In a attempt to attract younger romance fans, Mills & Boon will launch a new list of titles specifically aimed at TikTok users and readers aged 35 and under.
Romance “is by far the biggest book genre” on the app, says Edel Flood, the head of lifestyle and education at TikTok UK.
Search the TikTok hashtag #BookTok, and you are likely to be given recommendations for “spicy” (read: sexy) books by romance authors Colleen Hoover and Emily Henry, or blends of fantasy and romance from the likes of Rebecca Yarros or Sarah J Maas.
It has led to the publisher launching Mills & Boon Afterglow, which will publish two titles a month from January 2024, joining the six existing imprints that range from steamy, passionate sagas (Mills & Boon Desire) to the love stories of high-flying doctors (Mills & Boon Medical). Afterglow is “a trend-led, trope-filled list of books with authentic and relatable characters”, with “a generous dose of spice in every story”, says Katie Barnes-Wallis, marketing director at Mills & Boon.
Tropes – for example: enemies to lovers; small-town settings; grumpy versus sunshine – are key to the way younger romance fans choose books and talk about them on TikTok. “People know what they want from their books and if someone can promise that before they even open the pages then it’s job done,” says Abby Parker, known online as abbysbooks.
With the promise that Afterglow books will contain “all the tropes you could possibly want,” Barnes-Wallis and her colleagues are keen to tap into existing BookTok trends. The new imprint’s launch titles also demonstrate a focus on LGBT+ representation: The (Fake) Dating Game by Timothy Janovsky is described by the publisher as a “delightful and steamy male-male romance that takes the trope of ‘faux dating’ to a whole new level”, while The Boyfriend Subscription by Steven Salvatore is being advertised as “the queer Pretty Woman”.
Queer titles such as Song of Achilles, Red, White and Royal Blue and the Heartstopper series are popular with BookTokers, “so whilst traditional romance will always have a place, there is scope for smaller sub-genres or emerging authors to find an audience too”, says Flood.
Research by the Publishers Association has found that 59% of 16-25-year-olds say BookTok has helped them to discover a passion for reading, and Mills & Boon is upfront about the fact it is trying to get its slice of the TikTok pie.
“With an eyewatering 4.5bn views of the hashtag #SpicyTok, there is a huge audience of voracious readers searching for their next romance read,” Barnes-Wallis says. And, as romance author Jenny Colgan says, it makes sense for the nation’s best-known romance publisher to cater for all kinds of romance fans. “Mills & Boon are a huge part of British cultural life, particularly for women,” Colgan says. Since it publishes “so much”, it is in “the perfect position to cater for a more diverse audience”.
Though the success of #BookTok is “completely fuelled by the community and their passion for literature”, Flood and her colleagues at TikTok see its growth as an opportunity to engage with the books industry – the app has formed a partnership with the Hay festival and this year launched its first ever TikTok book awards. “From a publisher’s perspective, TikTok is a great window to see what books, genres or authors are popular right now, so they can lean into those conversations in real-time,” says Flood.
Yet some TikTokers are sceptical of how the books industry has latched on to TikTok as a way to sell books. “I think publishers need to be a bit more careful about how loosely they can brand books as ‘the next biggest BookTok sensation’ as I really think this is beginning to put people off,” says Parker. “Above everything, BookTok is a community of people who love books and want to talk about them … its power lies within in the honest opinions of reviewers and this should not be overlooked.”
Afterglow may have its buzzwords “spice” and “tropes” – but whether Mills & Boon can find its happily-ever-after with the BookTok community remains to be seen.