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The ‘Lightlark’ Controversy: A Study in the Dangerous Influence of BookTok

‘Lightlark’ is the latest ‘BookTok’ sensation – but what does it’s unconventional journey to the press prove for the future of publishing?

Booktok lightlark
Credit: Shutterstock

If you’re unfamiliar with BookTok’s latest obsession, let me introduce you to: ‘Lightlark’ – the YA fantasy tale that’s sweeping shelves at the moment. It is, as author Alex Aster puts it, a book all about secrets, betrayal, and love. ‘Lightlark’ takes place on ‘a cursed island that appears once every hundred years to host a game that gives six rulers of the realm a chance to break their curses.’

Or so the infamous TikTok goes. You see, what interests me most about ‘Lightlark’ isn’t its plot, but the rather unusual way it came to be published in the first place – and all the controversy that’s come with that. Including, exactly what ‘Lightlark’ means for the future of the publishing industry.

From TikTok to Printing Press: How ‘Lightlark’ came to be published

‘Lightlark’ didn’t have a conventional journey to the printing press. It eschewed the more traditional route (i.e. being picked up by a publishing house) and was instead championed by the BookTok community. They pushed Aster’s book into the spotlight and right into the hands of the publishing industry.

Now, there’s a story to this, and it goes like this. Aster had been writing and re-writing ‘Lightlark’ for years in a futile attempt to get the book picked up by a publishing house. So, she finally turned to TikTok – where she already had a strong social media following (FYI: that’ll be more important later). And asked her followers if they’d be interested in ‘Lightlark’. Aster herself recounts that when she went to check in on the post that evening, it had clocked up a respectable 1,000 views. The next morning, however, proved to be a turning point. By then, Aster’s TikTok had been viewed more than one million times – it had gone certifiably viral overnight.

@alex.aster It’s called Lightlark #booktok #bookstan #bookclub #yabooks #books ♬ original sound – yeah

And it didn’t stop there for Aster. Only one week later, ‘Lightlark’ had gone to auction and Aster had secured a six-figure deal with Amulet Books for the title. Last month – before ‘Lightlark’ had even been released, Universal Studios pre-emptively bought the film rights for the book. After all this frenzied excitement, ‘Lightlark’ was finally released to readers on 23rd August. Aster was on a roll. At least, she was – until the accusations started coming in, thick and fast.

‘Lightlark’ and the Mystery of the Missing Content

As is to be expected, in the run-up to the release of ‘Lightlark’, Aster’s TikTok was saturated with teasers. And Aster was really hyping up her book – promising readers tropes galore as well as lots of spice (sexual content) for good measure. Naturally, readers were getting pretty excited. That was until ‘Lightlark’ was released missing much of this content, and frenzied excitement began to sour into discontent.

Take Goodreads as one example. It exploded in the aftermath of the book’s release as readers flocked to pen their criticisms of the final version of ‘Lightlark.’ A tell-tale review perfunctorily notes: ‘the author made lightlark sound a lot more interesting and action-packed than it really was (it wasn’t, at all).’

@alex.aster And you get 6 character page overlays if you preorder Lightlark now! #booktok #booktropes #yabooks #readingrecs #reader #lightlark #bookclub ♬ dont blame me – favsoundds

Understandably, readers were shocked by the disturbingly missing content of ‘Lightlark.’ The book was, quite literally, not what it touted itself as. ‘I mean, come on. this book wasn’t even good. hell, this book didn’t even contain the TROPES and QUOTES that we were promised, you know, the ones she posted on tiktok for the purpose of PROMOTING her book. ironic, right?’

Alex Aster – the Industry Plant?

The next wave of controversy to hit Aster was the rather loaded accusation that she was an industry plant – i.e. that she had been backed by Amulet Books from the get-go.

Some social media users cited the events surrounding the release of ‘Lightlark’ as cause for suspicion. Primarily, the pre-emptive film deal Aster signed with Universal Studios. You know, that one which had already made Aster a lot of money before ‘Lightlark’ had even been released?

@alex.aster 1 week until Lightlark is out!!! You can still get a first edition by preordering #lightlark #booktok #bookstan #books ♬ Originalton – Alisa

This deal fanned the flames of skepticism – with many users questioning how Aster had so quickly achieved overnight success without any help at all. Fellow authors did try to come to Aster’s rescue. Victoria Aveyard refuted that industry plants could even exist in publishing. Unfortunately, at this point, the damage had already been done to Aster’s public image.

‘Lightlark’ and the Privilege Debate

Hackles were raised after news of Aster’s film deal became public knowledge. And despite Aster’s own claims that she used ‘zero connections in the publishing/film industry’ to get where she was, people just weren’t taking the bait. And so, some users began to look a little bit deeper into Aster’s background.

This sleuthing led them straight to Aster’s twin sister, Daniella Pierson. A millionaire entrepreneur with various companies to her name. Including, a mental health start-up called ‘Wondermind’, created with Selena Gomez, no less. This new knowledge sparked conversations about privilege in author circles and the publishing industry.

Daniella publicly claimed in a Forbes article that she took a $15,000 loan from her parents to start her first company, The Newsette, at 19. So, it took no stretch of the imagination for some to claim that Aster had a fair amount of support from her parents, herself. Whilst Aster did attempt to respond to these claims, the sheer fact of Aster’s privilege raised, for many people, some legitimate issues with the accessibility of the publishing industry.

See, the reality remains that those with access to money and connections are able to break into the publishing industry more easily than those without. Even if just for the fact that they have more time to write. So, the fact of Aster’s family background was, for some, an immediate cause of criticism.

What does ‘Lightlark’ signal for the future of publishing?

Whilst I’m not trying to suggest that Aster didn’t work hard on ‘Lightlark’ or that she doesn’t deserve her success, (despite the criticism she’s received), I do think the publishing journey of ‘Lightlark’ raises some legitimate concerns for the future of the publishing industry. More so, than some of the other controversies.

The journey of ‘Lightlark’ from conception to printing press prophecizes a rising trend in the literary world: that having a strong social media presence or a marketable personality is more valuable than producing a solid, quality book. What I mentioned earlier about Aster’s social media presence before ‘Lightlark’ – well, that’s pretty relevant here. It seems to prove that having an ‘author personality’ is critical to success, not (necessarily) talent – as all the controversy has proven.

Of course, in theory, the fact that publishing is looking toward social media as another source of talent is encouraging. As we’ve seen with the rise of TikTok songwriters, it seems to suggest that more independent or, at least, relatively unknown authors might finally be picked up. (I mean, it’s no secret that the publishing industry is notoriously gate-kept and hard to break into).

In reality, however, this shift in focus proves that publishing is, more than ever, situating profit as the primary goal. To this degree, BookTok is exerting a rather dangerous influence over the publishing world. It’s pushing publishing to further extremes, by raising the value of profit-based bookselling.

Ironically, BookTok is shaping a new literary world that’s unconcerned with books and readers. BookTok-centered scouting is based purely on views. And the potential marketability of authors. Even though BookTok is all about books, this method of publishing is less reader-centric than ever. It’s safe to say then, that the release of ‘Lightlark’, for all its controversies, envisions a rather daunting future for books and the publishing industry.

Written By

I'm an English Lit student in my final year of study. I enjoy dissecting pop culture, as well as thinking way too much about film, books, and TV. You can likely find me talking about some new release or another - or gushing about 'Everything Everywhere All At Once'.

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