Although Alex Aster has known that she wanted to be a writer since she was twelve, she had no idea she would also become a viral TikTok creator. Alex recently joined Zibby to discuss her book, Emblem Island: Curse of the Night Witch, a Barnes & Noble Book Club pick, as well as her journey in publishing, why she wants to make reading more fun for kids, and a handful of tips for Zibby’s new trending TikTok account. Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books has teamed up with Katie Couric Media and Random House to give away 100 copies of Sarah Sentilles’s book, Stranger Care! Enter the giveaway by clicking here:


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Alex. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Emblem Island: Curse of the Night Witch.

Alex Aster: Thank you so much for having me. I love your podcast, so I’m honored to be here.

Zibby: We’ve talked several times already. Somehow, we hadn’t actually made it onto the podcast together. We’ve done Instagram Lives and all sorts of fun stuff. It’s nice to finally have it be here.

Alex: Yes, I’m so excited.

Zibby: Alex, you have broken out of the gate as this major hit. You’ve been posting. First of all, you’re a TikTok sensation. You’re also a singer, so you had a huge following to begin with. Now you’re the Barnes & Noble Book Club pick. You’re everywhere. It’s amazing. I know you’re so grateful. I watch you crying all the time on social. Tell me all about what this journey has been like. I want to talk about the book too, but the journey itself seems super interesting.

Alex: It’s actually really fortuitous that we’re talking now because the journey started a year ago when my book first came out in hardcover. You were one of the first people I talked to about it. I was on your Instagram Live show I think the week that it debuted. It debuted kind of in the middle of the pandemic, so bookstores were either closed or they were just opening up. They weren’t really ordering new books. It wasn’t necessarily the best time to debut. That’s when my first book came out. When it debuted, I was lucky enough to have the critical acclaim of having star reviews from Kirkus and all of these places and being featured in amazing publications, but the commercial success wasn’t necessarily there. Unless you were a huge author, people weren’t really searching on Amazon or, new books. They were just searching authors they already knew. For a year, the book sales were okay. It was more like the critical acclaim was there, but the sales were definitely not what I had hoped for. When Barnes & Noble picked my book to be their Book of the Month, that’s when everything changed. Like you mentioned before, I did have a sizable following on TikTok previously. That was great, but it was mainly because of my music, so it didn’t necessarily translate into book lovers or book sales.

When I knew that I was going to be the Barnes & Noble Book of the Month, which is such a cool opportunity because not only is it for paperback — my book came out in paperback. It was a lot cheaper, so a lot more accessible for people. They also changed the cover. I think it’s a lot more dynamic and eye-catching now. Also, every single Barnes & Noble store — I didn’t know there were six hundred and fifty around the world, which is just such a huge number. They have a huge table of them in every single location. You can’t really beat that type of exposure. I knew I’m going to be in every Barnes & Noble. Whereas before, I maybe had one book in Barnes & Noble. Even my local Barnes & Noble in Union Square didn’t even have a copy. There was no chance for me to break through at that point. I saw this as my huge opportunity. I was like, I am a hundred percent going to go all in on TikTok. I convinced my mom to do a road trip with me across the country to over fifty Barnes & Nobles. I wanted to go to sign all the books, but also to get a lot of content. It ended up being the best decision I could’ve ever made because I had over fifteen videos go viral on TikTok about my book and about my Barnes & Noble journey. They got over five hundred thousand views. Some had millions of views, even on Instagram Reels which I had never really messed around with before. It just became this thing where at the very beginning of my book tour, I would go to some Barnes & Nobles and they would have no idea who I was. Even though my book was on a table with tons of books, they were like, we haven’t really heard of this.

By the end, I had people in Barnes & Noble, not only the people who worked there, but people who were just casually shopping, they knew about my book from TikTok. Even, I have a viral post about — I was there signing books. This girl did a doubletake. At first, I was like, she’s probably just like, oh, are you an author? That’s cool. She literally stopped, pulled my book out of her shopping bag that she had just purchased, and said, “I literally just came here because I saw your TikTok. I wanted to buy your book. You’re here.” Those kinds of moments that obviously go viral because they’re so fortuitous and insane, it would’ve never happened if I hadn’t dedicated an entire month to traveling across the country with my mom going to so many Barnes & Nobles and also documenting it on social media. Now I definitely feel like people are kind of referring to me as the viral TikTok girl, also because of my new book deal that I partially got because of a viral TikTok video. I got a YA fantasy series book deal because one of my videos has over 1.5 million views. It was basically just me pitching my concept for the book. I’m really thankful to TikTok because for that one, it’s a little bit — some people think I just made a TikTok video, and I got this big book deal because of it.

Zibby definitely knows that’s not really how the world works. I had already been published. I already had star reviews. I had already written the manuscript. It was on submission to publishers by the time I posted the video. It actually was down to just a few publishers. A lot of people had rejected it. I made the video to kind of get market validation that, yes, this is a good idea. As you know, Zibby, YA fantasy is super saturated. Even though I had these book deals before, a lot of publishers weren’t really willing to take the risk on my book. I put it out there to be like, I know people will want to read this. Immediately, in twenty-four hours, I got over a million views. That really helped me seal the book deal. I think TikTok is an amazing tool for market validation. It’s a free marketing tool. I got so many views, I think over five million total views on my TikTok videos for my book and my book tour that I could’ve never afforded in terms of marketing dollars. I really owe a lot to TikTok.

Zibby: Do you know anyone there now? Can you send them a thank you note?

Alex: At TikTok?

Zibby: Yeah.

Alex: Not really. I’m kind of getting more involved with sponsored posts and stuff. Before, I never really did ads. For me, I’m already trying to sell something on my TikTok channel. I have books to sell. It’s more important for me to have a page that people want to visit than get whatever money I can from each TikTok post. I will say, the people at Barnes & Noble I know now because they were really impressed by what I did. Apparently, they’re really happy with how many views I was able to get. That’s just free. All I had to have is a phone and go across the country with my mom to get these videos. I’m really proud that we sold thousands of copies last month because of TikTok. We actually tripled the amount of sales I’d gotten in a entire in a month. Then the second book came out last week. It was great timing because people had just found out about it. I actually had this big virtual book tour with huge authors I admire so much that I was basically able to do because of my TikTok following. One of the big authors was like, “It’s so strange how your first book came out and then the second book is coming out a month later. That’s so smart.” In my head, I was like, my first book came out last year. It’s just the paperback. No one had heard of my book until May.

Zibby: Is the second book in hardcover or paperback?

Alex: It’s in hardcover. The first book did come out last year when we talked. Then it just came out in paperback in May. That’s when everyone discovered it. It was regular publishing timing for the second book to come out now, but people are just thinking that maybe it was a smart, strategic thing.

Zibby: I wonder if you’ll find anything interesting with sales of this one on hardcover versus paperback to see if that’s actually a factor or if it was just random.

Alex: The paperback was cool because a lot of the TikTok audience that I have is younger, and so it really is a hard sell, a seventeen-dollar book from an author that you’ve never heard of. I do think that people who read the first book and loved it at six dollars or seven dollars are definitely, probably, more willing to buy the second book. Because it’s been so popular, retailers are doing a sale, so now it’s fifteen dollars for the second book. It’s just really interesting for a series because I didn’t know if there would be enough demand for me to have a third book or a fourth book in the series. Now that’s definitely a discussion because of TikTok and because of Barnes & Noble. I’m so grateful to both platforms because, truly, the number of sales I had before was just so tiny compared to now. Now, even, I’ll go to Barnes & Noble and they’ll tell me that my book series is one of the best-selling children’s book series right now. That’s just insane to me. I’m really proud that I kind of did that through TikTok. It wasn’t like I had this huge marketing budget or anything.

Zibby: Wait, but Alex, do you have any idea how Barnes & Noble chose your book? How did you get picked to begin with?

Alex: It was definitely through my publisher. I had no idea that it was being submitted. I know that this is a relatively new program. It’s a paperback program. They pick every month, books of the months per category. They’re all in paperback. I knew I was chosen back in January, so I couldn’t say anything for a long time. I knew this was happening, and so I had a while to plan. Yes, I planned. I had stickers made that I was going to give all the people who bought the book. I knew that I was going to plan a book tour from New York City down to Miami with my mom. I had a while to plan, but I really thought of this as, this is my one chance to really launch the series and have people discover it. I’m so glad that it worked out because there’s no guarantee on TikTok. I know, Zibby, you’ve gone viral now on TikTok. You just never know what’s going to go viral or not. It’s so hard nowadays, too, with so much content. It is becoming oversaturated. For me to have gone consistently viral still, I’m just shocked that it happened, but I’m definitely grateful.

Zibby: It’s amazing. I know you and Jo Piazza and I had this call. When was it? A couple months ago? I can’t even remember.

Alex: It was. It was the same week that I had posted the video that went viral for my YA series. I remember I was like, I just posted a video yesterday. It’s kind of blowing up. I think it had three hundred thousand views when I was talking to you. Then I got the book deal that week.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, Alex, that’s amazing. Jo and I are like, um, what do we do? What do you mean? TikTok? How are we going to do it?

Alex: You definitely figured it out.

Zibby: No, I haven’t. I have to say, it’s not even me. This woman, Nina Vargas, on my team has been amazing and was like, “Let’s try this on TikTok.” I was like, “Go for it.” My own TikTok, as you’ve seen, @ZibbyOwens, is horrific. Nobody ever goes there. My kids are helping me so much. No matter what I do, it’s not working. Then Nina tried it and it got 1.2 million views or something. Now they’re blocking us because I guess they think it’s not appropriate content, which is completely not true. It’s women’s magazine-type content. That’s @WithZibbyAndTracey. I tried to put in all of your helpful comments. I’ve been trying all of your tricks and stuff from our last talk. You’re totally an inspiration on the TikTok front, for sure, and obviously, the author front. It’s not like this just happened. I don’t know how old you are or if you’re even willing to admit how young you are.

Alex: I’m twenty-five.

Zibby: Okay, twenty-five, but you’ve graduated magnum cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania. It’s not like you’re some random person. And an English major. You’re obviously super gifted and bright. You’ve said before when I’ve talked to you how it had taken you a long time. For older people, that sounds like a joke because they’ve tried their whole lives. Still, if you’ve been trying to do something for a decade, it’s still a decade of your life. Now all of a sudden, you can reap all these rewards. It’s amazing.

Alex: I think that it’s surprising a lot of people. First of all, they definitely think I’m younger than I am. When I went to a lot of Barnes & Nobles, a lot of people were like, “You’re the author?” They were like, “You’re so young.” I was like, “I’m twenty-five.” Some of them were like, “Oh, we thought you were eighteen.” I was like, “Oh, wow, thanks.” They definitely think I’m younger than I am, first of all. Second of all, I think that even just being twenty-five, people think I just got lucky. I just went to Penn and graduated cum laude and just decided to be an author and published my first book. That’s definitely not my journey. I started trying to get published when I was twelve. It was thirteen years ago, almost fourteen years ago. I really do think that it just depends on when you started. If I started now, there’s no way I would be published next year. I would be published in like twelve years or thirteen years. Emblem Island: Curse of the Night Witch, the first book that I got a book deal for, was my sixth book that I wrote. I wrote three books in college. I wrote three books in high school. It’s been a really long journey for me. I definitely think it would be easier for me to be like, oh, yeah, I just came out of the woodwork and got this book deal and then got this bigger book deal. Even my first book deal was so small compared to my recent book deal that I got. I got my first book deal in 2018. It was three years ago. I think it would be an oversimplification to just be like, oh, she got a book deal from TikTok. I know that that’s the catchy way to look at it, but it’s so much more than that. I definitely think that I see a lot of people trying to emulate what I did with my viral video to get a big book deal. I really do want to emphasize that it’s not like I just made a video and then I got the book deal and now I’m writing the book. It was written.

It’s been a really long journey. It’s been really hard. I was rejected thousands of times. I’m definitely not the genius person who just decides to write a book. I was never the best reader, never the best writer. At Penn in all my writing classes, there were so many people that were so much better than me. I just think I’m the only one who never gave up. I think that that’s the only reason why now I am published, but it was really hard. I got my first agent the day I graduated from Penn. I skipped my graduation because I thought, oh, my gosh, my life is now beginning. I’m living my dream. I spent all summer revising that manuscript. I went on submission that fall. It didn’t sell. I parted ways with my agent. Six months after graduating from Penn, I didn’t have an agent. I didn’t have a book deal. I had to start from scratch. I wrote another book that didn’t get me an agent and didn’t sell. Then I wrote another one. That was Curse of the Night Witch. I did get an agent. It took six months for that to sell. It was for a really small amount. Then it took me three more years after that to get the big book deal. Just like anyone who’s an aspiring writer, you really have to do it for the love of writing. You can’t do it for anything else because I just feel like there’s so many easier ways to make money or to be famous or whatever you want to do. I truly love it. It’s been my dream since I was twelve. The fact that I get to do it now successfully and legitimately is just so amazing. Then I did take advantage of TikTok. I joined TikTok the day I got my first book deal in 2018. That’s the only reason why I joined. At first, I got a following through just doing trends and music. Once BookTok became a thing — it really is a thing now. It’s influencing the entire market. Barnes & Noble has BookTok tables in every location. It’s just lucky that I decided to join a few years ago. It’s really helped me now.

Zibby: That’s amazing. Wait, so what is on the BookTok table at Barnes & Noble, accounts that are blowing up on TikTok?

Alex: Yeah. As you know, TikTok, every single day, there’s a new trending thing. Even if you think you’ve figured it out, the next day, it’s something else. You really have to love TikTok to even be on it. I love it. I’m on it every single day for hours. If I decide to take a break for a week, I’m already lost because there’s a new trend. There’s a new trending book. Most of them are young adult books. My Emblem Island series is middle grade, so it has been a little bit tough to get people to buy the book. A lot of people want romance in their books. It’s not YA. It is middle grade. I do think that my YA series will do better on TikTok, but I’ve still seen the sales translate into real life. I know how hard it is to get someone to buy something from a video. I tried for a year, and it didn’t work. The fact that now it’s working, and that coupled with the Barnes & Noble, it really was luck, but it took a long time to get lucky.

Zibby: It’s so true. It’s really hard to get people to buy things from anything, especially an unknown quantity like a book. I keep saying this, but movies, you kind of know what you’re getting into, especially now as they give the endings away in the half the trailers anyway. I’m always pausing my trailers. I’m like, yes, I want to watch it. Don’t show me any more.

Alex: I’ve watched the whole movie after the trailer.

Zibby: Right? I know, but at least you know what’s coming. I feel like that’s part of why books are hard to justify as an expense. You don’t know what’s coming. It’s going to take you hours to get through it. That’s why I think videos, trailers, and all these types of more modern ways of selling books have to be back on the table so that people know what they’re getting into and it’s the cost.

Alex: I think nowadays, too, people really want to believe in the person who’s making the product. For me, I was so surprised that anyone wanted any book personalized and signed by me. I thought, mainly, I was just selling the story. I got so many orders through my local independent bookstore, and even people paying seventy dollars for international shipping just for me to sign a seven-dollar book. It really is a testament to the fact that people want to know the creators. Even you, I obviously follow you. When you posted those COVID shirts — I was just wearing — I just changed into a dress for the interview. I got one in black and one in white. It’s the comfiest, most amazing shirt that I definitely wear all the time. I bought it because of you, and also the shirt, but because I love you and I love your content. I think that that’s also something that’s the new, modern age of social media. It’s not just the thing that someone is selling. They really want to believe in the person behind the product.

Zibby: That’s very astute. I totally agree. It’s really the shorthand for when we all would be together and being like, you should do this, and having a brother or sister or somebody be like, this is why I love this. Now I just shout what I love from the rooftops. I’m like, I just finished, it’s so good, or something like that. That’s awesome. By the way, before this interview, I took your little quiz on your website for which — .

Alex: Emblem? Oh, my gosh, which emblem did you get?

Zibby: I got leadership.

Alex: Well, that makes sense. I feel like you might not think it makes sense, but you really are like the shepherd herding everyone into a direction. You need to read this book. You need to learn from this person. You really are an influencer. Even though you might not like that term, you are. I’ve read so many books from your podcast recommendations or your Instagram. I’ve bought so many products too, like the shirts for example. Immediately, I was just like, yep, buy.

Zibby: Aw, I’m so glad that that worked. I feel like you’re more like an influencer. I don’t know, I feel like the term influencer comes with a different wardrobe than I have or something. I’m forty-four years old. I’m chasing after my kids half the day. Not to say I’m like everyone else, but I’m just trying to get through the day half the time. I’m not the highly stylized influencer. It’s more just like, I’m glad people even care. That’s why it’s great I can introduce people who might not know about books like you. Moms who are looking for their kids to have some summer reading, this is a fantastic option for kids who are at home. I feel like especially for kids who don’t always like reading, they need books that they can really identify with and that are entertaining and well-written and all this stuff.

Alex: I think that’s important. I had never met kids who had read my book because of the pandemic. When it came out, obviously I haven’t been meeting with anyone. The road trip was after I was vaccinated. It was the only time I was comfortable being in a store. Those were really the first times I was even having interactions with anyone for a year. I met so many parents and kids. The kids were like, “I didn’t like to read until I read your book.” I really identified with that because even though, yes, I became a really good student, I went to this good college and obviously became a writer and a reader, I was not the best reader. I didn’t like to read until I read something that was actually enjoyable. Even going to college, and you read so many literary works, as you know, you also went to school, I definitely think there’s room for magic in reading. That doesn’t mean that it’s any lesser quality of reading. It doesn’t have to be literary. Kids just aren’t going to love reading if they’re just reading the stuff that they’re required to read in school. I think that’s so important. I know we’ve talked a little bit about the book, but it’s called Emblem Island. Curse of the Night Witch is the first book. It’s basically set in a world where everyone’s born knowing their fate and their talent. Everyone’s born with emblems which represents their superpower or their role in society.

The main character is born with an emblem that he doesn’t like. He and his two best friends, they make a wish. The wish turns into a curse. To break the curse, they have to go find the Night Witch. To find the Night Witch, they have to follow these legends that they read from a book called The Book of Cuentos. The legends turn out to be real. They encounter the creatures from the legends in the different stories and the landscapes from the legends. Those legends are actually based on Colombian mythology. I’m Colombian, so it was important for me to include those. I’m glad that it is critically acclaimed and it got the star reviews and stuff because I really do want parents to see, oh, it’s supposedly a good book, but it’s also fun. That was my main purpose in writing it. I, again, didn’t like books until I read something that I really liked. All the research shows instead of trying to get your kids to get good grades or paying them for good grades, the best thing you can do is give them books and make them read. Even if it’s not literary works, reading just does help you in every other sense of every subject matter, the SATs, or whatever. I love to read. I’m so glad that so many kids are discovering reading on TikTok. That’s the most rewarding comment I’ll get. I don’t like to read, but I read your book and I really liked it. It’s a long book. It’s 330 pages. It’s definitely great for kids and also adults. It’s the same genre as Harry Potter and Percy Jackson. I see a lot of young adults and adults reading it, which is amazing. That was really my goal, to write something that would get kids into reading because it’s so important.

Zibby: I love that. It’s so great. Thank you. Thank you for getting kids into reading. I’m struggling to get mine into reading. It’s so true, by the way, I remember at college, I thought I was going to be an English major. I got there and the English department had this required course that you had to take. It was The Odyssey and The Iliad, I had already read all that stuff in seventh grade or something, and all these really dense — like Ulysses. I’m like, no, thanks. I can’t do that. I ended up becoming a psychology major. Psychology, I was like, I want to take every single one of these classes. The English classes, I wanted to only take Introduction to Prose Writing, which I loved, but no. You have to find what you love and not be embarrassed about it, I guess.

Alex: You do. Also, in college, I want to say, I graduated an English major with honors, perfect grades and everything. In my first classes, I read poems and had no idea what they meant. I read works like The Iliad, Odyssey, all of these old English books and had no idea what I was reading. It was really hard for me. It wasn’t a natural thing. It was just like, practice makes perfect. The same for writing. I was not naturally good at any of it. It was just something I was interested in. I feel like a lot of people, when they hear, fancy college, fancy whatever — I was never good at it. I literally just forced myself to be good at it by working hard. I totally agree with you. I took so many of these classes and probably shouldn’t have. I went in there and everyone else seemed so much smarter than me, always.

Zibby: Me too. They still are, oh, my gosh. I’m with you. It’s the whole passion and perseverance model. I’m really into what I do. You’re really into it. If you love to write, no matter how many times, I’m just going to keep doing it because that’s what I do. It’s what I love. It doesn’t matter what happens.

Alex: A hundred percent.

Zibby: Some of the most brilliant people who could write that I knew in college are no longer writing at all. That’s fine. They’re great lawyers or whatever. People have their own thing. Anyway, Alex, I feel like you’ve already given so much advice. Do you have any parting advice for aspiring authors? You’ve given so much.

Alex: I was rejected so many times, and so my main advice would just be to not take rejection personally. At the end of the day, publishing is a business. This is probably the only business I know of that no one gets paid until the very end. If you get a rejection from an agent or a publisher, honestly, it’s kind of a gift because people are reading your work for free. They’re not getting paid. It’s not like you’re paying them money to read your query or read your manuscript. No one gets paid until your book sells. That can take months. In this industry, no rejection is personal. It’s literally only business. People only have so many hours of the day for them to work. Just keep going. Also, something that I wish I had known is, patience really is the key to this writing career. If I had had more patience, it probably wouldn’t have taken me twelve years to get a book deal. If I had just stuck with one book and edited it and taken the time, months or even a year to edit, and make it my best foot forward, I wouldn’t have constantly had to be rewriting manuscripts and trying to get agents and trying to get publishing deals. If you love it, just dedicate time to it even if it takes years. Publishing is not a fast industry. Even if you get a book deal tomorrow, it won’t come out for at least two years or a year and a half. You might as well take the time that your book needs. Once you’re in contract, and Zibby knows this because you have so many book deals now, you will never have more time to write a book than before you get your first book deal. Then you only have a year to write a book or you only have six months to write a book because now you’re on a publishing schedule. I would just say, don’t let rejection get to you. Every single book that you’ve loved that has won awards, that has movies has been rejected multiple times. Just don’t give up if you love it. Again, I was never the best writer. I was never the prodigy of the class. There were so many of those that now aren’t writers because I guess they chose a different path. Anyone can be published. Anyone can follow their dreams and achieve it. It just might take ten years. If you’re willing to put in the work, do it.

Zibby: Do it. Ten years and a lot of coffee. Awesome. Alex, thank you so much. Thanks for having another conversation with me and your being so inspirational and up-front and just awesome. It’s really great. It’s really awesome. I am so excited just to watch your career unfold. Know that I’ll be rooting from the sidelines as you go on the next leg of this marathon. I’ll be cheering.

Alex: Thank you so much, Zibby.

Zibby: Take care.

Alex: Bye.

Zibby: Bye.



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