Midnight release parties, screaming fans, millions of copies sold: How BookTok is turning authors like Sarah J. Maas into celebrities

The thunderous applause filling a crowded room on a Monday night isn’t for a musician or even a traditional celebrity. It’s for author Sarah J. Maas, who just showed up at a Barnes & Noble in New York City. Fans have gathered to count down to the midnight release of House of Flame and Shadow, the author’s highly-anticipated romantic fantasy (or “romantasy”) book.

A viral TikTok from Time captured the moment that the author made a surprise appearance to wild fanfare, with the crowd screaming as if an A-list actor or boy band materialized.

“I don’t think authors ever imagine THIS kind of celebrity status,” one TikTok user commented on Time’s video. “I LOVE seeing people get this excited about authors,” another wrote.

In a post-Harry Potter book era, it’s unusual for authors to generate enough buzz for midnight release parties, let alone ones that are this crowded. BookTok, TikTok’s corner of creators who share book-related content, has minted new celebrities and driven enormous sales. Maas doesn’t even have an official TikTok account, but her Instagram following just surpassed 1.6 million, tipping her beyond the bounds of typical author status and well into the realm of celebrity.

Though Maas, 37, was publishing popular books before TikTok existed, her A Court of Thorns and Roses (also known as ACOTAR) series became a BookTok darling. The first book in that series, a fantasy retelling of Beauty and the Beast, was published in 2015, but started growing in popularity years later on TikTok. By 2021, ACOTAR had sold 13 million copies and was optioned by Hulu for development into a TV series. That year, Maas was the most popular author on TikTok. As of 2024, her 16 books have sold more than 38 million copies around the world.

In 2022, people bought 8.6 million print copies of books by romance and thriller author Colleen Hoover, another BookTok darling, outselling even the Bible. Her sales eclipsed those from high-profile authors J.K. Rowling, James Patterson, Stephen King and John Grisham combined.

Rebecca Yarros’ Iron Flame, the sequel to BookTok’s beloved romantasy Fourth Wing, also inspired midnight release parties in November 2023. According to Circana BookScan, her massive sales in the first week of the book’s release caused a 24% spike for the adult fiction genre over the week before. The demand for Fourth Wing fast-tracked its sequel to come out just six months after the original, sparking a conversation about whether TikTok’s demand for books is creating a cycle of consumerism similar to fast-fashion.

Maas’s House of Flame and Shadow isn’t a book that a casual reader could simply pick up and hop into. It’s a whopping 839 pages long (not counting bonus chapters), and the third book in the Crescent City fantasy series that contains references to the characters in the multiverse of her two other series, ACOTAR and Throne of Glass. It’s recommended that you read those 13 books first. These are not casual fans lining the streets late at night to get their hands on a book as soon as possible.

To be a fan of reading in the TikTok age means scrolling through hashtags like #acotar (1.1 million videos), #sarahjmaas (more than 500,000 videos) or #crescentcity (more than 150,000 videos) to connect with other users, discuss plot points and share fan art.

Maas is not without controversy; BookTok is also her toughest critic. She’s been called out for excluding people of color and LGBTQ characters from her work. Maas hasn’t responded directly to those criticisms, but she does acknowledge that her popularity on TikTok is what has gotten her this level of fame, though she doesn’t spend much time there wading through people’s feedback.

“I’m sitting here today because of social media,” Maas said in a Jan. 30 interview with Jenna Bush Hager on the Today show. “I will admit, I’m not really on it that much, mostly because I need to focus on my children or my writing.”