Soon after Royal Caribbean’s Serenade of the Seas set sail, on December 10, for a nine-month “ultimate world cruise” that will visit 65 countries and all seven continents, a large swath of TikTok users became obsessed with its voyage—and what drama might unfold onboard. One of those TikTok users was Marc Sebastian, a model and influencer with 1.6 million followers.

From the start, the cruise was a content mill, with a bevy of influencers and other TikTok personalities filming and posting their every waking moment aboard the ship. Users, according to data provided to PW by TikTok, have flocked to watch: #9monthcruise has received 147.9 million global views in the last year, all following the cruise’s departure, and #ultimateworldcruise received 294 million global views over the same period—a roughly 1,224,900% increase from the year before—with 292.7 million of those views occurring since it embarked.

On December 20, Sebastian posted a video conveying his desperation to secure passage on the Serenade and broadcast its goings-on. “Put me on the cruise—I’ll go!” he said. “If you pay for one section, I will cause chaos, I will wreak havoc—and I’ll report everything.” The plea has since garnered more than 7.5 million views.

One week later, on December 27, Sebastian informed his followers that, courtesy of “a very unexpected and cool brand,” he would get his wish—and report back to his followers with all the “hot goss.” This unnamed sponsor had paid for him to stay 18 nights, and his destination would be Antarctica.

Sebastian boarded the Serenade on January 5. That same day, he revealed the identity of his corporate benefactor: Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.

“Do you like to read?” he says in the video. “I don’t. But maybe I could… On this cruise I’m gonna read a book.” A hashtag appears overhead: #marcreadsabook. The video then cuts to Sebastian sitting next to a stack of books, including Fredrik Backman’s Anxious People, Alison Cochrun’s The Charm Offensive, Zakiya Dalila Harris’s The Other Black Girl, and Lisa Jewell’s None of This Is True.

“Atria sent me here with eight different titles, and you get to choose my adventure,” he says, noting that it’s “completely up to you” which one he’ll read as part of an interactive “World Cruise Book Club.” On its own TikTok page, Atria encouraged its 20.2K followers to comment on Sebastian’s videos with suggestions of which book he should read. (Currently, Atria’s TikTok bio reads: “yes, we sent him on the cruise.”)

The next day, from his cabin, with a branded Atria “HOT PEOPLE READ BOOKS” knapsack draped over the couch behind him, Sebastian announced that Will Dean’s 2020 thriller The Last One was the winning book. (Publishing PR veteran Kathleen Schmidt astutely noted in her e-newsletter that not only does the novel take place on a cruise liner, but it’s also the only one of the eight that did not receive robust media coverage upon publication, throwing into question whether the vote may have been rigged.) One user commented, “this sponsorship made me want to actually read ty.” Sebastian hosted a discussion of the book on January 11 on TikTok Live, an event that was cross-promoted on both his and Atria’s TikTok accounts.

The sponsorship has upset some users on BookTok, the app’s bookish community. Why should Sebastian, who by his own admission doesn’t even like to read, get to take a vacation on a publisher's dime? And why should Atria be courting his followers, presumably not readers themselves, rather than the devoted bookworms who actually know what Atria is?

“We publish books for people who read many books a year, and people who read one book a year,” an Atria representative told PW in a statement. “We hope seeing Marc, who is not normally a reader, pick up a book in real time, will inspire others to start reading too.” Encouraging casual reading in nonreaders, rather than catering to the already-converted, seems to be the goal.

Sebastian himself responded to the criticism in a January 9 video. “Personally I’m really proud of myself that I helped come up with a really cool new marketing strategy that I think is pushing the needle forward on how we look at influencing and brand trips,” he said. “And I'm so lucky that a cool brand like Atria heard my pitch and went, ‘Yeah, this sounds cool,‘ let’s do this, let’s see how this goes.”

“No, I may not be the normal kind of influencer you may see doing a campaign like this, but fuck that,” he continued. “Why should I have to stay in my own lane because I don’t want to step on BookTok’s toes?”

Comments poured in: “To be fair, I didn’t know Atria Books existed before you”; “I literally looked into atria books because of you lol”; “I had also never heard of Atria Books before this and now I have and have respect for them so something must be working.”

Whether or not TikTok users previously recognized the imprint's name, Atria has been a dominant presence on the bestseller lists thanks in no small part to the platform. In 2023, books published by Atria accounted for a fifth of the year's 25 overall bestselling books. Among that number were three books by Colleen Hoover, whose It Ends with Us and It Starts with Us were the top two books in the country last year, selling a combined 2,537,204 print copies.

It's too early to tell if and how Atria’s investment—around $7,000 for the 18-day trip—has paid off financially. At outlets that report to Circana BookScan, book sales for The Last One saw only a small bump following the announcement that Sebastian would be reading it on the cruise. The week of the January 6 announcement, it sold 247 copies, while the previous week it sold 193—an increase of just 54 copies. (Sebastian's announcement has received 2.6 million views.) The other seven Atria books in the running for Sebastian's World Cruise Book Club all saw decreases in sales for the week of January 6.

But the marketing stunt has, at the very least, brought the publisher quantifiable visibility. According to TikTok, the #atriabooks hashtag received 98,000 global views between December 12 and January 15, and #thelastone has received 4.8 million views since the Serenade left port.