Author Colleen Hoover went from tending cows to writing bestsellers
The top-selling author in the country right now is a 42-year-old mom and former social worker who lives in the same small Texas town where she's spent practically her entire life.
Colleen Hoover's romance-heavy reads are regular fixtures on bestseller lists. She's outsold the Bible by more than 3 million copies so far this year. And her latest novel out this past week, It Starts With Us, published by the Simon & Schuster division Atria Books, set a company record for first day fiction sales.
According to the company, the novel sold a total of more than 800,000 copies on the day it was released (Oct. 18). It also had more pre-orders than any novel in Simon & Schuster's 98-year-old history.
Despite all of the success, Hoover tries her best to cling on to the trappings of ordinary life.
"I'm not a morning person, so my husband and kids know not to talk to me," she told NPR in video interview from her home office in Saltillo, Texas — a small town about 90 miles East of Dallas. "And I'm not a coffee person, so I just have to drag myself out of it."
She posts self-deprecating videos on social media in which she does goofy things like falling over on a moving escalator.
And she gets a small thrill each time her sons do the laundry. "I'm not going to complain when my white towels turn pink," she said.
When life takes a surreal turn
But try as she might to keep things real, Hoover's life has taken an especially surreal turn lately.
"Anybody that you can think of as a heavy hitting, best selling author, she has outsold them all," said Kristen McLean, primary analyst for the publishing industry sales tracking firm NPD Books. "She's outsold James Patterson. She's outsold John Grisham. She's outsold Stephen King."
McLean said nearly all of the 24 of the books Hoover has come out with over the past decade or so have been bestsellers. But the author's more recent rise to publishing mega-stardom has a lot to do with the love she started to get on social media during the stay-at-home days of the pandemic from an unexpected segment of the population.
"Colleen Hoover's readers tend to skew younger and more diverse than average readers," McLean said. "We really think it's a new kind of emerging readership."
One of the author's new fans is social media influencer Kierra Lewis.
In a TikTok video, the 26-year-old Nashville resident sits in her car shaking and tearful as she emotes over the candy-colored Colleen Hoover paperback she clutches to her chest: "This book is amazing! Dammit! It really gives you a whole new perspective!"
Lewis is among the thousands of mostly young, ethnically diverse social media influencers who regularly share videos of themselves responding to popular books.
In an interview for this story, Lewis said the only books she'd ever read were self-help titles until she saw people recommending Hoover's 2014 romance Ugly Love on TikTok last summer. She said she decided to take a gamble on it after seeing copies for sale at Target for $10.
"I read the book," she said. "Halfway through, I'm just freaking out. Who would have thought reading could be enjoyable?"
Lewis said she loves Hoover's books because they're a breeze to read.
"So if you're definitely not into reading, you can pick it up and finish the book in two days or less," Lewis said.
Hoover's popularity also stems from the wide variety of tropes and genres she draws on in her writing. In an essay published this past August in Slate, columnist Laura Miller called Hoover's books "the everything bagels of popular fiction" because of the author's catch-all approach.
"If you want a super dreamy romance, you can get that. If you want it to be pretty erotic, you can get that. And you can also get a big tear jerker," Miller said in an interview with NPR for this story. "Her skill in promoting herself on social media and the sort of weird evangelical quality of her books that make people want to recommend them to other people — all of that combined sort of reaches a mass audience."
From feeding cows to writing bestsellers
Hoover said she was 5 years old and had just learned to write when she dashed off her first story.
"It was called 'Mystery Bob,'" the author recalled. "It was about this guy who was looking for these five rings."
She continued to hone her writing skills in between doing schoolwork and tending the cows on her family's dairy farm in Saltillo.
"My sister and I had our own calves and we would feed those before we got ready for school," Hoover said.
She got a degree in social work, married her high school sweetheart and had three kids.
It was in 2011, while living in a trailer and working for child protection services, that Hoover started writing her debut novel, Slammed. She self-published the young adult romance set in the world of slam poetry on Amazon.
"She called me and she said, 'Six people I don't even know bought my book.' And I'm, like, 'You are kidding!'" said Hoover's mom, Vannoy Fite, recalling the fantastical quality of the weeks following Slammed's release. "And then a couple weeks later, she said, '60 people bought my book. I think I can pay my light bill.' I'm, like, 'Oh my God, Colleen, that's crazy!' And then it just blew up from there. Just blew up."
The pressures of engagement
Hoover's new book, It Starts With Us, picks up from where her hit 2016 novel It Ends With Us left off.
The sequel chronicles the blossoming romance between an outspoken florist and a sensitive restauranteur during the fallout of the florist's toxic marriage to an abusive neurosurgeon.
Hoover said she doesn't much enjoy writing sequels, and that she wrote It Starts With Us in response to lobbying from her fans.
"I love standalones," Hoover said. "That's what I'm drawn to."
For years, she has been passionately responsive to her readers. Hoover has been known to drop in on discussions about her novels on social media. (The #ColleenHoover hashtag has over 2.4 billion views on TikTok.) And — partly because she raises money for charity through the bookstore and literary subscription service she founded in 2015 by selling signed copies of her novels — she said she spends more time autographing books on the average day than writing them.
"I sign books probably an hour or two every day," she said. "When I write, which is every few weeks, I write for 12 hours a day for a week or two."
But the mounting pressure to engage has taken a toll on the author lately.
Hoover had to cancel her book tour as a result of health concerns. And she said she's behind on her next deadline, a thriller she owes publisher Grand Central. It's gotten to the point where she feels she needs to take a step back from the social media that has largely fueled her success.
"I try to stay away from social media as much as I can," Hoover said. "I don't even have it on my phone, actually, any social media accounts right now."
Hoover said there definitely won't be a third book in this series. "But then again, I said that about the second one," she said. "So who knows?"
Audio and digital stories edited by Meghan Collins Sullivan. Audio produced by Isabella Gomez-Sarmiento.
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