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.