It Started Here…

Colleen Hoover is a name almost synonymous with It Ends With Us. But that book’s meteoric success is not the only remarkable thing about Hoover’s writing career. What makes Hoover a standout among the bestselling authors I surveyed is the fact that she managed to hit the New York Times Bestseller List with her debut novel. And it was independently published. In fact, Hoover was the first indie author to do so.

I was so inspired by Hoover’s writing career, that I decided to delve a little deeper – out of absolute respect for the commitment she has shown to writing. Here’s what I found – and what other indie authors can learn from Hoover’s success.

One of the tools you can use to monitor interest in a topic (or yourself, if you’re so inclined – and famous enough to rank!) is Google Trends. This tool allows you to see how frequently people all over the world have used Google to search for a particular term (like “Colleen Hoover”) over a stretch of time (the data starts in 2004). Every month is assigned a score, relative to the month in which the most searches were recorded, which is assigned a score of 100. So if, for example, the most searches ever for “tomato pasta” was in October of 2017, that month would be 100, and if half as many searches were conducted in October of the following year, that month would be given a value of 50.

Here’s what Colleen Hoover’s Google Trends line looks like, from the beginning of 2004 (January), until mid-2022 (June):

The first remarkable feature of this graph is how, for a long time, there is almost no activity recorded for Colleen Hoover – at least not relative to her eventual frame – right up to and including the point when she published her debut novel, Slammed in 2012. This sets Hoover apart from the majority of authors whose novels debut on the NYT bestseller list. While they may be debut novelists, most are already in the public eye, and can leverage that fame to sell copies of their books. Writing for TV, writing for film, writing memoirs. Quentin Tarantino, for example, may be a “debut” novelist, but his Google Trends line looks like a mirror image of Hoover’s, his novel’s bestselling status presumably almost entirely dependent on his substantial film career.

Slowly, the line moves upwards after Hoover completes the series which began with Slammed and starts another which begins with Hopeless, and then it sort of plateaus, squiggling up and down marginally for around seven years until we arrive at the second remarkable feature of the graph. All of a sudden, It Ends With Us (published in 2016) goes viral on BookTok five years after its publication in 2021, sending searches for “Colleen Hoover” shooting upwards.

But there’s a third feature of this graph which is even more remarkable, yet far less obvious than the two we’ve mentioned so far: and that is the time scale down the bottom. Ten years have passed since the publication of Slammed. And in that time, Hoover has published two dozen novels.

Nicholas Sparks, another bestselling romance author, puts out one book every 1.2 years. Jackie Collins, one every 1.4. Judith Krantz, one every 1.7. Certainly there are faster-writing romance authors who still manage to turn out bestselling works – romance writers in general are especially prolific (Corin Tellado wrote more than 400 novels between the 1940s and 2000s). But Hoover’s effort – 2.4 books per year, or 0.4 years per book – remains phenomenal. She has written as many, or more books than most authors would pen in an entire career, over the space of just a decade.

It’s a little hard to see them all, since there are so many crammed in to such a small space.

So let’s zoom in on Hoover’s early career – her first two series – to see what’s really going on:

Zoomed in, we can see that Hoover really did start from essentially zero interest in her name (not just zero interest in comparison to the It Ends With Us surge). Publishing a novel alone does little to move the needle – interest in Hoover remained essentially unchanged between the publication of Slammed and the sequel Point of Retreat. Though, to be fair to the reading public, Hoover hardly gave them time to catch up, publishing the sequel to her first novel just one month after her debut novel was released.

This is a tactic some authors recommend – hold off on releasing book one until you have at least a second book ready. Otherwise, readers who enjoy book #1 and go searching for another book you’ve written will come up empty handed – and may have completely forgotten about you by the time book #2 is written. Established authors with a big back catalogue don’t need to worry about this: new readers can go back and read some of their old works while they’re waiting for a sequel, and old fans have read so many of their books, they won’t forget to keep an eye out for new releases.

I don’t know if this was Hoover’s plan, or if she is just an exceptionally fast writer. Indeed, her Wikipedia page states that she was motivated to publish so that her grandmother, who had recently acquired a Kindle, could read her work. (I guess that’s one thing we can thank Kindle’s locked-down system for: if it weren’t so tricky to transfer your own files, Hoover might never have published her first novel!) Intentional or not, Hoover’s strategy seems to have paid off.

While the absolutely stellar success Hoover has enjoyed in recent years certainly came about from a group of fans sharing her work on TikTok, it’s interesting to note that her first “big break” came years before – and from a single source, it seems. After all, there had to be some explanation for two independently published books by an (at the time) no-name author ending up on the NYT bestseller list. According to Hoover’s Wikipedia profile, that big break was a 5-star review of Maryse’s book blog.

Indeed, after that post, we see the line of interest in Hoover start to lift and gain momentum, her two books hitting #8 and #18 on the bestseller list in the following months, to then be acquired by Atria shortly thereafter. Their republication and promotion by the publisher is perhaps responsible for the next big spike – after which Hoover quickly releases a third book in the series, This Girl.

Her next book, Hopeless, the first in another series, manages to make it to #1 – unsurprising given the success of her previous books. Hoover by this stage has fans amassed from her indie publication, from the book blogging world, from those who heard about her works when they made the NYT (and of course, a special one-off boost from all the buzz associated with being the first indie to do so), and fans who heard of the book’s acquisition by Atria, or saw the publisher’s promotions. All of these fans who joined along the way now went out and bought Hopeless, giving that book even more momentum than Hoover’s original books had, and sending it straight to the top of the charts. Once again, Hoover capitalised on this interest and momentum by giving the fans what they wanted: two sequels to Hopeless, each of which were followed by further peaks in interest.

It’s important to remember, though, that this is just a tiny sliver of Hoover’s overall career trajectory. I’m sure there’s a lot my very shallow internet sleuthing failed to uncover about this period, and a lot more I’ve failed to appreciate about the rest of the journey. But at least for me, I feel as if this exploration has demystified the whole process of Hoover’s (or any author’s) seemingly “overnight” fame.

While it is true that Hoover’s novels rose to fame quickly, the fact is, she wrote quickly too, packing what takes most authors several years to achieve into the course of a few months. We shouldn’t underestimate how much this can accelerate a writer’s career (provided, of course, they are writing quality books!) The effects of rapid releases like this are exponential. It wasn’t simply that Hoover released two years’ of books in two months and amassed two years worth of fans. It’s that she was able to capitalise on the momentum of her book when that lucky break did come along in the same way an established author would have.

Hoover didn’t remain a “debut” author for long. She quickly moved on to releasing her second book, then a third, and then, a second series. In doing so, she established the sort of back catalogue most writers achieve only after slogging away at it for five or six – or more – years. And so, whenever one of her new books attracted a new reader, she had a host of “old” (though still actually very fresh and current!) books waiting to keep them entertained until, a couple of months later, she released yet another.

Lessons for the rest of us

First caveat: not every genre lends itself to rapid releases, nor does every lifestyle. As a full-time student at present, and as a writer of research-intensive novels, I can’t imagine being able to speed up much more than my current release schedule of one novel a year (which is a fairly typical schedule for most authors). Nor, as an author of books which tend to relate to social issues, would I want to hold back my books until I’ve established a back catalogue. There’s also a big difference between writing mostly series, and writing mostly stand-alone books.

Second caveat: we shouldn’t seek to follow Hoover’s (or any author’s) career as a blueprint. Even if I wrote romance novels with an interesting twist, even if I was writing full-time and able to keep up with Hoover’s impressive pace, with equally bestselling writing, I shouldn’t expect my career to look anything like hers. If nothing else, because 2012 is not 2022. And 2022 is not even 2021. Hoover’s career initially blossomed, it seems, due to a lucky break on a blog post, at a time when even relatively small non-corporate blogs were much more widely read than they are today, and later, really, really took off thanks to TikTok, at a time when most of the world was locked down in a global pandemic.

What we can all learn from this, however, is to never underestimate the power of readers. One reader may be all it takes to spark a global sensation. Whether that’s one blogger (or perhaps today booktuber or bookstagrammer) who takes the time to share a glowing endorsement, or one fan on BookTok or on Snap or on whatever the next big social media hit will be, to start a trend. Hoover certainly hasn’t forgotten the importance of giving fans what they want: the sequel It Starts With Us will be published later this year, even though It Ends With Us was published five years ago – which, as we’ve seen, is a long time ago in a career like Colleen Hoover’s.

To everyone out there sharing your favourite books with the world: thank you.

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