Is Sarah J Maas the next JK Rowling?

From The Independent:

The end of January, just before midnight. At a Barnes & Noble bookshop in New York, a woman with perfect hair slips through a crowd, dressed in all black and knee-high boots. “I grew up going to midnight release parties,” she confesses into her microphone. “I was a nerd back when it was not, like, cool to be a nerd. This was the dark times. This is when you were shoved into a locker or a trash can just for being a nerd. And I love that, now, you guys can be free.” Amassed before her, the emancipated “nerds” scream and whoop, as though in the presence of the messiah. But who is this chicly dressed liberator? Her name is Sarah J Maas, Manhattan-born fantasy author and bona fide publishing phenomenon.

This rock star reception from Maas’s readers has translated into major financial clout for her publishers, Bloomsbury. Last week it announced that the company’s profits are “significantly” ahead of expectations, in large part due to Maas and her exploding global following, news that pushed the publisher’s shares up by more than 9 per cent. House of Flame and Shadow, the book that merited worldwide midnight release parties and is the third installment in Maas’s raunchy urban Crescent City series, sold 44,761 copies in the UK in its first week, immediately making it the third fastest-selling sci-fi/fantasy book since records began. Maas, a leading force in the “romantasy” genre beloved by BookTok – in which fantasy tales are fused with steamy love stories – has sold nearly 40 million books, while TikTok posts about her work have been viewed over 14 billion times. Make no mistake: her impact on publishing is as tectonic as the orgasms being had by her half-human, half-faerie heroines.

Not since the rise of a speccy boy wizard with a scar on his forehead has Bloomsbury had such a massive hit on its hands. Could Maas be the new JK Rowling? The publisher’s CEO Nigel Newton tried to temper expectations when recently asked the question (Rowling has sold 600 million books since the first Harry Potter hit shelves in 1997), but couldn’t entirely conceal his excitement. “The bar is extremely high with JK Rowling, so one has to answer that question cautiously,” he told The Times. “All I can say is that the early signs are very good,” with Newton adding that “the signs of lift-off are similar”.

If you never venture onto TikTok and don’t stray into the fantasy section of Waterstones, Bloomsbury’s cheerful business update may be the first you’ve heard of Maas. But the author, 37, is not an overnight success. House of Flame and Shadow is her 16th book, its series the third she’s authored. Educated at the elite Hamilton College, Maas hails from a more comfortable background than Rowling, who was famously a broke single parent who wrote in cafes while her baby slept and needed a £8,000 grant from the Scottish Arts Council to finish book two. Maas began writing her first novel at the age of 16, before publishing it on a fanfiction website where she acquired her first set of devout readers; Bloomsbury picked her up in 2010. The company’s website features an extremely detailed reading guide for her various series’ and worlds, which can seem intimidating at first glance (“publication order” and “reading order” are two different things? No one’s brain works like that, surely).

Essentially, Throne of Glass, Maas’s eight-book first series, began as a feminist spin on Cinderella – what if she wasn’t a poor put-upon servant to her mean family, but an assassin? A Court of Thorns and Roses, or “Acotar” for fans, is a Beauty and the Beast-inspired fantasy romance, in which the archery-loving, Katniss Everdeen-esque heroine Feyre is banished to the horrible faerie lands and must live with a scary (but hot?) man in a mask. (Maas is currently working on a major TV adaptation for Hulu.) And Crescent City, comprised of three (800-plus page) books so far, is a more grown-up series, sweary and full of what’s euphemistically called “spice”. The series’ star is Bryce Quinlan, who is looking to avenge the murder of her friends in the divided kingdom of Midgard.

Maas’s books – described by Richard Osman this week as like “a porny Lord of the Rings” – certainly feel a far cry from the chaste first kiss between Harry and Cho Chang (yes, that really is what Rowling called an Asian character in 2000). And while Rowling’s books were more part of a British tradition of boarding-school tales such as Billy Bunter, with Maas more likely to mention Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Disney princesses as influences, the pair do share similarities.

Both have created worlds full of complicated caste systems, where lands are dominated by status and role, the privileged unmoved by the down at heel. And, notably, both were struck by inspiration on public transport. Rowling was famously on a train gazing out of a window when the idea for Harry Potter “just fell out of nowhere”. Maas happened to be on a plane listening to the soundtrack from the Sandra Bullock space movie Gravity when a climactic scene from what would become Crescent City popped into her head. More effusive and American, Maas said she burst into tears, telling The Bookseller, “I wound up putting my sweatshirt over my head and crouching down in my seat crying.”

. . . .

Maas has been criticised for her writing persona as a “pantser” – someone, basically, who writes by the seat of their pants. It’s something Stephen King is famous for (and perhaps why both he and Maas write chunky – arguably undisciplined – doorstoppers) and Rowling is not, always planning her books out on detailed grids. But while both Maas and Rowling are adored for their characters, storytelling and worldbuilding, both have received flak for their prose.

In 2000, writer Anthony Holden faced the wrath of 11-year-old readers when he lambasted Rowling’s “pedestrian, ungrammatical prose style which has left me with a headache”. For all her other successes, Maas’s prose won’t win her the Pulitzer.

Link to the rest at The Independent

Here’s a link to the Sarah J. Maas Author Page on Amazon

7 thoughts on “Is Sarah J Maas the next JK Rowling?”

  1. Also, the line about growing up in a time when nerds were being shoved into lockers is outrageously ahistorical. Maas was born in 1986–by the time she was of age to be shoved into a locker, the great nerd takeover of culture had already begun.

    Calling shenanigans on that one, too. I wish the fashion for victimhood would end already! I was a nerd; no one ever put me in a locker in the 90s. To be honest locker stuffing seemed more like something that happened to TV characters than real people. Perhaps my school was an aberration, but it was possible to be friends with people from all the social groups. High school just wasn’t a deadly court of intrigues with cheerleaders warring with the Quiz Bowl kids, or the jocks vs burnouts. It was much more dull than that. Small town life 🙂

    • Revenge of the Nerds came out in 1984 and nerd bashing was long gone by then, if it was ever real outside TV.

      As to “Nerd culture” computer literacy has been a life skill since 1980.
      Bill Gates became the richest man in 1995 and the world economy has revolved around tech since sometime in between those two dates. And just getting started.

      That is the true revenge of the nerds.

  2. Maas is kind of a big deal, and most authors would sacrifice their firstborn to get her sales numbers, but I think it’s a very telling indicator of the state of publishing that as of 2022, over the course of ten years she’d written eighteen books which had sold about twelve million copies between them, an average of nearly 700,000 copies per book, and is being hailed as the next JKR when Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows sold more than ten million copies on its release date.

    Also, the line about growing up in a time when nerds were being shoved into lockers is outrageously ahistorical. Maas was born in 1986–by the time she was of age to be shoved into a locker, the great nerd takeover of culture had already begun.

    • Publishers dream of another JK.

      Regardless of New York illusions, X-rated books don’t sell as well as G or PG books do.

      Parents and grandparents bought JK’s books for children, then got caught up in the world of wizarding themselves.

      • Exactly. Harry Potter came out around the time I graduated high school, so I didn’t care about it … until later in the college bookstore some middle aged people said they were having fun reading it to their kids. Then an acquaintance I mistakenly believed was my mother’s age — she was my age, but had loads of grey hair in her 20s for some reason — offered to loan me her copies.

        And I thought, well if all these old people like it, it’s probably a cut above other kids stories 🙂

        “Romantasy” for adults only is never going to sell as well as something that appeals to kids … and their parents and their aunts and uncles and grandparents. I suppose “The Princess Bride” could be slotted into the romantasy category; if Maas wrote something in that vein she probably could reach Rowling status.

  3. From the description, this sounds like more a successor to Fifty Shades of Grey than Harry Potter. And of very limited appeal to the demographic Harry Potter appealed to.

    • You’re not wrong. A more apt comparison would be to Jacqueline Susanne, bestselling author of The Valley of the Dolls, The Love Machine, and Once is Not Enough, all of which were #1 NYT bestsellers, quite spicy, and were criticized for their poor literary qualities. She would almost certainly have written more, but she was diagnosed with cancer in 1973, right after finishing Once is Not Enough, and died in 1974.

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