John Green has a fascinating post in which he discusses the success of THE FAULT IN OUR STARS and opens the topic up for conversation. This post has made me think about many things, among them the way we talk, in general, about the causality of a Book Becoming Really Big.
In general, when we use the word “because,” we could mean lots of things. Any sentence starting “This book is successful because…” could mean that what comes after the “because” is a contributing factor, a really important contributing factor, the deciding factor, or the only factor. This is an imprecision of our language, that you can use “because” and it can mean any of these things.
For example, I don’t think that when people say “that book is so successful because he’s a guy,” they are actually proposing causal models that look like this:
Or even like this:
I think the model most people are talking about is one in which each of those arrows has a probability coefficient of some kind over it (meaning that being male exerts some force over the likelihood of receiving, say, major press and specific types of in-house attention, which in turn has a weighted effect on the outcome). But even once you add in the probabilities, it’s still not much of a model of success, because it’s not even close to a comprehensive model of success.
But that’s okay! I do not think it’s meant to be a comprehensive model of success.
Most people probably do not believe that being male is both necessary and sufficient for having a book be really, really successful. I think many people are, however, interested in author gender as a contributing factor (a point I will return to later).
John seems to propose a model that looks a bit more like this:
(Note: John did not call his own book awesomesauce. I did, because I think it is).
(Also note: John’s model would really have a lot more squares and arrows, with a feedback loop for word-of-mouth, and some role for the initial support of readers, and so on, so it is actually way more complicated than this, but this was the last chart I made, and I was kind of charted out by that point, so use your imaginations and read John’s post to get a better idea of the nuances!).
This, on the surface, seems to be a pretty reasonable model for book success in general and also seems to have a great deal of application here. I think Penguin did some BRILLIANT things with TFIOS before publication, around publication, afterwards! And I think the evidence that the book resonates with readers and turns them into evangelists is very strong.
Anecdotally, I have experienced this first hand.
The Fault in Our Stars was my favorite book last year. I loved it. I immediately bought extra copies to give as gifts. I loaned my copy out (AND NEVER GOT IT BACK AND HAD TO ORDER ANOTHER ONE). I taught it this year in my YA class and got to watch my students’ reactions (direct quote: “I want to make everyone I know read this book. And maybe some people I don’t know, too.”)
I have, in fact, had conversations with people before where I have argued—strongly—that TFIOS (the text itself, independent of any factors outside of the book) can teach us a lot about what goes into inspiring word-of-mouth and what it takes to write a big book. I have occasionally countered the opposing view of “it’s just because of vlog brothers,” to which I have made pretty much the same argument that John makes in his post, regarding nerdfighteria accounting for the first months of sales, but not the degree to which the sales have been sustained thereafter.
I think there’s something missing (or at least, underestimated) in thinking of the causality of success as a bunch of factors with +’s in between them—and that is the interplay and relationship between the various factors themselves, at the various stages. I think it’s far more likely that success follows a cascade model, where prior circumstances feed into later circumstances, gathering speed like a waterfall!
(Note: John never said this doesn’t happen! But I wanted to stress how much I think it does happen).
So what does a causal model of book success really look like? Answer: probably way more complicated even than this chart (which is already kind of complicated, because it is the first one I made).
This shares a lot in common with what John says in his post—for instance, the huge importance of word of mouth (people loving the book and recommending it) to spread past the initial audience, as well as an acknowledgment of the key role played by that initial audience.
But there are a few aspects of all of this that I wanted to talk about more specifically, and they center on the fact that all of these factors are not connected with the word “and.” They build on each other, they influence and feed back to each other. And that means that altering any one factor—especially early in the cascade—has the potential to have a very, very large ripple effect.
It’s obvious, from looking at this chart, that if you take away the magic quality of the book itself that makes people want to hand it to others, the book is not on the Times list much past the first month.
But what I think is underestimated in John’s post is the effect that changing the stuff in the box at the top could have on the book’s long-term sales, too. Pre-orders aren’t just book sales. They can affect the way the book is viewed by accounts, the kind of placement it receives, the numbers it is stocked in, pre-publication buzz and press, visibility, and all of these things that (as John acknowledges) get the machine started!
But what you get from a cascade model, that you don’t from an “and” model, is that knocking out something at the beginning of the cascade doesn’t just give it a bit less gas in the engine. It can exert a substantial effect on everything that comes afterwards, potentially in a cascading/escalating way.
Meaning that it seems very reasonable to me to also suggest that if TFIOS had had first week and pre-order sales of, say 3,000 copies, and vlog brothers had never existed, the book quite possibly (maybe even probably) would not be on the Times list a year and a half later either. The people who read it would still love it, but with a lower starting visibility, the press and coverage, the long-term store space, the effectiveness of recommendations (because finding the book is so easy, it’s right there at the front of the store!) would all be affected… and who knows what that would do to ultimate sales levels, though it would surely do something.
In other words, I completely agree with John that without the incredible magical something of the book itself, TFIOS probably wouldn’t have sales much different from John’s other books.
But I also think there’s reason to suspect that without nerdfighteria, TFIOS might well have sales that more closely resemble—for instance—Code Name Verity’s. Very strong, continual seller that has a ton of longevity because people LOVE IT SO HARD AND MAKE OTHER PEOPLE READ IT, a super successful book by any measure… but not TFIOS-level sales.
The statements “that book is so successful because he’s an internet celebrity” and “that book is so successful because readers love it and want to share it with others” are not mutually exclusive. They refer to different points in the cascade. The former is perhaps more nebulous, given that the portion of the model it affects is a lot less cut and dry, but I definitely do not think you can use the truth of one to negate the other.
“That book is so successful… because of a variety of factors that come into play at different points in time and have interesting and complicated relationships with each other!” is a pretty general statement, with not a whole lot of meaning. Which means that if you are talking about the success of TFIOS, you are likely to focus on one aspect or another. So which aspect should you focus on?
Well, in my opinion, that depends on why you’re talking about it.
Are you interested in what a variety of books with supernova sales have in common, and maybe developing theories about what factors influence how likely a person is to rec a book and how passionately they do so?
Then it makes sense to look at the book itself. Concentrate on the bottom half of the chart, and there are so many interesting discussions to have there! (I have theories. Many theories. And TFIOS is one of those books that has greatly contributed to my understanding, both as a psychologist who studies fiction and as a writer).
Are you interested in how to effectively translate social media audience into book audience?
I think the signing of the first print run here was genius (for some pretty rich and interesting psychological reasons involving parasocial relationships, essentialism, and contagion, over and above the coolness of just having a signed book).
Or are you discussing TFIOS as part of a larger discussion on author gender and its relationship to marketing, push, publicity, and critical reception?
Because my general impression is that when people are discussing TFIOS and author gender, they’re not usually trying to diagnose the intricacies of TFIOS’s success. They’re discussing TFIOS as part of a larger discussion or series of discussions that stretches far beyond one book.
You’ll notice that gender is not currently part of the giant complicated diagram above. That’s because integrating it is REALLY COMPLICATED.
What’s the relationship (if any) between being male and being able to develop the kind of online following John has? What’s the relationship between being male and the likelihood of a publicist pitching your book for major media outlets? What’s the relationship between being male and those outlets saying yes? What’s the relationship between reception in the adult literary world and being male? What’s the relationship between being male and the way that people react to you promoting your book and the effectiveness of said promotion? What’s the relationship between being male and critical acclaim in general? What’s the relationship between being male and getting a certain cover? What’s the relationship between being male and the likelihood of being seen as a “big book” instead of a “big girl book”? What’s the relationship between author gender and potential for breaking out in various genres? Heck, what’s the relationship between being male and the effectiveness of a book-signing campaign?
Those are open questions. But based on the evidence of gender bias in adult literary reviews, as well as a variety of other factors involving the publishing climate and our culture in general… I think there’s reason to believe that being male at least sometimes matters at least some.
Does TFIOS become TFIOS if John was a woman? What about if John was both a woman and his early books had not featured male protagonists? If you gender flip An Abundance of Katherines and it becomes An Abundance of Kevins, about a geeky girl who is heart-broken because she keeps breaking up with guys named Kevin, even if everything else is the same… does it get the same critical reception?
I think these are questions worth asking—and I don’t think that the questions themselves have to be set up against the other reasons for John’s success in some grudge match fight to the death. You can believe—as I tend to—that TFIOS owes the fact that it has been able to sustain initial buzz and sales to the incredible quality of the book and the hard work and dedication of the fine folks at Penguin and simultaneously believe that a woman writing the same story might have had a different publishing experience.
I also do not think that having this discussion has to denigrate, in any way, what John and this book have achieved. I have had many, many privileges and advantages in life. Without some of those advantages, would I have still ended up getting my Ph.D.? Quite possibly not. Maybe even probably not. Does that mean that I didn’t work hard for my Ph.D., or that I don’t deserve it, or that it doesn’t mean anything? Of course not.
Similarly, to the extent that being male (and as John points out, white and cisgendered and so on) conveys privilege in our society—and perhaps some specific privileges within our industry—that’s something worth discussing, but it doesn’t somehow nullify John’s achievement. I get why it might feel, from an author’s perspective, like people were saying it DOES. TFIOS is so big now that it’s going to come up a VERY LARGE number of these discussions. It is going to be named and discussed specifically in a way that I think would make me feel bad and frustrated, in turn, if I were in John’s shoes.
But here’s the thing: when you consider that the kind of success John currently has—not just with TFIOS, but with his backlist now, too—it’s the kind that has the potential to start trends and help other books break out. TFIOS could be that kind of market game changer, the way Hunger Games was, the Twilight was. I’ve already seen people starting to use the term “Green-lit” to refer to books in John’s subgenre. But what is that subgenre? What is the trend going to be? And is it a trend that will benefit male authors of contemporary and contemporary stories that focus on boys more than their female equivalents?
Maybe. Maybe not.
But in general, I think talking about these things is thought-provoking and important, and I think that a lot of discussions about the success of TFIOS aren’t just about the success of TFIOS.
One final thought, and then I will end this obscenely long blog post, and that thought is this: there are ALWAYS going to be factors external to a book that affect its success. Maybe TFIOS isn’t the TFIOS phenomenon without nerdfighteria to kick it off. But Twilight probably also isn’t the Twilight phenomenon if it had a negligible marketing campaign when it came out, and would Hunger Games have been Hunger Games if it wasn’t published by Scholastic and strategically positioned in book fairs and clubs?
Change things near the top of the cascade, and the ripple through could be huge.
However, even given this, I think there is a tendency, when a book reaches a certain level of success, to fixate on the external factors (unless you or a close friend wrote the book, in which case the psychology operates in the opposite direction, as seen below).
There’s a finding in psychology called the Fundamental Attribution Error, which basically has to do with a way that we systematically vary in the way in how we judge our own successes and failures versus the successes and failures of others. When other people succeed, we tend to attribute their success to external factors, but when we succeed, we attribute it to internal factors. You get the reverse pattern for failure.
Basically, there’s this really pervasive and unconscious bias to say, “When I succeed, it’s because I’m smart and I work hard and I deserve it, but when other people succeed, they got lucky. And when I don’t succeed, it’s because of all of the factors outside of my control, but when other people fail, it’s because they just weren’t really that good to begin with.”
When you apply this to authors and publishing, you can substitute “my book” for “I” and “[name-of-book-not-by-me]” for “other people.” When you succeed, it’s mostly because of THE BOOK. But when you’re looking at the success of books in the market, particularly big books, it’s because they GOT LUCKY. It’s the marketing plan, or the timing, or the author’s platform, or…
You get the picture.
This is just the way the brain works! We do it ALL THE TIME, without any idea we’re doing it, and it’s not because we objectively think we are awesomesauce; it just happens. And I think it’s a bias that is helpful to be aware of, no matter which side of the equation you are on.
Sorry for the length of this entry. I had a lot of thoughts and hope that some of them may have been worth my posting them and your reading them. Some of them are undoubtedly wrong or inaccurate or illogical—but there they are!
 I think it’s important to point out that John built his internet presence. Obscene amounts of time, effort, creativity, positivity… it’s not like he was just randomly blessed by the Internet Fairy. If Joss Whedon were to suddenly write a YA book, I bet a lot of people would be all over it. (I certainly would). Is that because he’s a “celebrity author”? Not really—it’s because he’s made things we enjoy, and those things seem relevant to any YA book he might write. So to the extent that nerdfighteria plays a role in John’s success, I think it’s important not to treat that like something external to John or completely disconnected from his literary works.
 And maybe some of them actually are saying that, but I think they should read the section on the fundamental attribution error below.