What Makes a Book Take Off? John Green’s ‘The Fault in Our Stars’
John Green’s YA (Young Adult) book the Fault in our Stars, ‘the story of Hazel Lancaster and Augustus Waters, two Indianapolis teenagers who meet at a Cancer Kid Support Group,’ has become a worldwide phenomenon, engendering heartfelt praise from critics and fans alike and has brought John Green and his previous books right into the spotlight.
Before The Fault in Our Stars John Green wrote Paper Towns, An Abundance of Katherines, Will Grayson, Will Grayson but it is only with this new book that he has become a New York Times bestseller. Why has this book taken off exponentially above the others? What makes a particular book seize the imagination of the general public and propel its author from comfortable relative obscurity to superstardom? John Green himself poses this question and attempts to answer it and it makes for very interesting reading.
From reading the responses of fans and the critical reviews of The Fault in Our Stars it becomes very quickly obvious that with this book Green has touched on something core and essential in our psyches; the combined ache of youth, love and our own mortality, and he’s done it it with comic realism rather than over-sentimentality. This particular story and its particular telling have ignited as sparks to make this book burn bright. But it’s the same author with the same skills as before, so what’s different here?
Much has been made of John Green’s use of social media such as YouTube (he is co-creator of the extremely popular channel vlogbrothers that has earned him a fan base of what he calls ‘nerdfighters.’ I’m quite certain that John Green’s aim for vlogbrothers was a genuine wish to give (food for thought to ‘nerdy’ teenagers who like books)rather than a cynical marketing tactic. But the fan base exists and already existed for his previous books and Green looks at how these people contributed or added up to the success of The Fault in our Stars and how it went further than that.
Green knows that this fan base are the likely buyers of his book in the first month of its release. What is interesting is how John is using what he calls the ‘really rich’ data from sites such as Goodreads to see what kind of ratings and who is rating his books, for example he was able to see that “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.” Knowing this, he can see that this book has struck a chord with people who are not fans of his YouTube channel. He says that data from these sites gives authors a good idea of the tastes and opinions of readers.
Green goes on to explore further reasons why his book was so successful. I’ve seen him elsewhere highly praise the work of the thousands of people in the publishing industry from editors to warehouse employees who help to send his books out into the world and make them a success. Here he cites the strength of his publishing house Penguin and the skills of his editor and publisher Julie Strauss-Gabel (she’s published many bestsellers). Through working together for many years (9) they have developed a level of trust and an instinct for what works and have come up with decisions that have no doubt helped the sales of the book (signing the entire first print run, for example and Strass-Gabel’s insistence on a minimal graphic cover. He also praises his publicist for getting him reviewed in Time Magazine and others and arranging an excellent book tour. That all his books were published by one imprint has helped them build up a momentum of contributory success.
From the data he can see that two weeks after the release of The Fault in Our Stars he was no longer selling books through affiliate links clicked on by his followers on his Youtube or Twitter channels. This is a key point for those of us hearing that social media is everything. Something else has to happen for a book to take off and reach the hearts and minds of readers who are not an author’s social media followers. It’s that ephemeral ‘Word of Mouth’ phenomenon again. Perhaps it goes back to The Fault in Our Stars tapping into something that a massive proportion of the population has felt at one time or another, something fundamental that reflects their experience of life, some truth which they feel compelled to pass on to others.
Alison Wells runs the Random Acts of Optimism blog and lives in Bray, Co. Wicklow with her husband and four children. Her short fiction been published in many magazines and online and print anthologies and she has been featured on Sunday Miscellany. Shortlisted for the Hennessy New Irish Writing Award, Bridport and Fish Prize's she has just completed a themed short story collection Random Acts of Optimism and a literary novel The Book of Remembered Possibilities. To read Alison's full blog, visit Head Above Water. Find out in her Random Acts of Optimism how she manages to juggle writing, children and life.