By Casey Wilson
An interesting thing happened yesterday: 385 weeks – not days, weeks – after John Green’s debut novel Looking for Alaska was released, it hit The New York Times Bestseller List for the first time. Such a resurgence for a stand-alone novel after seven years feels unusual to me, though I confess I’m not quite enough of an expert to say with certainty that it is. (Perhaps Rebekah could shed more light on the topic. If you haven’t read her article in Children’s Literature titled “Testing the Tastemakers: Children’s Literature, Bestseller Lists, and the ‘Harry Potter Effect’” you should – it’s quite excellent.) Alaska has, Green indicates, always sold well but not always impressively so, even with the weight of a Printz award behind it. And even though Green has had bestsellers in the intervening time, most notably with Paper Towns and The Fault in Our Stars, this still marks a significant milestone for him.
Over on his Tumblr, Green offers something of a timeline of Looking for Alaska’s life and floats a few theories as to what brought about the news. “Was it the videos? The peopleraindrizzlehurricane quotes on tumblr? Or just word-of-mouth finally kicking in? I don’t know.” If I had to take a guess, I’d say it’s a little bit of everything. Green’s YouTube videos – primarily at Vlogbrothers with his brother Hank, but more recently also at Crash Course, among other channels – have brought him an increasingly high profile both in and out of the literature world. And sites like Tumblr – and in particular the site he references that collects references to the book’s most famous quote, “If people were rain, I was a drizzle and she was a hurricane,” – have allowed the novel’s reach to spread naturally. Throw in people checking out his back catalog in the wake of the incredibly well reviewed The Fault in Our Stars, and it does seem that the timing was ripe for Alaska’s success.
It’s worth noting, too, that this resurgence is happening with Alaska instead of with, say, An Abundance of Katherines, Green’s second novel. Alaska is a novel that tends to inspire especially devoted fans – if you’re looking for proof, take a tour of the book’s tag on Tumblr as a start – as well as thoughtful criticism. Depending upon the day, I’m likely to say Katherines is my favorite of the two, but Alaska is by far the more fertile ground for discussion.
That discussion is, I believe, key. I’m sure it would be inaccurate to assume that the only people responsible for the uptick in Alaska’s sales are his most ardent fans – called Nerdfighters, for the uninitiated – but I think it would be equally inaccurate to say that they haven’t played a significant part. And what Green and his brother have done especially well over the past few years is foster an environment that rewards thoughtful discussion. If Nerdfighters can begin that discussion within one of Green’s books, then all the better.
But, for all I know, that might only be a drop in the bucket when it comes to sales. Like Green, I think that there are a lot of factors at work here, and like Green, I’m not entirely sure what they all are. Which means is I’ll be even more curious to see how long this peak in Alaska’s sales lasts, especially with a new edition soon to be released, and what it does for the book’s reputation as time passes. Printz winner, and now bestseller. Not half bad, for a debut novel.
Casey is a PhD student who will teach The Fault in Our Stars in her class “Writing About the YA Bestseller” in the fall.