self-publishing marketing made her hard to escape during the boom of new-adult fiction. Slammed was soon acquired by a traditional publisher, Atria, though by then it was already a New York Times best seller.

Hoover remained prolific well into a new decade, and then TikTok changed the game for publishing. Publishers had long reached out to fans and amateur reviewers to promote books, especially among YA and NA readers, for whom organic word-of-mouth remains an unbeatable force. By 2021, that energy had moved away from blogs toward BookTok, and the results were seismic. Hoover’s 2016 novel It Ends With Us, a story about a seemingly perfect romance that conceals a life of domestic violence, received an incredible second wind of popularity thanks to BookTok: After an initial run that plateaued following a respectable first boom of sales, it became the newest TikTok must-read in late 2020, leading to 768,700 copies sold in 2021. At a time when we were all stuck at home because of the pandemic and in search of something to creatively and emotionally envelope us, Hoover’s back catalogue felt primed for rediscovery. As the Times noted in a recent profile of Hoover, she’s sold 8.6 million print books in 2022 alone — more copies this year than the Bible.

CoHo’s own TikTok frequently engages with her fans, including in Duets with readers sobbing over her plot twists as well as more relatable fare about her writing process and less-than-glam life making the sausage. On a platform that values “authenticity” — whatever that means in the always online age of filters and influencers — Hoover has remained remarkably consistent as a TikToker, not changing much from her earliest years as a writer. She’s chatty, warm, and engages with her fans on often tough topics that appear in her work, such as domestic violence and grief. She’s also quietly encouraging of her readers’ vocal devotion to her work.

BookTok turned reading Hoover’s books into a communal experience, much as it has for other hotly hyped titles such as The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, by Taylor Jenkins Reid, and The Love Hypothesis, by Ali Hazelwood. There are countless videos of people picking up Hoover’s work for the first time to see what all the talk is about, thus extending a cycle that invites only more and more skeptics to join in. The sense of FOMO is very real once you watch enough of these TikToks of people practically screaming, their hands shaking and faces red from sobbing, over how overwhelmed they were by these stories. Videos of Hoover’s work are often accompanied by the hashtag #TikTokMadeMeReadIt.

Writing highly emotional novels for so long also brings with it a lot of criticism. Many BookTokers have described Hoover’s work as trauma porn, akin to another TikTok favorite, Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. A CoHo hero seldom has just one terrible event in their past, and even though they’re more likely to deliver a one-liner than Yanagihara’s broken young men, they’re still smothered by this pain, which is typically described in sharp detail. Other readers have worried that her books romanticize trauma. It Ends With Us faced many such calls thanks to the way it encourages readers to feel sympathy for its Jekyll-and-Hyde abusive husband, the tormented and weepy Ryle. Often, to read a Hoover novel is to feel as if tragedy were the only interesting thing that can happen to a human being; CoHo characters are so overburdened by their pain that they barely seem real even when the emotions are. Her romantic pairings typically bond over their shared trauma in lieu of other characterizations.

These criticisms have dogged Hoover since the beginning of her career, as Goodreads reviewers can attest. (She’s also been called out for slut-shaming, which is everywhere in her early work.) And then there are infamous moments like the scene in Ugly Love in which besotted new parents laugh at how large their baby son’s testicles are.

Nevertheless, millions flock to CoHo. It helps that her primary readership lines up nicely with TikTok’s own main demographic of adolescent girls and young women. Romance fiction is a billion-dollar-a-year industry built almost entirely by and for women, and it’s a genre that thrives on formula. Hoover’s work isn’t always specifically romance, but it always involves characters who possess an overwhelming sense of feeling that is easy to become consumed by. Every declaration of love is lavish and ready to be doodled in your notebook. Each tear shed builds to heaving sobs. Subtlety is not a priority. Think of V.C. Andrews’s operatic soaps for adolescent readers (but without the incest), add a dash of Jodi Picoult’s adult-oriented domestic dramas, and you’re halfway there. You’ll never find a Hoover book that’s tough to read, at least on a literary level, but you’re guaranteed to find melodrama in every one — the kind that makes for perfect social-media content.

Relentless Angst and Uniformly Excellent Sex