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On TikTok, crying is encouraged. Colleen Hoover’s books get the job done.

The best-selling author of ‘It Ends With Us’ has struck a chord with her emotional novels

Eloise Hampson, left, made a TikTok of herself finishing "It Ends With Us" by Colleen Hoover. Center: Hoover, on TikTok. Katie McDougall, right, made a TikTok of herself reading Hoover's "Ugly Love" in one day. (Hampson, Hoover, McDougall/TikTok)
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An earlier version of this story stated that Samawia Akhter attends the University of Milwaukee. She attends the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Eloise Hampson’s anguish has been viewed more than a million times. Complete strangers have witnessed the 17-year-old’s face crumple, her desperate stare into the middle distance, the heavy sigh she releases before dropping her head into her hands, body shaking. She recorded the tearful time-lapse for TikTok last year as proof: This is how it feels to read Colleen Hoover’s novel “It Ends With Us.”

Generations of people have been taught that public displays of weeping are the height of embarrassment. But on BookTok — TikTok’s community of bibliophiles — crying is commonplace, and Hoover’s books have prompted a well-documented ocean of tears.

Her novels, most marketed as romances, aren’t your run-of-the-mill tragedies. Kenna Rowan, the protagonist of “Reminders of Him,” which came out this week, doesn’t just lose the love of her life; she accidentally kills him, then gives birth in prison to a daughter she may never see again.

“She puts her characters through the most insane situations,” says Kendra Keeter-Gray, a 23-year-old Los Angeles-based BookToker and associate producer. “But their emotion is so real and so relatable and just open and raw and honest.”

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Hoover, a 42-year-old former social worker, is by her own admission “a very unemotional person,” which partially explains how her stories end up so fraught. “I find when I’m writing, I tend to go a little too far sometimes with the emotions,” she says during a recent Zoom conversation, “because then I can feel it. So I write, and if I don’t feel it, I make it sadder or scarier, depending on what I’m writing, until I actually feel something.”

Kendra Keeter-Gray took to TikTok to talk about the lessons of empathy and forgiveness in Coleen Hoover's "Reminders of Him." (Video: Kendra Keeter-Gray)

With “Reminders of Him,” Hoover was hoping to feel joy. She was attempting to write a romantic comedy in 2020, because it was “a dumpster fire” year, she says. So she thought, “I’m writing something happy because everything around me was falling apart.” But the comedy kept not coming, and her deadline loomed. And I was like, you know what? I just need to embrace how I’m feeling. And then I feel like I wrote the saddest book I’ve ever written.”

Not that it ends sadly. Most of her books, including other heartbreakers “Ugly Love” and “November 9,” don’t. But the journey? Cue the rapid inhales of imminent hyperventilation.

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Search the #CoHo hashtag on TikTok and the videos say it all: moody music, sobbing emoji and requests to be punched in the face by Hoover, because “that would hurt less than these books.” (Though there are also plenty of even-keeled endorsements.) If Instagram is a platform of pristinely filtered perfection, certain corners of BookTok are smeared with runny mascara and littered with used tissues.

Hoover’s harrowing plots are at odds with her TikTok persona. Online and during interviews, the mother of three is funny, self-deprecating and down-to-earth, sharing videos of her unwashed dishes, her messy office and a bathroom counter so cluttered it would make Marie Kondo throw up her hands in defeat. “I’m a hot mess,” she says during an interview, before explaining she only recently got a calendar. “I just hope someone reminds me that I’m supposed to do something.”

“She’s not on TikTok to prove a point about her books or tell people how to read or anything,” Keeter-Gray says. “In one video I think about a lot, she was using potato chips as a bookmark.”

Hoover’s professional story is a happy one. She’s part of an almost mythic coterie of authors, such as Andy Weir and E.L. James, who launched themselves without the marketing power of a traditional publishing house. She self-published her first novel, “Slammed,” in 2012, because she wanted to share the story with her grandmother, who had just gotten a Kindle. At the time, she was living in a single-wide trailer in her East Texas hometown with her husband and sons. In a matter of months, her novel was a bestseller. Within the year, she quit her job and was writing full time. She’s published 22 additional novels and novellas. She has employees, an office down the street from her house and a charity called the Bookworm Box, a monthly subscription service and bookstore that has donated more than $1 million to various causes.

In other words, BookTok didn’t make Hoover a bestseller, but it pushed her popularity to new heights. Right around the time she was struggling to write her first romantic comedy, TikTok usage was exploding, as kids and young adults found themselves with more hours to fill and fewer social engagements. Given the timing, maybe it makes sense that the platform became a place to share tumultuous emotions. Over the past two years, some readers have been drawn to light entertainment to balance out our dark reality, but there’s clearly a market for those who want to embrace the ache.

“I feel like we all just want to feel something so badly,” says 19-year-old University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee student and BookToker Samawia Akhter. “I’ve gotten comments like that: ‘Can you give me recommendations where I’ll just cry?’”

And tragedy can be escapism, too.

“People have lost people and lost their jobs, and I think sometimes it’s easier to read about other people’s stories than it is to live out your own,” says Katie McDougall, 21, a student and early childhood educator in Vancouver, B.C.

NPD BookScan, which tracks book sales, first noticed that TikTok recommendations were pushing older books onto the bestseller list around the start of 2021. Hoover’s novels aren’t alone. NPD initially spotted the trend with E. Lockhart’s 2014 YA novel “We Were Liars.” Madeline Miller’s 2011 novel “The Song of Achilles” and Adam Silvera’s “They Both Die at the End,” from 2017, have also seen big sales bumps because of BookTok activity. In 2021, Hoover’s print unit sales were 693 percent higher than in 2020, and “It Ends With Us,” published in 2016, sold 768,700 copies last year, 18 times what it sold the year prior.

Sydney Blanchard joked on TikTok about learning why "It Ends With Us" by Colleen Hoover "emotionally destroys every single person who reads it." (Video: Sydney Blanchard)

Though Hoover’s novels often hinge on a love story, the passion often recedes behind deeper (and sometimes deeply disturbing) themes. “It Ends With Us” begins as a traditional romance novel: There’s a hot surgeon with a soap-opera name (Ryle Kincaid), coincidental chance encounters and a slow-burn flirtation with a steamy payoff. But then the book abruptly shifts into an examination of domestic violence that was inspired by Hoover’s personal history. Her mother left her abusive father when Hoover was a toddler. Writing the novel, she says, was difficult but cathartic.

“There was always that part of me that didn’t understand why she was in that situation to begin with,” Hoover says. “And then I was like, oh, I absolutely see how she found herself in that situation. And I think it helped me understand her in so many ways, writing that book.”

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Her fans (they call themselves CoHorts) point to these unexpected pivots as part of Hoover’s appeal.

“You really never know what to expect with her,” says Lauryn Hickman, a 22-year-old graduate student. “And for me, I get this — it sounds bad, but it’s good — knot in my throat when I’m reading her books because I’m anticipating this twist.”

On TikTok, Hoover’s books appear to especially resonate with young women, which raises the question: Are all these publicly shed tears a generational thing?

“Most of my peers on BookTok are in their 20s, and I feel like everyone’s sort of getting more comfortable talking about mental health,” Hickman says. “Even [people] a couple of years older than us are not as comfortable talking about their mental health. … And then the people who are even younger than us, teenagers, are feeling very comfortable.”

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Hampson, the 17-year-old “It Ends With Us” fan, is a high school junior in Santa Rosa, Calif., and she has no qualms about opening the floodgates on the Internet. One of her earliest videos featured her “sobbing for three minutes straight.” Back then she had about 20 followers, mostly close friends, so she didn’t think twice about it, she says. That hasn’t changed, even as her followers have skyrocketed. “I feel kind of the same way. It just feels like I’m expressing my emotions to my best friends on a small little corner of the Internet.”

Besides, her story ended happily.

“As soon as my video went viral, I was at volleyball practice and checked my DMs, and [Hoover] asked if she could send me signed copies as a thank-you,” Hampson says. The moment she saw the message — and the fact that Hoover had followed her back — during a water break, Hampson’s heart raced; she felt nauseated and started shaking. “That was the biggest fangirl moment I’ve ever experienced,” she says.

But she had secretly broken the rules; her coach was strict about phone usage. So she had to hold it all inside.

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