Meghan Collins Sullivan/NPR
Meghan Collins Sullivan/NPR
Ask a Gen Z woman what she's read recently, and there's a good chance two names will come up: Colleen Hoover and Emily Henry.
"Gen Z is my favorite of all generations for so many reasons, and their love for reading is just one of the many," Hoover said. "I love that they are consuming books and sharing books and recommending books. They're reading so much – not only my books, but books across genres."
For months, Hoover and Henry have occupied multiple spots on the New York Times paperback trade fiction bestsellers list. The success of these contemporary romance writers has been driven in large part by Gen Z readers – and social media.
"It's the right person finding the book at the right time and then sharing it with the right people," said Henry. Her novels Beach Read, People We Meet on Vacation, and Book Lovers are all bestsellers.
Hoover's upcoming book, It Starts With Us – the highly anticipated sequel to It Ends With Us from 2016 – has more pre-orders than any novel in Simon & Schuster history – and there are still seven weeks to publication. Its pre-orders have surpassed Stephen King's Dr. Sleep, which went on sale in 2013 – the publishing company's previous leader.
What makes a romance novel a Gen Z hit
A decade ago, the main demographic for romance was women ages 35 to 54. But in the past several years, that has widened to include women 18 to 54, according to Colleen Hoover's publicist Ariele Fredman.
"Gen Z is a huge audience for romance," she said. "If you think about it, like millennials, their youth has been marked by global and social upset and unrest in many ways, so looking for a happy ever after or an emotional outlet in a book seems like a healthy way of coping."
Kaileigh Klein, a 19-year-old college student in Ontario, Canada said she loves Hoover's books for just this reason – for the big emotions she writes about.
"People [my age] gravitate towards her novels because they're really emotional. I feel like even if you can't express emotion in real life, reading it on paper, it's really easy to connect to it and relate to it," she said.
Sahar Kariem, a 22-year-old stylist from Maryland, said Emily Henry's "balance of romance and life lessons," as well as themes of coming of age, have cemented Henry as one of her favorite authors.
Meanwhile, marketing trends, like covering contemporary romance novel jackets with cartoon figures and bright colors, has also helped pull in a younger audience, according to Leah Koch, who co-owns The Ripped Bodice, a romance bookstore in Los Angeles.
"I don't know that I'll ever have a grasp on it, but I'd like to think they're responding to the entertainment factor," Hoover said. "The last few years have been wild in the best way, and I'm very grateful to readers who continue to share my books and the books of other authors on their social platforms."
Social media pushing romance to younger readers
Much of the success of the romance genre with Gen Z readers is driven by BookTok, a subcommunity on TikTok for recommending, reviewing, and discussing books. Sales for authors whose books have gone viral on TikTok had reached 12.5 million in 2022, as of July, according to NPD BookScan, a data service that tracks U.S. book sales. And as of April, nearly 41 percent of TikTok's global users were between the ages of 18 and 24 — with more than half of those being women, according to Statista.
Colleen Hoover is especially savvy at knowing how to connect with her fans. She's a frequent TikTok user, regularly engaging with her almost 950,000 followers. Emily Henry has chosen another approach, leaving the space to readers – giving her an almost a mythical presence on the platform.
Bookstore owner Koch said she's noticed a large increase in younger customers coming into the store since early 2021 — something she "100 percent" attributes to TikTok.
"We'll get a rush of customers asking for something random and we're like, 'Why does everyone want this specific book?'" Koch said. The answer is always TikTok.
Ali Hazelwood, whose 2021 debut book The Love Hypothesis became a smash BookTok hit, said she had no idea of the book's virality until a friend told her a TikTok recommending it had 2 million views.
"The way BookTok talks about books is very different from your traditional review," Hazelwood said. "They make me want to buy my book."
The Ripped Bodice's top selling book, Koch said, is Hoover's It Ends With Us. Though it's not new, it received a surge in popularity last year thanks to BookTok. The book hit No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list in January 2022.
BookTok reduces romance stigma, but upholds whiteness
Ultimately, Koch said, what gets a reader in their teens or early 20s to pick up a romance novel is if they're able to relate to a character's feelings and circumstances. But this doesn't mean a character has to be exactly the same as them.
"I've never heard a Gen Z reader say, 'I don't want to read this because I can't personally relate to the characters [in race or sexuality]," Koch said.
Yet, the majority of the most successful BookTok romance novels are about white, straight characters and by white authors, with a few notable exceptions. The books that go viral on TikTok tend to be by white authors, and mostly white women.
"There are so many books that I think are excellent and don't make [bestsellers] lists, and so many of these books are written by non-white authors," Hazelwood said. "There's definitely a pattern and a marked disadvantage that authors of color have to face in publishing."
Henry shared similar sentiments – and said she often wonders why certain authors, like Kennedy Ryan, haven't blown up on BookTok yet. She also said she wouldn't be in the contemporary romance game if it weren't for women of color like Helen Hoang and Jasmine Guillory, whose 2018 debut novels made her realize there was an audience for a book like Beach Read.
It's a broader issue than just BookTok — according to The Ripped Bodice's annual State of Racial Diversity in Romance Publishing Report, only 7.8 percent of romance books published in 2021 were written by BIPOC authors.
"There's so many good books by Black authors that get ignored," said Gen Z reader Kariem, who herself is Black and Muslim. "I think a lot of books by white authors are just advertised more, and there's a lot of up and coming authors that don't have the same resources."
Henry also reflected on the issue. "I don't know what we do to help BookTok make space for more authors beyond the white authors who are having this moment," Henry said.
But overall, the romance writers at the top of the bestsellers lists today said they rejoice in Gen Z's openness about loving the romance genre. It's "this embracing of pleasure and sexuality and openness to the things that make you feel good without denigrating those as like a lower form of art," Henry said.
Hazelwood said she, and so many others, grew up embarrassed of reading romance novels. "I just hope that this new generation is growing up without all that stigma that was unjustifiably there to begin with. Now [reading romance] is super cool," she said.