In a recent Publishers Weekly interview, Sarah McGrath, Editor-in-Chief at British publisher Riverhead, recalled her first reaction to a manuscript from relatively unknown British author Paula Hawkins. “I thought of it every single time I traveled to or from work,” she said, “I looked at all the people on the train around me and thought, man, do I know a book you’re going to want to read.”
McGrath’s instincts proved prophetic and in little more than three and a half months, the manuscript of The Girl on the Train began a meteoric rise to the best-seller list. Easily toppling more established writers like Pulitzer-prize winning Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, and J.K. Rowling’s The Cuckoo’s Calling, Hawkins’ dark psychological tale of suspense and intrigue seems to have taken residency at the top of the New York Times bestseller’s list, while garnering global sales of around two million copies, along with a lucrative DreamWorks movie deal.
In the unassuming world of book publishing, the whirlwind success of juggernauts like The Girl on the Train, or last year’s Fifty Shades of Gray, might be viewed as disruptive, but they can also be welcome impetus for an often unpredictable industry.
“The Girl on the Train is number one on our hard-cover best-seller list,” admits Jack Barney, Barnes & Noble College’s Director of Trade Books, “and it’s one of those titles that really sells across all of our store types.”
While publisher’s reps, who understand Barnes & Noble College’s distinctive audience, will point out books with market appeal, it’s often the instincts of buyers and store managers that decide the prominence a book will receive. “We typically display 8 to 12 new releases at the front of our stores each week before they hit any kind of best-seller list, and The Girl on the Train was one of those titles that was thought to have potential,” Barney says.
But there are always surprises. Consider Helen McDonald’s elegantly written discourse on falconry and loss, H is for Hawk. “It’s on the staircase display, information desk, near the register, and we talk about it constantly,” says Nancie Scheirer, Trade Book Manager at the The Harvard COOP bookstore, where the book, helped by considerable NPR buzz, has taken an unexpected placing on the store’s best-sellers list.
If retailers can sometimes find it hard to predict the potential of new books, publishers can be equally taken by surprise. “Word of mouth is often overstated,” Barney says, “but Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone really built through booksellers, the kids themselves, and teachers and parents talking about it. It probably wasn’t until the third or fourth book, that the printers really managed to keep up with demand.”
Another more recent influencer has been social media, which powered the rise of the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise, and the book to which The Girl on the Train is most often compared, Gone Girl. “Gone Girl had the support of a lot of web buzz, and book blogs — the publisher noticed and started building sales as a response,” Barney says, noting that all the major publishers have teams monitoring social media for likely trends or books to watch. “The industry in general is more fast-paced — even in the past five years — and we have books literally coming from all directions,” he says, which might explain the quirky success of The Secret Garden and Enchanted Forest coloring books, or even The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Things Up — all strongly performing books for reasons no one can quite explain.
The Harvard COOP is also seeing a small phenomenon of its own making. J.K. Rowling’s 2008 Harvard commencement speech, Very Good Lives, has tourists buying five or six copies at a time. But The COOP’s Scheirer, who credits her staff and the store’s BookMaster shortlist system as good trend predictors, denies hype alone will sell a book. “For a book to be a consistent performer for four or five months, there’s got to be something in there for the reader. Marketing alone isn’t going to sustain it.”
In the ephemeral life-cycle of a contemporary best-seller, sales of The Girl on the Train are still going strong, but publishers are lining up potential genre follow-ups like Jessica Knolls, Luckiest Girl Alive. Meanwhile Hawkins herself, who described The Girl on the Train, as a ‘last-ditch attempt’ to be a writer, and who borrowed money to write the book, is faced with a happy dilemma. Ask Barnes & Noble’s Barney how Hawkins and her publishers might be reacting to a follow-up book, and he’ll say this: “It’s just a guess, but I would imagine they’re asking her to write faster.”