In the US, the ‘crawdads’ definitely have something to sing about. The debut novel that has given them global fame – Where the Crawdads Sing by retired zoologist Delia Owens – has just achieved that rare badge of honour: the number one slot in print, ebook and audiobook. It has now sold 4.5m copies all-told, including more than a million ebooks and audiobooks.
This is an extraordinary achievement, especially by an unknown author with a book with an unusual title. The novel was originally published in 2018 and performed respectably enough until September of that year. Then, as everyone knows, something extraordinary happened. The actress Reese Witherspoon chose it for her Book Club, and word-of-mouth and social media sent the title into the sales stratosphere, from which it hasn’t looked back.
It has now sold in 41 languages, including Arabic (Beiruit’s Dar-Al Khayal bought the title). It seems that 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. Dictionary publisher 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 1200%. The word is simply another term for crayfish, but in the novel becomes a metaphor for an idealised place in nature, a kind of sanctuary.
Owens, who is 70, spent more than 20 years studying wild life in Africa, living in the bush with her then husband and eventually writing, or co-writing a number of well-received non-fiction wildlife books. But nothing could have prepared her for the success she has enjoyed later in life.
The success of Where the Crawdads Sing is now set to be repeated. Witherspoon’s production company Hello Sunshine bought the rights to the film and though there is no release date as yet, a first script has been written. Hello Sunshine has a good record with book adaptations (The Devil Wears Prada, The Fault in our Stars) so it seems those crawdads will soon be singing all over again. There is even better news for booksellers: Owens says she wants to continue writing fiction, “especially mysteries that explore how our evolutionary past on the savannas influenced our current behaviour in a world less wild”.