Emily Henry on Writing Best-Sellers Without Tours and TikTok

Emily Henry has never been on a book tour or done a traditional bookstore reading. She’s not on TikTok. Her Instagram features book covers and an occasional giveaway; there are no closet tours, rescue cats or elegantly plated snacks.

Henry doesn’t want to be, as she puts it, a “writer slash mini-celebrity.” She’s a romance novelist, full stop. It’s an uncommon, maybe even gutsy, approach in the era of the all-access pass, when readers of popular fiction expect a level of quasi intimacy with favorite writers.

Nevertheless, Henry — “EmHen” to fans — has launched five No. 1 best-sellers in four years. Her latest blockbuster, “Funny Story,” has been on the best-seller list for nine weeks. In its first two months, the book racked up almost 60,000 customer reviews on Goodreads and sparked a cottage industry of T-shirts, sweatshirts, candles, bookmarks and stickers.

All told, Henry has sold seven million copies of her books in the United States since 2020. Three of her novels are in development to become films. On Tuesday, Henry announced that another, “Happy Place,” is going to be a series on Netflix.

“It’s been kind of a whirlwind,” Henry said. “The last four years have felt like they were 35 seconds long.”

Chatting with Henry outside Coffee Emporium in leafiest Cincinnati, it was hard to imagine her retreating into quietude. She presented as an instant connector, parrying substantive conversation while perusing a menu that included a Brew Hoo, a Flying Piggie and an Orange Jillius. And while we’re in the vicinity of old school mall food courts: Imagine Elisabeth Shue in “Adventures in Babysitting” crossed with Carly Simon circa “You’re So Vain” and you have Henry’s blond, brown-eyed warmth.

“I really like people,” Henry said, over the roar of neighborhood lawn mowers. “When I’m with a big group, my tendency is to get louder. But afterward I’ll drive home in utter silence. Like, I’m not talking to anyone for several days.”

Henry got her start as an author of novels for young adults, pounding out her debut, “The Love That Split the World,” in the mornings before reporting to work as a technical writer for a phone, internet and television provider. She was responsible for the inscrutable language atop cable boxes; it wasn’t fun. Henry quit as soon as she collected her inaugural book advance — a modest one, she noted — then wrote or coauthored three more books for younger audiences.

Eventually, Henry said, “I got to a point in Y.A. where I felt used up. I didn’t have anything left to say.”

Her first book for adults, “Beach Read,” was a reset — a chance to write without the stress of a ready-made audience. Many writers would see this as the best kind of problem to have, but Henry now advises aspiring writers to enjoy the privacy of working on a project without built-in readers attached: “You never really get back to that exact joy.”

“Beach Read” came out on May 19, 2020, a week or so before the Covid death toll in the U.S. surpassed 100,000. In-person author events seemed as foolhardy as eating a hamburger in a restaurant. This was not a fortuitous time for humanity, let alone a debut-ish novel meant to be enjoyed on the sand.

But, while many public beaches remained closed, “Beach Read” blew up on TikTok. Cooped-up daughters pressed it on distracted mothers (present company included). The book sailed onto the best-seller list, where it remained for more than a year.

“A lot of people were looking for something that was going to bring brightness, comfort and warmth and also not shy away from grief,” Amanda Bergeron said. She’s Henry’s editor at Berkley. “‘Beach Read’ was doing all those things.”

It set a precedent that held through the publications of Henry’s next three novels — “People We Meet on Vacation” (2021), “Book Lovers” (2022) and “Happy Place” (2023). Sales grew, book after book, while Henry stayed at home in Cincinnati.

“I think if I had toured, if ‘Beach Read’ had not come out during the pandemic, the team would have thought, ‘Oh, sales are happening because you’re touring, so now you have to keep touring,’” Henry said. “Because everything was working without me touring, they’ve been flexible with me wanting to be a homebody.”

Early on, there was a push to get Henry on TikTok. “I was like, ‘No,’” she said. “When Instagram dies, I die with it. That’s my last social media.”

Henry added, “I started dreaming of writing before social media existed. I didn’t know what any of my favorite writers looked like. I never would have cared or even thought about going to an event for them. It’s strange to dream of writing when it’s one thing, then come of age when it’s something totally different.”

Henry, Bergeron and Danielle Keir, an assistant director of publicity at Berkley, credit Sanny Chiu’s modern, bright, upmarket cover designs as drivers of the books’ successes. Chiu takes particular care with colors, spines and body language of characters.

With “Funny Story,” Chiu struggled to find the perfect pose for Henry’s main character. Daphne, a jilted children’s librarian, looked “a little bit arrogant at first,” Chiu said. In her ultimate incarnation, she strikes the right balance of intelligence, wariness and “I’ll drink to that.” At Henry’s request, Chiu outfitted Daphne’s free-spirited L.I. (that’s romance lingo for love interest) in a pair of yellow Crocs.

Was there an expectation that Henry would tour on behalf of these opposites turned kindred spirits? Other authors are on the road; signing lines are back.

“We’re always exploring it,” Keir said. “But ultimately we’re focusing on interesting and creative ways to promote Emily and her novels and to engage fans and reach new readers.”

In other words, there might have been a conversation, but no tour was scheduled.

Henry appeared on three national television shows — “Good Morning America,” “Today” and “Tamron Hall.” Taking a page from fantasy authors, who often host late night release parties, Berkley helped facilitate more than 200 “Funny Story” launch celebrations at bookstores across the country. Over 50 of them happened at midnight, and more than 20 venues sold out.

“Fantasy readers are a class of their own, in terms of devotion, but we sold out in three days,” Leah Koch said. She’s co-owner of The Ripped Bodice, which specializes in romance.

On April 22, more than 100 enthusiasts flocked to the store’s Brooklyn outpost. There were custom chocolates and themed cocktails. There were page annotation tabs in the “Funny Story” color palette and art prints inspired by Henry’s Michigan lakeside setting.

And suddenly, strolling into the crowd like yet another beaming guest, there was Henry herself. She wore beach waves, white Mary Janes and a pale pink dress printed with martini glasses.

In a video of the surprise appearance, readers are ecstatic, ebullient and hellbent on capturing the moment on their own phones. One fan shrieked “Oh my god, oh my god” in disbelief, scanning the crowd as if to confirm that her eyes aren’t playing tricks.

“Hi, I’m Emily,” Henry said, to the tune of reverent mayhem. She looked triumphant, if not completely at ease.

“There were people I recognized through years of seeing them promote my books on social media,” Henry said. “That was really special and sweet. But the really nice thing about my readership is, it’s a thing outside of me. It’s this community where people make friendships.”

The hardcover of “Funny Story” sold 850 percent more copies in its first four weeks than the paperback original of “Beach Read” did in the same amount of time, despite costing nearly twice as much. In late May, the book was still front and center at several Cincinnati bookstores.

But if anyone at Coffee Emporium recognized Henry, they didn’t break out their cameras. When she left to catch a ride home with her husband, Henry didn’t strut like a V.I.P. or a local bigwig or even someone whose books draw readers to bookstores at midnight. Instead, Henry had the purposeful stride of a writer, ready to get back to work.

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