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Book World: How Taylor Swift fans turned a mysterious book into a bestseller

May 11, 2023 Updated Fri., May 12, 2023 at 2:02 p.m.

Taylor Swift performs onstage for the opening night of “Taylor Swift | The Eras Tour” in March in Glendale, Arizona. Swift’s legion of fans have turned a mysterious book release into a bestseller.  (Kevin Winter/Getty Images for TAS Rights Management)
Taylor Swift performs onstage for the opening night of “Taylor Swift | The Eras Tour” in March in Glendale, Arizona. Swift’s legion of fans have turned a mysterious book release into a bestseller. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images for TAS Rights Management)
By Jacob Brogan and Emily Yahr Washington Post

Attaching Taylor Swift’s name to a project is enough to send interest skyrocketing. But this week, even the hint of her name caused a frenzy among her online fandom and sent ripple effects into the publishing industry.

As anyone connected to book publishing can tell you, preorders play an enormous role in the success or failure of a new title. Normally, when those advance sales come, they indicate that a publisher’s marketing team has done its job, saturating the reading public with just enough information about a book to engage their curiosity.

How strange, then, to find that suddenly the buzziest forthcoming title of the season is an enigma, one without an announced title or author, its cover a blank space waiting to be filled. On Amazon, the book in question appears as “4C Untitled Flatiron Nonfiction Summer 2023 Hardcover,” with a byline that reads “Flatiron Author to be Revealed July 2023.” Even the release date – July 9 – is puzzling. That, the curious have noted, is a Sunday, and books are almost always released on Tuesdays. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post.)

Despite this factual void – or perhaps because of it – the book is proving to be a hit. On Tuesday, Variety reported that the $45 volume had risen as high as No. 2 on Amazon’s mercurial books bestseller chart and was similarly dominant on Barnes & Noble’s site.

Those purchases seem to have been driven by a group of close, sometimes even obsessive, readers: Swift’s fans, who have convinced themselves that the singer-songwriter is the book’s yet-to-be-revealed author.

These theories are wrong, Variety argued, but that hasn’t stopped the faithful.

Fan speculation about the book’s origins ballooned last weekend, reportedly starting with a TikTok video from the Good Neighbor Bookstore in Lakewood, N.Y., about a mysterious book that might have Swift ties. Then a screenshot of a message to booksellers surfaced, noting the unusual Sunday release date, promising that more information would be available June 13 and disclosing that the book was expected to have a first print run of 1 million copies. This sent Swiftie social media into overdrive – something that huge had to be by a celebrity, they figured, and July 9 is a significant day for Swift fans because of a lyric in her 2010 ballad “Last Kiss.” And 13 is of special importance in the Swiftverse, not least because the singer calls it her lucky number.

That game of social media telephone soon spread, and the speculation found its way onto other platforms. (As one representative tweet put it: “What’s the most unhinged thing you’ve done because of Taylor Swift? I pre-ordered a book I know nothing about on the SLIGHT chance it’s her memoir.”) Maria Betts, 21, saw her Tumblr post take off when she called attention to an Instagram post from Blacksburg Books in Blacksburg, Va., about the mysteriousness of the title. While the bookstore’s post was vague – allowing only that “we have our guesses” – Betts added the caption: “All i’m saying is this does feel like a Swift thing to do.”

Betts said she first spotted the store’s Instagram on a Swift fan Discord server and was intrigued. “I think the most compelling piece of evidence was the release date, because who releases a book on a Sunday?” she told the Washington Post in an email. “I’m really intrigued to see what this mystery book ends up being, and even if our theories are wrong, you just have to laugh and put the memory in the folder of ‘times I really loved being a Swiftie.’ ”

After all, being a part of the extensive and deeply loyal Swift fandom means constantly hunting for clues because the pop megastar has spent her entire career leaving “Easter eggs” in her work – whether she’s hiding coded messages in her lyrics about the subject of a song or using numerology to drop hints about an upcoming project. Swifties have been trained and encouraged by the singer to analyze and theorize about everything.

The timing was impeccable because fans were primed for another big theory. On May 5, Swift confirmed months of online speculation when she surprised a sold-out stadium crowd in Nashville by announcing that “Speak Now (Taylor’s Version)” – the next album in her quest to rerecord her first six albums after a dispute with her former record label – would be released on July 7.

In her social media announcement about the “Speak Now” rerelease, Swift used the phrase “Dear Reader,” which is, yes, the title of a track from her latest album, “Midnights” … but also could suggest a book. One fan even dug up Swift’s liner notes from the original “Speak Now,” in which she refers to a book.

Variety noted that some of the speculation derives from the fact that the digits in the announced page count of “4C Untitled” – 544 – add up to 13.

Soon after the investigative fervor began to build, Blacksburg Books deleted its Instagram post, and Good Neighbor Books deleted its TikTok video, both in response to requests from Flatiron. While Blacksburg Books’ first post hadn’t made any clear claims about the book’s nature, its Monday follow-up was almost conciliatory, noting, “We were asked by the publisher to take down that post, which we did.”

In a phone interview on Wednesday afternoon, Ellen Woodall, manager of Blacksburg Books, explained that she initially saw speculation about the title on Facebook groups for independent booksellers.

“I didn’t pay much attention, but then a customer actually found it on the Macmillan website,” Woodall said. (Macmillan Books owns Flatiron.) The customer was “speculating about the date and the page numbers, so I thought it might be fun to throw it out there and see what our followers thought it was.”

Woodall, who acknowledged that Blacksburg Books has “a lot of Swifties on staff,” again stressed that she has no idea who the book’s actual author is. “We’ve had a fantastic time watching all the speculation occur, but we’re not engaging in it,” she said. The store has also canceled preorders of the book that came in.

Bob Lingle of Good Neighbor Bookstore, who posted the now-deleted TikTok, also said over the phone that he’d learned about the possible connection through bookseller Facebook groups. After he posted his video, he was inundated with preorders, accumulating more than 100, all of which he, like Blacksburg Books, subsequently canceled when he learned that the book probably wasn’t what he’d thought it was. The experience was ultimately a disappointing one for him, since surprise releases often play to the advantage of larger retailers.

”Publishers on their time will put out what the book is, and generally, with Amazon having control of the market, people will just rush to Amazon to place their order,” he said. This time, he said, he thought, “Well, if I can get ahead of this one, maybe it will be worth it. And it wasn’t.”

”I hope that other publishers see this and realize, ‘If we do this it could become a nightmare,’” Lingle said. “Just tell us what the book is.”

Flatiron did not respond to multiple requests for comment by email and phone. Swift’s representative also did not respond to a request for comment.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the mystery title had slipped to No. 34 on Amazon’s bestseller charts – still an impressive feat for a book with a heavily pixelated “No image available” logo in place of a cover.

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