From #BookTok to IRL: ‘Fourth Wing,’ ‘True Blood’ Authors Discuss Sold-Out Reader Convention and the Need for In-Person Connection

Author Rebecca Yarros’s romance-fantasy series “Fourth Wing” has had a chokehold on TikTok’s reader community #BookTok this summer. That heat eventually was reflected on the The New York Times bestseller list — a place where many a viral hit goes after influencers and fans elevate its popularity beyond the virtual realm and into the mainstream.

As of early September, “Fourth Wing” was riding high at No. 1 after 18 weeks on the fiction best-seller list. The story of Violet Sorrengail’s journey at an elite dragon-riding university popped in a way that Yarros did not expect ahead of the Entangled Publishing title’s May 2 release. Her experience reinforces the market-moving meritocracy established by #BookTok enthusiasts and TikTok’s algorithm.

“They sent out a bunch of ARCs (advanced reader copies) to influencers so you can maybe jumpstart that discussion — but unless that book is picked up and loved, publishers have no power in #BookTok,” Yarros told Variety. “It is the most reader-centered space I have ever been in in my life, which is amazing — but also terrifying.”

With “Fourth Wing” sequel “Iron Flame” set to hit Nov. 7, Yarros is much more prepared for the craze surrounding its launch. And she’s looking forward to engaging with readers in person as she prepares for next spring’s romance reader-focused Readers Take Denver book convention. Yarros says she has Taylor Swift’s “The Eras Tour”-level excitement for the event.

“There’s a unique atmosphere at book conventions that is women-oriented,” Yarros said. “You are seeing women living their best life. You’re seeing women dressed up with their favorite book stuff on their shirts, in their carts. You’re seeing women banding together with friends that they only know through the book community or friends they only see at these conventions.”

Yarros is among the more than 400 authors who will be in attendance at the second annual Readers Take Denver gathering, set for April 18-21. She will appear alongside Mark Greaney (yes, men are more than welcome and involved here!), whose novel “The Gray Man” was adapted into hit 2022 Netflix movie starring Ryan Gosling; Charlaine Harris, who wrote “The Southern Vampire Mysteries” series that sparked HBO’s “True Blood”; “Afterburn & Aftershock” author Sylvia Day; and Isabella Maldonado, whose thriller “The Cipher” is in the works as a Netflix film starring Jennifer Lopez.

The Readers Take Denver convention, which sold out for 2024 quickly after tickets went on sale in July, began this year as a much smaller affair, held March 30-April 2. Lisa Renee Jones, romance author and founder of the event, said her goal was to test the appetite for a romance-centric confab before going bigger. The response was overwhelmingly positive. What was a 900-person event in 2023 has expanded to 3,000 for next year at the Gaylord Rockies resort.

Jones hopes Readers Take Denver can fill the hole left by national in-person publishing trade shows that largely died off amid the pandemic, most notably the retired Book Expo America.

“In our industry, there’s a hole,” Jones said. “There were a couple of big conventions, that were all-inclusive for the career — dealmaking, film, TV, international print — that just faded away. That’s where authors like myself went and learned the process of doing everything, how to get an agent, etc. I wanted to bring that back because I felt publishing in general needed that.”

Jones wants to see Readers Take Denver not just grow in reputation domestically, but also rival the staying power of the Frankfurt Book Fair, the international equivalent of Book Expo America that is one of the last big book shows standing.

“In 2025, we want to bring all the international publishers to the convention,” Jones said. “A lot of people go to Frankfurt to do those international deals and that’s difficult because you have to go to another country. So this will encourage those other countries’ publishers to come to us.”

Readers Take Denver was also launched in part to benefit the nonprofit Julie’s Friends, a charity that supports low-income families in need of veterinary care for pets.

The conference covers an array of hot genres — thrillers, mysteries and fantasy — but most of all, the convention is targeted at romance readers. With that in mind, Passionflix, a romance-focused streaming service founded by Elon Musk’s sister, Tosca Musk, was a natural fit to be a sponsor for the inaugural event. The indie streamer is returning as partner next year, this time hosting a red carpet event for “The Secret Life of Amy Bensen,” a Passionfix series based on Jones’ book of the same name.

Musk sees enormous untapped potential in the world of romance fiction, in part because of the invention of digital reading devices, or ebook readers.

“The romance novel reading community is one of the largest reading communities in the world,” Musk said. “People are seeking stories of hope and connection and love.”

Day, whose “Afterburn and Aftershock” has been adapted into a Passionflix title, is particularly excited to join Readers Take Denver to connect in person with her fans. “There’s a bond built between the author and the reader through the story,” Day said. “And you both feel as if you have a mutual friend. And when you have mutual friends that you both care about, it’s wonderful to be able to connect in person and say, hey, we both liked the same person! And when someone says to you, ‘I was going through chemo and it was really rough, and your story took me out of that for a time and I’m so grateful to be able to say that in person,’ it’s so valuable, not just for them but for us.”

Even decades into a very successful writing career, veteran author Harris, whose Sookie Stackhouse book series inspired HBO’s “True Blood,” relies on live book-related events to take the temperature of the reading marketplace.

“I love seeing people who’ve read my books. I love meeting ardent readers like myself, who, if they haven’t read my books, they’ve read a lot of books,” Harris said. “It’s always fun to talk to people about what they read and enjoyed, and what they think is a good niche in the market or just to get their feedback. It’s just so much fun to hear people tell me they’ve read and enjoyed some of my past work. It really fires me up to do better.”

While “The Cipher” author Maldonado saw the first Readers Take Denver as a tad more focused on the reader experience, she found the time it offered authors to connect with one another to be invaluable. She wants to build on that next year.

“What I really liked about it was I could connect with my fellow author friends that I don’t always get to see,” Maldonado said. “Writing is a very lonely, solitary pursuit, normally and so you do feel like sometimes you’re just in your own little world in front of your computer.”

“The Gray Man” author Greaney recalls having “a lot of social anxiety” before he was first published and attending industry events. He looks at Readers Take Denver as another chance for him to help calm the nerves of today’s newbies.

“I do everything I can to demystify to authors– I think any of us who are at a quote, unquote, higher level, do, because I felt that way,” Greaney said. “And I was intimidated by people. It’s huge to demystify because I really thought you had to be some sort of a special creature to be successful. And just to be around normal people that are doing what you want to do is huge.”

Readers Take Denver has set its initial schedule for the April 2024 conference. Among the many in-person events for readers and authors, respectively — and the ones that intersect — are some seminars about navigating the virtual world of #BookTok, that animal that Yarros and other writers fear and respect, but need to get to know as well as they know and love these in-person conferences.

Jones notes that the power shift from publishers as gatekeepers to digital platforms as incubators has been profound for the industry. Authors need a forum to gather, talk shop and compare notes, she said.

“Bloggers at one point were huge” in influencing book sales, Jones said. “The bloggers have become TikTokers, and TikTok is this whole other beast. There are a lot of authors that are struggling with how to navigate that and even getting a lot of pressure from their publishers to do that when they’re used to just writing books.”

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