Having finally published her first novel, Alex Aster was feeling disheartened. The book had tanked during the pandemic and she had been dropped by her literary agent. Then, on 13 March 2021, she decided to take to TikTok, asking her followers if they would: “read a book about a cursed island that only appears once every 100 years to host a game that gives the six rulers of the realm a chance to break their curses.” One of the rulers must die, the short video revealed, “even as love complicates everything” for the heroine, Isla Crown.
Aster didn’t expect much, especially when she checked in a few hours later to see that her post had only clocked up about 1,000 views. Maybe the books world was right, she thought. Maybe there wasn’t a market for Lightlark, a young adult story she had been writing and rewriting for years, to no interest from publishers. The next day, however, she woke up to see her video had been viewed more than a million times. A week later, Lightlark had gone to auction and she had a six-figure deal with Amulet Books. Last month, Universal preemptively bought the film rights for, in her words, “more zeros than I’ve seen in my life”.
I got lucky in how I pitched it. The TikTok algorithm is so finicky
It hits shelves on 23 August, and BookTok – a thriving sub-community of avid readers on TikTok – is going crazy for this story which hits the sweet spot between the deadly competition of The Hunger Games, and the “romantasy” of Sarah J Maas’s A Court of Thorns and Roses. It is gloriously overdramatic and passionate, just how BookTok likes it. Isla’s first meeting with Grim, the Nightshade ruler with a “cruelly cut face” and a voice “dark and striking as midnight” finds his “eyes all over her” and her skin feeling “inexplicably electric”. There are fireworks ahead for sure, and teen readers will love Aster’s intricate details about the different realms that make up the world – Wildling, Starling, Moonling, Skyling, Sunling and Nightshade. Isla, we learn, is a Wildling – one of a race that has “always been proud of their bodies … loved wildly, lived freely, and fought fiercely”. Their curse is an unfortunate one – to kill anyone they fall in love with – and to “live exclusively on human hearts”.
“If you’re even glancing at TikTok, it’s easy to see that Lightlark is one of the most anticipated new books,” says Florentyna Martin, Waterstones’ head of children’s books. “Booksellers and reviewers are already enthusing about this new magical world.”
“Ever since I saw Alex’s video on TikTok describing the plot, I knew that it would be the book for me and it is one of my most anticipated fantasy releases for this year,” says Emily Russell, who has 2.3m likes for her @emilymiahreads account. Kate Wilson, who has 13.7m likes for her @kateslibrary TikTok account, agrees. “I’ve seen a lot about it on BookTok already and think it has the potential to get really big on there – it looks like it has the perfect fantasy-to-romance ratio that people are looking for.”
Aster, who is 26, started trying to get a book deal when she was 12. “Obviously my books weren’t good enough to be published, but it hurt to get all those rejections – maybe if I had told people I was 12 they would have been nicer to me.” She wrote one novel as a preteen, another in high school and three in college – including an early version of what would eventually become Lightlark. None sold. Her sixth book, Curse of the Night Witch, inspired by the Latin American myths she was told as a child by her Colombian grandmother, found a publisher but not huge sales. Her agent, frustrated with Aster’s focus on rewriting versions of Lightlark, dropped her.
“I was back to square one again,” Aster says. “So I wrote Lightlark, this book that everyone told me wouldn’t break through in the saturated market. I wrote the book that I wanted to read, with everything I loved in there.”
Publishers, again, said “no thanks”. “People were saying: ‘Oh, I really like it. But I don’t think it will sell,’” says Aster, who believes the book industry was slow to wake up to the power of BookTok. (No longer: every YA publisher worth its salt is now working with “book influencers” on the platform, after watching them send sales through the roof). “There’s such a big disconnect between the people making decisions in boardrooms and the readers who are hungry for these types of books,” Aster says.
Aster already had a small name for herself on TikTok; she wrote the song Divine, which took off on the platform during lockdown. But she had no real knowledge of BookTok when she posted her video about Lightlark. “I got lucky in how I pitched it,” she says. “TikTok is so finicky. If I hadn’t described it the right way, if I hadn’t picked the right sound … The way the algorithm works is if the first few people that see it like and share it, then it’s going to show it to more and more people. So I think it’s really a testament to how much that video was well suited to convince people.”
But TikTok is not, she says, “something that anyone can game”. “People see what has happened to me. And they’re like: ‘Oh, I can just make a video and get a six-figure deal.’ I wish it was like that. I wish it had been that easy,” she says. For Aster, BookTok is about the BookTokers – the reviewers who read a book, love it and send it viral – such as @thecalvinbooks; @moongirlreads and @aymansbooks. The latter is the handle of Ayman Chaudhary, who is particularly excited about Lightlark. “Alex perfectly laces together an intricate world [while] also giving us a heart-wrenching romance,” she says.
Those TikTokers lured in by Aster’s storyline last March have followed her journey to a book deal, a movie deal and a recent unveiling of the book’s jacket in New York’s Times Square – a jacket voted on by BookTok itself. “I told my publisher I’m so grateful to BookTok. They are the reason I got this book deal and I wanted them to choose the cover,” Aster says. “I haven’t tried to mask the fact that I failed for so long. I didn’t have a plan. I just wanted to be a part of this community. And it led to big moments.”