New York Times bestselling author J.D. Barker is facing professional fallout and online backlash after several TikTok creators said they were encouraged to make sexually suggestive videos to promote his upcoming erotic thriller novel.
Siân Harper and Marissa Bologna — two creators who are an active part of the literary community on TikTok known as BookTok — told NBC News they received an email on Tuesday from a literary public relations firm Best of BookTok, which Barker confirmed is owned by him. The email, a copy of which was reviewed by NBC News, was sent on behalf of Barker. It included suggestions that the creators show “something racy,” use “only the book to cover up your naughty bits” and share “the most taboo place you’ve ever had sex” to promote Barker’s “Behind a Closed Door.”
It’s unclear how many people received the email — but Harper and Bologna were among several creators who shared it online.
BookTok has become a popular vessel for authors to promote their new releases. It is not uncommon for publishers or authors to pay creators to share their books. However, many found the promotional suggestions for Barker’s upcoming novel to be unusual and demeaning. Some described them as creepy and a form of sexual harassment.
In an email statement to NBC News, Barker said he is “horrified such a message was released.”
“This campaign was never approved,” Barker wrote. “The email wasn’t meant to go out without a substantial rewrite, but through a chain of errors, it did. I take full responsibility for that.”
In a follow-up email sent to influencers on Thursday, which NBC News reviewed, he wrote that the first email “was sent by one of the many PR firms I hired to promote my latest title.”
Dana Kaye, founder of Kaye Publicity, which was handling some publicity outreach for the new book, said her company “did not do any influencer outreach or marketing.”
“We did not have any knowledge that this email was being sent out and as soon as we became aware, we severed ties with JD Barker,” Kaye said in an email. Barker did not respond to a follow-up request for comment about the news.
Barker’s latest release is described in the email as a “sexually charged dark thriller” featuring a couple that gets “caught up in a twisted web of seduction and violence.”
A spokesperson for Simon & Schuster, which is distributing the book, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday.
Barker said in his follow-up to creators that some influencers he’s working with to promote the book “have suggested racier posts to tie in with the theme of the book.” In a statement to NBC News, he pointed out that the first email said, “The content of the video is entirely up to you.”
Harper, who is known as booksofaginger online, shared the email to her followers on Wednesday in a TikTok that received over 268,000 views. In an interview, Harper said that she was “grossed out” by the email and felt that it was “asking women to use their bodies to sell his book.”
“If that’s the kind of content that you want to make, I will support you for making your own choices,” Harper said. “The issue comes when it’s men viewing women’s bodies as a commodity that they can buy and then sell.”
She said that while people of different genders and ages received the email, the pitches seemed to be aimed at women. Harper said the email was inappropriate, especially because the relationship between creators and publishers is a professional one.
“If you went to work and your boss was like, ‘Take your top off and I’ll pay you,’ that would be completely inappropriate,” Harper said. “It wouldn’t fly.”
Bologna, known as marissaisbooked online, echoed this sentiment. She said that people often forget that content creators are professionals and should be treated with the same level of respect as other workers.
They both took issue with the fact that the email said the posts would be “personally reviewed” by Barker before being approved for sharing. Harper said “there’s no security on where these videos end up,” based on the information in the emails.
Bologna said it “just feels really odd and, frankly, kind of creepy to me, given that the suggestions were sexualized suggestions.”
Both creators said they did not feel that the follow-up email sent by Barker addressed the issues raised by people online. They felt he had shifted the blame onto others, as the email said the message was sent by an undisclosed PR firm and stated some influencers had previously suggested “racier posts.” They also noted that the only apology in the second email said, “I apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused you.”
“What essentially equates to sexual harassment is just being like sort of pushed off as an inconvenience that he was not at fault for,” Bologna said.
In his email statement to NBC News, Barker said, “I deeply regret the hurt I’ve caused to those who received it. I have nothing but respect for the writing community and the people who champion it and I’ve let all of you down.”
“There is no excuse for the insensitivity demonstrated by my actions,” he added. “The weight created by those actions is inexcusable. I can and will do better. The written word is something I cherish. Words have a power. And sometimes they can hurt more than the most dangerous weapon. Knowing I’ve wielded that weapon and injured is something that will weigh on me for the remainder of my days. If you were impacted by this, I am truly sorry.”