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The Colleen Hoover phenomenon: How to sell 20 million books without leaving your town

The most successful author in the US has triumphed thanks to her romance novels, thrillers and stories of abuse – all without exclusive publishing deals or changing her lifestyle

Tommaso Koch
Colleen Hoover
Colleen Hoover in a promotional photograph.Chad Griffith

The number one bestselling book was by Colleen Hoover. The number two was also by Hoover. Going down the list published by The New York Times, the author appeared again in places six and seven, and one more time in 15. Any writer would have framed a week like this – it was the last one of September – as the best of their career. But not Hoover. Had that been the case, she would have ended up highlighting the entire calendar. Her books have been tremendously successful for years and, at least since last August, there has not been a single week in which she did not have at least two (if not three or four) among the 10 bestsellers in the US.

The New York Times estimates that the author has sold more than 20 million copies since her 2012 debut. However, Hoover’s triumph goes beyond her unprecedented market figures. She does not even need the traditional building blocks of a bestseller. On the contrary, Hoover needs but one formula: herself.

Born in Texas (where she still lives in the same plot of land where her family’s dairy farm used to be) she switches genres as she pleases; publishes with several different publishing companies, sometimes even rejecting their offers and opting for self-publishing; and barely promotes herself or does interviews. She is a one-of-a-kind phenomenon – how else is it that books she published in 2014 remain on the bestseller list in 2022, or that the TikTok content linked to Hoover has reached 3.4 billion views?

On TikTok, one can find thousands of young readers crying or screaming due to some dramatic twist in one of her books. The most popular one, It Ends with Us, centers on a woman who is trapped in an abusive relationship and is inspired on what her own mother went through at the hands of her husband. But Hoover also writes about young romances (Maybe Someday), conflicts between mothers and daughters (Regretting You) and a writer dealing with a sinister assignment (Verity). Although the romance novels stand out among her more than 20 books, there are also thrillers, ghost stories and erotic books, as well as topics such as gender violence, abuse, homelessness and drug addiction.

The Covid-19 pandemic marked a pivotal moment for Hoover’s career when, in the midst of the global lockdown, she decided to offer the electronic version of five of her books free of charge. After enjoying the freebies, her fans (who call themselves CoHorts) began to buy the rest and became a legion.

An overnight success

Hoover started writing when she was seven, during breaks in the rehearsals of a play. However, she studied social work and that was her occupation in January 2012 when she released Slammed, her debut, online. According to The New York Times, at that moment the author was living in a trailer with her husband, a long-distance truck driver, and their three sons. Her first royalty payment amounted to $30, and it was used to pay the water bill.

In only seven months, the profits were in the thousands; the readers, too. Publishing offers began pouring in, and she decided to devote herself full time to writing. Little by little, the daughter of a humble family who helped on the farm became a star; so much so that her books allowed her to demolish the old farm and build her new home right there. She even hired her former boss to run the business that her writing became.

She also confessed to The New York Times that occasionally she asks E.L. James, the author of Fifty Shades of Grey, for advice about navigating success. Because, while everything around her spins at a frantic pace, she barely leaves her town. Same place, same supermarket, same lifestyle. She loves the film Babyteeth and Tiffanie DeBartolo’s novels. She claims to have “the worst case of impostor syndrome in the world,” and says that she often reads books that she finds much better than hers. In this respect, her few critics – another peculiarity for someone so famous – will agree: her main criticisms question her literary quality and the overzealousness of her followers. But as time passes, she only become more successful. This week, she had four books in the top 10 bestsellers list. The usual.

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