Siân Harper had never heard of best-selling author J.D. Barker until an email promoting his new erotic thriller, Behind a Closed Door, landed in her inbox in the early hours of January 24. The U.K.-based content creator, who goes by @booksofaginger on TikTok, often works with authors to make promotional content and is offered advanced review copies of upcoming titles. But immediately after reading Barker’s note, she messaged her friends: “I just got the weirdest email.”
The message, which was sent from Barker’s email address and reviewed by the Cut, solicited content creators to make “racy” sponsored videos to promote the novel, described as a “sexually charged dark thriller” and “50 SHADES meets David Fincher’s THE GAME.” The email suggested creators make a video with “A camera pan up or down the body using only the book to cover up your naughty bits,” or a video answering, “Where is the most taboo place you’ve ever had sex?,” in exchange for payment. The email included tiered pay rates based on follower count, starting at $100 for creators with 3,000 to 5,000 users and going upwards of $2,400 for those with more than 700,000 followers. “Barker will personally review each video and either approve it (triggering payment) or offer suggestions to get it approved,” read the email, which was signed by “Julia” of the publicity firm Best of BookTok, which Barker co-founded. “Once approved, you’re free to post.”
Harper told the Cut she was surprised she had been contacted, given she doesn’t typically review thrillers. It also struck her as unusual that the email included rates up front, because she had typically negotiated payment one on one with a publicist, author, or publisher. But she found the video idea prompts the most jarring. “This is a business relationship,” she says. “It’s completely inappropriate to suggest the kind of things that he was suggesting.” That evening, Harper decided to post about the email on TikTok. “Can authors not be fucking creeps in 2024?” she said in a video, before giving a quick rundown of the message she had received, though without mentioning Barker by name.
Dozens of BookTokers quickly replied in the comments that they had received the same email. Many of them are creators who focus on the romance and fantasy genres, including reviewing what users call “spicy” books, or erotica-leaning novels. Among them was Amanda Zarb, who goes by @amanda_nicoletta on the platform. “Nothing about what I’ve ever posted would make it even slightly possible that I would be comfortable with these prompts,” she says. “And it is interesting that the majority of people who received this email were women. That doesn’t feel like a coincidence to me.”
Zarb says that while she’s never done paid partnerships before, she knows that it’s common for brands and authors to review the content before it is published. She was concerned that nothing in the email clarified what would be done with the material if it wasn’t approved. “There was no guarantee that if my video wasn’t accepted after sending it to him, it was gonna get deleted,” she says. “There were no safety measures put in place. I think that was why a lot of us went online and started talking about it — because it was a safety risk.” Tricia, an Oklahoma-based BookToker who mainly posts about romance books by independent authors under the handle @thesmutfairy, also felt the email came across as predatory, especially as it included rates that could influence whether younger creators or creators with a smaller audience participated. “There’s a lot of BookTokers who are starting out and are like, Man, I would love to get paid to make videos,” she says. “He had the tiers, and people who don’t have a lot of followers yet could instantly be like, Oh my God, this is normal. I can make money doing this— $100 for this easy video.”
On January 25, Barker sent creators a follow-up email, which the Cut also reviewed, saying the previous message had been sent by an outside PR firm and that he did not approve it. “We are working with influencers on multiple social media campaigns and while some of those influencers have suggested racier posts to tie in with the theme of the book, that is not the heart of the campaign,” the email read. “The individual who edited this message chose to include these racier suggestions while editing out the others. Again, that was not the intent of the campaign. Had I seen this message before it went out, I would have stopped it.” Barker said that the outside firm no longer had access to his email address. “I apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused you,” he concluded.
Barker, his publisher Hampton Creek Press, and Best of BookTok did not respond to the Cut’s requests for comment. In a statement to the Washington Post, Simon & Schuster — which distributes Hampton Creek Press’s books — said, “We were horrified to learn of this campaign, and of course thoroughly disapprove of this outrageous and irresponsible promotion attempt from our distribution client.” Barker’s agent, Alec Shane, told Publishers Weekly that he had dropped him as a client owing to the incident.
In a follow-up statement posted on X on January 26, Barker issued another apology. “I have nothing but the deepest respect for women. I’m a husband. I’m a father,” he said. “There is no excuse for the insensitivity demonstrated by my actions. The weight created by those actions is inexcusable. I can and will do better.”
Harper was not convinced by Barker’s explanation and was particularly peeved by his suggestion that it was other creators who’d pitched the ideas for racy posts to promote the novel. “There’s so much work that goes into how books are marketed. There’s not just one person typing out an email and sending it and that was a mistake,” she says. (Kaye Publicity, which also represented Barker, told the Post that the agency did not know about the email before it was sent and that it has severed ties with Barker.)
But the creators were most infuriated by the underlying assumption of the original request: that because they create content about “spicy” books, they’d be down to get freaky on the internet themselves. “People look at romance readers like all we wanna read about is sex and all we want to do is market sex,” Tricia says. While there are BookTok creators who’ll post racy videos like the ones suggested in the email, which Tricia has no issue with, she feels soliciting her to make this type of content, when nothing on her page indicates she’d do it, was in poor taste. Zarb agreed. “The final prompt was like, ‘What’s the most taboo place you’ve had sex?’” Zarb says. “An author had never asked me that. I was hoping an author never would.” The silver lining of this disturbing incident, as Zarb sees it, is how quickly BookTok banded together to say the suggestive spon-con ask was not okay, demonstrating once again the power her corner of the internet holds IRL. “BookTok is one of the most accepting communities I’ve been a part of,” she says. “I’d hate for people to not see the great side of this community because of a few bad seeds.”