The Long Tail of ‘Where the Crawdads Sing’

In the summer of 2018, Putnam published an unusual debut novel by a retired wildlife biologist named Delia Owens. The book, which had an odd title and didn’t fit neatly into any genre, hardly seemed destined to be a blockbuster, so Putnam printed about 28,000 copies.

It wasn’t nearly enough.

A year and a half later, the novel, “Where the Crawdads Sing,” an absorbing, atmospheric tale about a lonely girl’s coming-of-age in the marshes of North Carolina, has sold more than four and a half million copies. It’s an astonishing trajectory for any debut novelist, much less for a reclusive, 70-year-old scientist, whose previous published works chronicled the decades she spent in the deserts and valleys of Botswana and Zambia, where she studied hyenas, lions and elephants.

As the end of 2019 approaches, “Crawdads” has sold more print copies than any other adult title this year — fiction or nonfiction — according to NPD BookScan, blowing away the combined print sales of new novels by John Grisham, Margaret Atwood and Stephen King. Putnam has returned to the printers nearly 40 times to feed a seemingly bottomless demand for the book. Foreign rights have sold in 41 countries.

Industry analysts have struggled to explain the novel’s staying power, particularly at a moment when fiction sales over all are flagging, and most blockbuster novels drop off the best-seller list after a few weeks.

For the past several years, adult fiction sales have steadily fallen — in 2019, adult fiction sales through early December totaled around 116 million units, down from nearly 144 million in 2015, according to NPD BookScan. In a tough retail environment for fiction, publishers and agents frequently complain that it has become harder and harder for even established novelists to break through the noise of the news cycle.

“Crawdads” seems to be the lone exception. After a burst of holiday sales, it landed back at No. 1 on The Times’s latest fiction best-seller list, where it has held a spot for 67 weeks, with 30 weeks at No. 1.

“This book has defied the new laws of gravity,” said Peter Hildick-Smith, the president of the Codex Group, which analyzes the book industry. “It’s managed to hold its position in a much more consistent way than just about anything.”

The novel is resonating with a swath of American readers at a moment when mass media are deeply fragmented and algorithm-driven entertainment companies like Netflix and Amazon feed consumers a stream of content tailored to their particular tastes. “Crawdads” instead seems to appeal to a wide demographic of American readers. According to a survey of nearly 4,000 book buyers conducted by the Codex Group, respondents who read “Crawdads” came from across the political spectrum, with 55 percent identifying as progressive, 30 percent as conservative and 15 percent as centrists.

For a book about a girl who is isolated in the wilderness and wrestling with loneliness, “Crawdads” has had an oddly unifying effect in a time of rapid technological advances and constant social media connectivity. And its success has upended Ms. Owens’s own solitary existence. This fall, she went on her fifth tour for the novel, with appearances in Georgia, Oklahoma, Kansas, Alabama, Florida and New York, where a talk at the New York Botanical Garden reached capacity, with an additional 100 people signing up for the wait list.

“I have never connected with people the way I have with my readers,” she said in an interview. “I wasn’t expecting that.”

Like the movie industry, publishing has become a winner-take-all business, with a handful of blockbusters commanding all the attention and sales, so surprise breakout hits have become increasingly rare. But “Crawdads” had several things going for it. The plot seemed tailored to appeal to a wide audience, with its combination of murder mystery, lush nature writing, romance and a coming-of-age survival story. The novel also got an early boost from independent booksellers, who widely recommended it, and from the actress Reese Witherspoon, who selected “Crawdads” for her book club and plans to produce a feature film adaptation of the novel, and appeared in a bubbly video with Ms. Owens on Instagram this year.

But even those factors fail to fully account for why the book took off as it did, and continues to sell so robustly.

One of the most surprising things about the success of “Crawdads” is that sales began to accelerate months after it came out — an anomaly in publishing, where sales typically peak just after publication, aided by the initial advertising and marketing around a title.

This past January, six months after its release, the novel hit No. 1 on The Times’s fiction best-seller list. That same month, it appeared at the top of Amazon Charts’ Most Sold and Most Read fiction lists, and maintained its dominant position for the next 16 weeks, the longest streak that any book has occupied the top of both Amazon weekly lists. In February, it began selling well at big box stores like Sam’s Club, Costco and BJ’s Wholesale Club. By March it had sold a million copies; two months later, it had sold two million.

“I’ve never seen anything like this in 30 years,” said Jaci Updike, president of sales for Penguin Random House, who has overseen strategies for best sellers like “The Da Vinci Code,” “The Girl on the Train” and “Gone Girl.” “This book has broken all the friggin’ rules. We like to have a comparison title so that we can do sales forecasts, but in this case none of the comparisons work.”

The combination of word-of-mouth buzz and the novel’s prominence on the best-seller list set off a self-fulfilling cycle: The book’s visibility drove sales, and sales drove visibility. Merriam-Webster added “crawdad” to its list of the top 10 words of 2019, noting that searches for “crawdad” on its online dictionary spiked by 1,200 percent this year.

“Once it took off, it fed on itself and it’s been remarkably resilient,” said Kristen McLean, the executive director of business development at the NPD Group.

No one seems more caught off guard by the book’s success than Ms. Owens.

“I never really thought I could write a novel,” she said.

Ms. Owens began working on it a decade ago, when she got the idea for a story about a girl who grows up alone in the marshes of North Carolina in the 1950s and ’60s after her family abandons her, and becomes an outcast who is later is charged with murdering a young man.

Though the story is invented, Ms. Owens said she drew on her experience living in the wilderness, cut off from society. “It’s about trying to make it in a wild place,” she said.

For most of her life, she lived as far away from people and as close to wild animals as she could get. Growing up in Georgia, Ms. Owens spent most of her free time outside in the woods. Inspired by Jane Goodall, she studied zoology at the University of Georgia and later got her doctorate in animal behavior from the University of California, Davis.

In 1974, she and her husband at the time, Mark Owens, set off to study wildlife in Africa. They set up a research camp in the Kalahari Desert in Botswana, where they spent their days closely observing lions and hyenas, studying their migration patterns and social behavior.

The Owenses later became renowned for their foundation’s work in Zambia, where they provided job training, microloans, health care and education to villagers. But they also generated controversy. Mr. Owens, trying to stop poachers from killing elephants and other wildlife, turned their base camp into “the command center for anti-poaching operations” — which Ms. Owens thought was risky, according to her account in their memoir “The Eye of the Elephant.”

In 1995, one of the anti-poaching missions ended in tragedy when a suspected poacher was apparently shot and killed, an incident that Slate reported on this past summer. Mark and Delia Owens, who weren’t present at the shooting, left the country and haven’t been back since. After returning to the United States in 1996, they settled in northern Idaho, on a secluded 720-acre ranch. Several years ago, after more than 40 years of marriage, they divorced, and this year, Ms. Owens moved to the mountains of North Carolina, near Asheville.

Mr. Owens wasn’t available to comment, according to the Owenses’ friend and former lawyer Bob Ivey, who confirmed that there were never any charges filed and that there haven’t been any recent developments in the case.

Ms. Owens said she had nothing to do with the shooting and was never accused of wrongdoing but declined to elaborate on the circumstances.

“I was not involved,” she added. “There was never a case, there was nothing.”

She brought the conversation back to her novel and likened her experience to the ordeals faced by her fictional heroine Kya Clark, who is subjected to vicious rumors and ostracized.

“It’s painful to have that come up, but it’s what Kya had to deal with, name calling,” Ms. Owens said during an interview in New York this fall. “You just have to put your head up or down, or whichever, you have to keep going and be strong. I’ve been charged by elephants before.”

Later that evening, Ms. Owens, who still seems unaccustomed to the spotlight, invoked charging elephants again, when she took the stage at the Botanical Garden and faced a crowd of more than 400 people. Looking slightly unsettled, Ms. Owens compared the experience of addressing the audience to the adrenaline rush she felt many years before when, in an effort to escape an elephant that was rushing at her, she jumped into a crocodile-infested river.

“I’ve lived in remote settings for most of my life,” she told the crowd. “There are more people in this room than I would see in six months.”

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