Q:Hey John, I was just wondering what your explanation was for asserting yourself and appearing to be a very forward-thinking writer and I guess general social rights advocate, but yet you heavily play into the troped ideal of what's essentially the manic pixie dream girl, not to mention romanticizing extreme illness & suicide to your very young and definitely impressionable reader base.
Have the people who constantly accuse me of this stuff read my books? Paper Towns is devoted IN ITS ENTIRETY to destroying the lie of the manic pixie dream girl; the novel ends (this is not really a spoiler) with a young woman essentially saying, “Do you really still live in this fantasy land where boys can save girls by being romantically interested in them?”I do not know how I could have been less ambiguous about this without calling the novel The Patriarchal Lie of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Must Be Stabbed in the Heart and Killed.
When do I romanticize mental illness (or physical illness) in my novels? Pudge romanticizes Alaska in LfA, but the novel discusses in detail the way that his failure to imagine her complexly proves so disastrous to him and to her.
Who is made more special than they otherwise would be by illness? The characters in TFiOS talk about this fetishization of the ill constantly and with considerable vitriol. If I were hearing this from actual chronically ill people, it’d be one thing, but instead I’m hearing it from people who literally only seem to have read plot summaries. (Witness, for instance, the Daily Mail’s “sick-lit” article, in which no one who is quoted even pretends to have actually read the book they feel so comfortable attacking.)
The other attack going viral on tumblr at the moment is that I write novels about broken people who need saving, and that this encourages the romanticization of brokenness. Well, maybe there are wholly self-sufficient unbroken people who are able to thrive in complete isolation, succeeding solely by the sweat of their own Randian brows, but those are not the people I know or am interested in writing about. So yeah. I write about broken people who need other people in order to go on. But those are the only kind of people I know to exist. We are all broken. We all depend upon each other for support and compassion. That web of interconnected yearning and need is essential to my understanding of human experience, and I don’t find celebrating it problematic.
There are a lot of weaknesses in my books! I am not that great of a writer. I am happy to acknowledge these weaknesses: I tell too much and show too little. My plots are thin. I’m too fond of turning phrases. Imagistic stuff gets fogged up by inconsistent usage, especially in my first few novels. I care too much about ideas and not enough about story. There’s a kind of emotional disengagement in my work, like I’m always trying to make you conscious of the fact that this is a fiction and look at all the things this fiction is doing, which leads to people seeing the strings on the puppets and feeling pulled out of the narrative. They can get thematically obvious and repetitive (as when I disembowel the evil construction of the manic pixie dream girl twelve ways to Sunday in Paper Towns).
But all this crap about how I fetishize brokenness and lift up misogynistic constructions of young women and romanticize suicide is just (I think) totally unfair.
Books belong to their readers and you can do whatever you want with my stories. But I am super tired of being accused of contributing to suicidal ideation among young people. That’s a very serious and hurtful thing to say.
Sorry, I usually wouldn’t even reply to this stuff, but it floats around tumblr with tens of thousands of notes and that’s really frustrating to see and also I just got oral surgery so my mouth hurts so I’m cranky.
Follow-up to Yesterday’s Post about The Fault in Our Stars
Yesterday I posted about why I think The Fault in Our Stars has sold so well, and there were hundreds of very interesting responses. Among them:
1. Valerie2776 pointed out that the mechanics of sharing online changed tremendously between 2008 and 2012, which meant that TFiOS’ first readers (fans of my previous books and/or nerdfighters, mostly) could respond to the book in a public way (on tumblr and twitter especially) that just didn’t exist in the same way in 2008 when Paper Towns came out.
This also reminded me that both Paper Towns and WGWG had under 5,000 preorders, whereas TFiOS had something like 65,000 (primarily because I signed all the preorders*) so the initial activation energy was much larger. So there were both more people talking about the book and more places online to be heard talking about the book.
2. Jutze (who wrote the brilliant 52-second song The Fault in the Fault in Our Stars) pointed out that in fact there was in fact a statistically significant decline in goodreads ratings in the past six months, although a relatively small one.
Publishers take note: You should hire this guy to do quant analysis. Anyway, if you’re wondering why Amazon bought goodreads….this is why.
3. Many people argued the The Fault in Our Stars is just BETTER than my other books. I think this is probably true, and certainly the data agrees: The overall goodreads ratings:
The Fault in Our Stars - 4.52 - 234,000 ratings
Looking for Alaska - 4.26 - 152,000 ratings
Paper Towns - 4.13 - 84,000 ratings
Katherines - 3.87 - 60,000 ratings
How strong is the correlation between number of readers (as represented by number of ratings) and overall rating? I don’t know. You’ll have to ask Jutze. But there certainly is a correlation (and consistently, every week, TFiOS sells better than Alaska which sells better than Paper Towns which sells better than Katherines)**.
Publishers take note:After you hire someone to do quantitative analysis, you can find books on your backlist that are beloved but selling less than they should and then market them more aggressively.
4. Jemappellery points out, “I want to read this book again. I need to buy another copy, though, because my aunt’s dog threw up on mine.” This is also an important component of my sales strategy.
5. Genre. till-therewas-you points out that people like romantic tragedies, which has been true for quite some time. My previous books were less genre-conscious. Alaska is a boarding school novel, but that is a less well-established genre.
6. And lastly, toloveandlivejess points out “another factor is the thyca community." (Thyroid cancer survivors.) So have many young people living with cancer and their families have supported the book. This has really surprised me, but I am grateful for it. It means a lot to me personally, but on a purely professional level, it speaks to the power that niche communities have today to make a book/movie/vlog/game successful. Whether it’s nerdfighteria or book clubs or the online network of thyroid cancer survivors, communities matter.
* Except those of you living in the UK/Germany. SORRY.
** Of course statistical analysis can’t reflect passion or enthusiasm or quantify the importance of a book to someone. People on average may like Katherines less than my other books, but the people who do like it often feel a deep connection to it, which is wonderful and I’m in no way trying to say that sales are the only (or even the best) measure of value. I’m just trying to put together some thoughts on what shapes sales.
Why Has The Fault in Our Stars Been So Successful?
The Fault in Our Stars is my fourth (4.5th?) novel, and it has found a very wide readership. I often get questions asking what my secret is, or why the book has been successful, and then of course there are also lots of people out there speculating about the reasons for the book’s success.
So I thought I’d try to add what I can to the conversation. I’m interested in the question partly because I want to see more YA books find broad readerships and partly because I want to understand why this book has done so much better than my previous novels (although they are now, happily, riding on TFiOS’s coattails).
1. The Fault in Our Stars is NOT successful primarily because I am famous on the Internet. I know this because I was famous on the Internet when Paper Towns was published, and also when Will Grayson, Will Grayson was published. (TFiOS has almost a million copies in print; Paper Towns sold perhaps 4% as much in its first year.) Having the built-in audience of nerdfighteria is tremendously important to me and to my work, but both Paper Towns and WGWG sold less in hardcover than Looking for Alaska, which was published when I was entirely unknown online.
For many reasons—partly because I’d built a readership over the past six years, partly because I signed the entire first print run—TFiOS had far more preorders than my previous novels. But when you have the kind of regular relationship with your audience that I do, pretty much 100% of that built-in fan base buys your book within the first month.* It’s not something they find browsing at a bookstore three months later, as shown by the huge drop-off in sales for Paper Towns and WGWG. Why did this not happen with TFiOS? I think for a few reasons, which I’ll discuss below.
(Some people will say that I have a broader audience online now than I did in 2008 or 2010. True, but social media is generally much more crowded and fractured. Like, the video I made announcing the cover of Paper Towns got more views than the video I made announcing the cover of TFiOS, for instance.)
I do think the initial goodwill that nerdfighters showed the book—streaming onto amazon and goodreads to give the book positive reviews—probably helped the book begin to reach outside the community. But this also raises a critical point, which is that on average nerdfighters seem to like The Fault in Our Stars almost exactly as much as what I will call for lack of a better term “regular people.” We have pretty good data here thanks to goodreads, where more than 130,000 people have now rated The Fault in Our Stars. The average rating of the first 50,000 goodreads raters (who are more likely to be nerdfighters) is almost identical to the average rating of the most reading 50,000 goodreads raters (who are less likely to be nerdfighters). The same is true on amazon, where the book’s average rating has actually gone up a bit in the past six months (although not in a statistically significant way).
So while the enthusiasm of early readers, who tended to be nerdfighters, gave the book tremendous activation energy, it could’ve gone the way of Paper Towns and WGWG—books that did well and found wonderful readerships but almost immediately fell off bestseller lists. Instead, 72 weeks after publication, it’s still at #1.
2. The Fault in Our Stars has not been successful because I am male. I hear this a lot, and I just don’t think it’s true, except insofar as I have a bunch of privileges. (I am also cisgendered and heterosexual and grew up in the United States and write in English and graduated from college without debt and so on.) I think there is sexism in the critical discourse surrounding YA books and in many cases with how books are marketed. (The marketing problem is I think largely born from two incorrect beliefs still widely held in some corners of YA publishing: first, that young men do not purchase books and can never be convinced to, and second, that young women enjoy being condescended to.)
For one thing, I was also male when I wrote my other novels, none of which came close to the commercial or critical success of The Fault in Our Stars. Also, the other breakout non-series, realistic children’s titles of 2012 were Wonder and Out of My Mind, both written by women.
The truth is, no YA novel has ever been chosen as the best fiction book of the year by TIME Magazine**, or appeared on so many adult-oriented best-of-the-year lists (Entertainment Weekly, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, etc.). Did this happen because TFiOS is the best YA book ever? No. It means that someone got a bunch of adult literary critics to read a YA novel that those adult literary critics really liked. This someone is named Elyse Marshall. (More on her in a moment.)
The other oft-repeated line here is that The Fault in Our Stars got a cool, literary cover because I’m a guy, and if I’d been female it would’ve had a pink cover with a decpitated girl head. And it might have, if I’d been a female first novelist with someone other than Julie Strauss-Gabel as my editor. (More on her in a moment.)
SO WHY DO I THINK THE FAULT IN OUR STARS HAS BEEN SO EXTRAORDINARILY SUCCESSFUL?
1. People like it. This tends to be underappreciated, I think. As noted above, in the last few years we’ve gotten access to really rich data about readers’ tastes and opinions, which can be tremendously useful. With more than 233,000 ratings, TFiOS's average rating of 4.52 is very high compared to comparable titles. (It’s worth noting that other breakout nonseries fiction titles—from Wonder to The Book Thief to Out of My Mind almost always have average ratings above 4.30, which is very high for goodreads.)
I don’t know why people like The Fault in Our Stars, but they do, and they seem to like it enough to recommend it to their friends and family.
2. I have the best editor in YA publishing and have been working with her for nine years.
Obviously I’m biased, but I think Julie Strauss-Gabel is the best editor and publisher in young adult lit today. In the past 12 months, she has published New York Times bestsellers by Adam Gidwitz, Gayle Foreman, John Grisham, Ally Condie, and me. Her books are also critically acclaimed; in fact, I don’t know the last time she published a book that didn’t get any starred reviews. (2009, maybe?)
This is not because Julie has great taste; it is because she is a great editor who makes the books she works on far better than they would otherwise be. And because we’ve worked together for nine years, we have a great deal of trust in each other’s judgement. This is true when it comes to editorial decisions within the book; it’s also true when it comes to publishing decisions.
For instance, when I said, “Julie, I want to sign the whole first printing,” she didn’t say, “That will be expensive and very complicated” (although it was both). She said, “Yes.”
And when she said, “I think we should publish the book in January,” even though that defied all the conventional wisdom about when to publish a Big Book, I said yes.
And about that cover: Many people wanted TFiOS to have a broadly commercial YA-ish, girl-oriented cover. Julie really believed in something graphic and minimalist that would look different from other books on the YA shelf and would also lend itself to visual remixes and fan-driven creations. Although the brilliant sales and marketing team at Penguin were hesitant, they trusted Julie’s judgement. That’s why the cover exists.
3. My entire backlist is with the same publishing house.
This largely goes down to good luck, but since everything I’ve ever written was published by Dutton, it’s easier to work with bookstores and bookselling web sites to create displays and package deals and stuff. This sounds like a small matter, but in fact it has been critically important (and the biggest reason why the sales of TFiOS have lifted the sales of my other books so much). It has been much harder, for instance, for Scholastic, which published Markus Zusak’s brilliant I Am the Messenger to capitalize on the success of The Book Thief, which was published by Random House.
4. Elyse Marshall is my publicist.
So I assume the reason TIME Magazine and USA Today and Entertainment Weekly chose The Fault in Our Stars as one of the best books of the year is because critics there did think very highly of the book. But Elyse is the reason they read it in the first place. If they don’t read it, they don’t review it. Thousands of books come out every year; as a reviewer, it’s very hard to figure out what to read and review, and it’s easy to dismiss YA novels, particularly if you are Serious Real Book Reviewer. Elyse did an amazingly good job of convincing people to read TFiOS.
She also organized an improbably successful book tour by working with many of the best independent bookstores in the country. The tour sold more than 11,000 copies of The Fault in Our Stars and Elyse was able to do this while still adhering to my annoying restriction that we do the entire thing without flying.
5. Penguin just happens to the best right now.
Power shifts quickly in publishing, but there’s little question that under the leadership of Don Weisberg, Felicia Frazier, and Jennifer Loja, Penguin has emerged as the most effective publishing house in YA. I also think Penguin has the best sales team, and it helps that I’ve known most of those people personally for eight years. Penguin has always been very good at facilitating relationships and collaborations between authors and employees.
6. My readers are evangelists.
I don’t know why, but if you scroll through the Looking for Alaska or TFiOS tags on tumblr, you see a lot of people screaming at their friends to read my books, and making art about the books, and animating quotations from them, and so on. I am just really lucky in this respect. I do not understand this, and I wish I did, because I’d like to see it happen more often with more books.
So that’s why I think The Fault in Our Stars has had such an extraordinary year, but I’m interested to know what you think.
* I can more or less prove this, because we tracked clickthroughs on affiliate links. We know exactly how many people clicked through to the TFiOS page on Amazon, indiebound, or B&N and ended up buying a book. Within two weeks of the book’s publication, the numbers dropped to literally single digits, which meant that almost none of the people who follow me on YouTube or twitter or tumblr were buying the book from my link. This continued until Hank and I just stopped linking to the book in mid-February.
** It’s worth noting that among TIME’s Top 10 was Catherynne Valente’s brilliant The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There. To me this kind of stuff is just good news for children’s and YA publishing, no matter who it happens to, because it allows us to expand our reach both to adults and to teens who think they dislike YA books because they don’t yet realize the breadth of contemporary YA lit.
Great video from shessomickey about the challenges and rewards of advertisements, and how advertising revenue (from, say, giraffe sex videos) can finance the creation of other things (like Thoughts from Places videos).
I believe in capitalism, to be clear. Without capitalism, we’d never have tumblr or YouTube, because both had huge start-up and maintenance costs before they could become self-sustaining. (Tumblr still isn’t self-sustaining; YouTube supposedly is, although google doesn’t break it down publicly).
I don’t feel bad taking money from advertisers, and I’m not opposed to advertising. But I do think advertisers dramatically undervalue expensive, time-consuming projects like CGP Grey’s channel and also Crash Course (which is not financially sustainable through advertising). They also undervalue metric-averse platforms like tumblr. And most problematically, ads undervalue creators like shessomickey, who have hundreds of passionate and dedicated viewers but make at most a handful of dollars per video.
I’d pay $5 a month to support shessomickey, and there are probably a hundred people like me. That means that YouTube ads are undervaluing her relationship with her audience by a factor of around 100. Capitalism tells us, then, that we have a very inefficient market on our hands.
We’re not going to remove advertising from life or from YouTube. I don’t want to. I want to create an NPR Model for YouTube, one where people can CHOOSE to support the content creators they like and value without being threatened by a paywall. I think a lot of people will choose to support big projects like Crash Course, and I think a lot of people will choose to support individuals like Shessomickey, who may not have a gajillion subscribers but do make content that small but passionate audiences find important and valuable.
It’s kind of like being a Liverpool FC fan. I know I don’t HAVE to give the club money in order to be a fan. But I’m not just a fan: I’m a supporter. I buy home and away jerseys every year, partly so that I can wear them, but also partly because I know that money goes to club and helps pay the salaries of the players and the maintenance and training and grounds staff.
(p.s. I’ll be posting a series of “#wall of text” posts about boring video and publishing business stuff in advance of my leave [wife is expecting a baby soon]. This is the first one.)