Industry analysts have struggled to explain the novel’s staying power, particularly at a moment when fiction sales overall are flagging and most blockbuster novels drop off the bestseller list after a few weeks.
For the past several years, adult fiction sales in the US 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 even for 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 New York Times‘ latest fiction bestseller list, where it has held a spot for 67 weeks – spending almost half of that in the top spot.
The novel is resonating with a swathe of US readers at a moment when mass media are deeply fragmented and algorithm-driven entertainment companies such as Netflix and Amazon feed consumers a stream of content tailored to their particular tastes. Crawdads instead seems to appeal to a wide demographic of readers.
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 Owens’ solitary existence. She has been on five promotional tours for the novel.
“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-takes-all business, with a handful of blockbusters commanding all the attention and sales. 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 actress Reese Witherspoon, who selected Crawdads for her book club, plans to produce a feature film adaptation of the novel, and appeared in a bubbly video with 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.
Last January, six months after its release, the novel hit No.1 on The New York Times’ fiction bestseller 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. By March it had sold 1 million copies; two months later, it had sold 2 million.
No one seems more caught off guard by the book’s success than Owens. “I never really thought I could write a novel,” she said.
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 charged with murdering a young man.
Though the story is invented, 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. Growing up in Georgia, 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. Mark Owens, trying to stop poachers from killing elephants and other wildlife, turned their base camp into “the command centre for anti-poaching operations” — which Delia 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. Mark and Delia Owens, who weren’t present at the shooting, left the country and haven’t been back since. They settled on a secluded 720-acre ranch in northern Idaho after returning to the US in 1996. Several years ago, after more than 40 years of marriage, they divorced. This year, Delia Owens moved to the mountains of North Carolina.
Delia 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 hero, Kya Clark, who is subjected to vicious rumours and ostracised.
“It’s painful to have that come up, but it’s what Kya had to deal with: name-calling,” Owens said. “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, 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, she 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.”
The New York Times
Where the Crawdads Sing is published by Corsair.