Updated: Nov 21, 2022
By Eros ViDemantay
The reviews for Lightlark have not been kind. On Goodreads, a book rating website, one user gave it a one-star rating, claiming they ‘[had] been bamboozled. Catfished. Played by everyone & everything.’ Others have described the fantasy novel as ‘terrible’, ‘a major disappointment’, and ‘unreadable and utterly cringefail.’ In under twenty-four hours, the average rating fell from four-point-five stars to around two.
Bad books come out all the time. It’s what makes good pieces of literature noteworthy amongst readers. Authors get critiqued all the time for various reasons. They learn from these mistakes and work on their next book, hoping it will be better than their last. What makes Lightlark different is the nature of these reviews. On August 19th, the book had over 1,000 reviews on Goodreads. Yet, the book was set to be published on August 23rd. How had thousands of people reviewed a book that hadn’t been released to the general public?
The truth is that most of them didn’t. In reality, they were targeting Alex Aster, the author of the book, and review bombing her book as a way of criticizing her. Some people claimed she was an ‘industry plant’. Social media users complained that certain scenes and quotes she promised would be in the book were not actually in the final copy. Still, others claimed that despite her presenting a rags-to-riches story of Lightlark and its success, she was hiding the fact that she came from a family of wealth and privilege. In order to dive into the complaints about Aster and Lightlark, one must go months back in time and see how the book came to fruition in the first place.
In one of the many nooks and crannies of the popular social media app TikTok there is a corner for book enthusiasts. Nicknamed ‘BookTok’, authors and readers alike share their latest book recommendations. Writers post videos about their books, hoping the internet will perform its magic and cause their literature to become a social media phenomenon (that formula has worked; just ask Colleen Hoover, Chloe Gong, and Adam Silvera). With relatively no work to her name, Aster posted the idea for Lightlark on BookTok hoping people would discover it. Immediately it went viral; as of this writing, the video has over 365,000 likes and over 1.8 million views. The publishing industry noticed: soon after, Amulet Books agreed to publish Lightlark in a six-figure deal. The success only went up from there. Aster became the most followed author on TikTok and each of her videos gathered thousands of likes.
With such online success came pressure like never before. For many, writing a book takes time and effort. Oftentimes, authors in the fantasy genre take years to craft a good story that will engage well with readers: for example, look at George R. R. Martin, who so far has taken 11 years to write The Winds of Winter, the latest installment in the Game of Thrones series. Aster, in comparison, had under a year-and-a-half to write and rewrite Lightlark with her editor, ostensibly to not let the online hype die down (in her TikToks, she described the editing process as insane). Nevertheless, she found ways to grow her fanbase, allowing users to vote on her final book cover and letting her viewers read the first chapter of Lightlark for free.
Fast forward to the present, when the very same people who hyped her book to infinity are now turning around and vehemently condemning her. As previously mentioned, on Goodreads the book has over 1,000 reviews. Though the majority of these reviewers had not read the book, a small portion of them had. One of the quickest ways to build hype for a book is to hand out Advanced Readers Copies, or ARCs. That way, people - specifically influencers - who liked the book can advertise it on their social media. This particular journalist - yours truly - was one of these people who received Lightlark ARCs (or LightlARCs if you will) at YALLWest, an event for book lovers in Southern California, and in their opinion, while the book’s prose and narrative were poor, the story overall made for an entertaining read.
Other people were more straightforward. Plenty of reviews on Goodreads took multiple paragraphs to go over every single flaw in the book. Because of the detailed nature of these reviews, it was evident that the people behind the reviews were handed ARCs. Around this time, Aster announced that her book got a movie deal at Universal Studios, from the producers of the Maze Runner and Twilight series. This caused both mass speculation and scrutiny of Aster and her life. Who was she? How was she getting all these deals and success on a debut YA novel that hasn’t even been released yet? It turned out that getting a movie deal before a book was published was relatively common, as most book-to-movie deals are options for the rights, which means that the studio can decide if they want to translate an author’s work to the silver screen, but an adaptation is not guaranteed.
This news, however, opened the floodgates on Aster’s personal life. The internet Sherlock Holmes did their work, and revealed some very interesting details about Aster’s background. Not only did she come from a wealthy family (her parents owned a car dealership), but her sister was Daniella Pierson, founder, and CEO of The Newsette, a women-focused newsletter that, according to a report from CNBC, ‘raked in over 6 million dollars in revenue for 2021.’ Despite presenting a rags-to-riches story, Aster clearly came from a comfortable background. The internet felt lied to, and where there’s hurt, there is hate. Immediately a downpour of evil rained on Aster and her book’s Goodreads profile. TikToks were made calling her out as a liar and ‘industry plant’ - that is, someone who has gotten major deals at a relatively young age despite no experience. Since then, several social media users, including the Red Queen series author Victoria Aveyard, have myth-busted the existence of the industrial plant, claiming that the world of publishing is too unstable and chaotic for such a thing to exist.
Constructive criticism of an author can be beneficial in the long run. Calling a writer out on their privilege can lead to healthy conversations about the advantages some get in the publishing industry. When rude and unnecessary hate is aimed at these authors, however, any meaningful conversation is thrown out the window. Aster did not deserve the hundreds of false one-star reviews that were bombarded at her on Goodreads. Constructive criticism is always welcome; unwarranted vengeful anger should not be tolerated. It is mesmerizing to see the very same people who built Alex Aster’s success now savagely tear it down. If anything, the novel should serve as a fable to literary agents, publishers, and aspiring authors alike: a book built on a foundation of social media will quickly sink, inevitably just like the Lightlark book sales this weekend.