Explaining Colleen Hoover and What It All Means

“Colleen Hoover” by Chad Griffith licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

My wife and I were talking at dinner and she mentioned this writer who grew up in a small Texas town, working as a social worker at $9 an hour who is setting the publishing world on fire. I guessed that it might be Colleen Hoover and looked up the article on NPR and discovered I was right. The numbers are astonishing. Her latest, It Starts With Us, sold over 800,000 copies on the day it was released. She has sold more copies of her books this year than the Bible. Six out of ten paperback bestsellers are hers. She’s sold more books than blockbuster authors James Patterson and John Grisham combined.

While pegged as a romance author, she has written psychological thrillers, a ghost story, and books centered on domestic violence, drug abuse, and poverty. Part of her appeal seems to be the ability to evoke strong emotions in her readers, most of whom are younger, ethnically diverse women from 15 to 24. Readers attest to finding her works both riveting and fun, the kind you read in a day or two. What is clear is that Hoover seems to have figured out what this demographic wants. It may not be great literature but Hoover seems to have the capability to write what her audience wants to read.

Perhaps the most interesting part of her success is the role her fans on BookTok have played in talking about their reaction to her work and promoting her books. Her fandom (#CoHo) exploded on social media during the pandemic. A New York Times article compared what is happening to Oprah’s Book Club, where one woman’s choice sold a couple million books. Now, a hundred #CoHo BookTok’ers sell four million of Colleen Hoover’s books.

I’m about as far from the demographic who would read a Hoover book as could be. So I have no clue about the appeal of her books beyond the fact that she is an easy and fun read. My hunch is that what makes it work is the gap between the romantic longings of her audience and the much grittier reality of romance for many, where the sex may (or may not) be hot but the people it comes with may be less than desirable and even at times dangerous. It gives voice to what many women have thought and felt and experienced, which accounts for such heartfelt reactions. At least that is what the plot synopses I’ve read would suggest–that and the longing for something more.

Except one wonders if you can never go too far into that “something more” without losing sales–there is just not the same gripping drama in the deeper growth of love through enduring hardship and learning to die to one’s cussed selfishness over a forty year marriage. I suspect we both want and don’t want that.

Beyond what these books may mean for her considerable audience, one must consider Hoover’s impact on the publishing industry in the last few years. This woman who has helped sustain the book trade during the pandemic has broken the mold by writing in different genres rather than following publisher formulas. She has created models for using social media to sell not only her books but a variety of “swag” to her fans. And she has created The Bookworm Box, which is both a book subscription service and a bookstore, proceeds from both of which are given to those in need. Part of this woman’s success is that she seems to have an incredible work ethic.

I suppose one could find much to criticize in Hoover’s writing. I won’t go there since I’ve not read her. What is evident is she is reaching a diverse group of young women and turning them into readers. One hopes that in reading as in relationships, Hoover’s readers will long for “something more” and branch out to other books, and perhaps richer fare that goes beyond the fun and the evocative. Perhaps Hoover will lead the way with her Bookworm Boxes. Perhaps.

I find myself wondering if someone could ever do something like this with male readers. Lee Child and James Patterson have done pretty well but I can’t see the viral BookTok fan club dynamic happening. It would be wonderful to see more men reading, and more men encouraging men to read. But I suspect the audience will always be smaller.

But back to Colleen Hoover. Her success and what she has done with it is impressive. My interest in different books than the ones she writes will not be a cause for me to criticize her. In fact, she does something I wish would catch on–writing for readers rather than other writers, literary critics, or scholars. Sadly, I believe many good stories and ideas have been lost to a wider audience for just this reason.