How ‘That Octopus Book’ Won Over More Than a Million Readers

Last year during the holiday sales rush, Beth Seufer Buss started getting an unusual request from customers at Bookmarks, the independent bookstore where she works in Winston-Salem, N. C.

“It was always, ‘Do you have the book with the octopus?’” she said.

She knew exactly which book they meant: Shelby Van Pelt’s “Remarkably Bright Creatures,” a novel that features a cranky, mischievous octopus.

The surge in demand was unexpected, because the novel had come out months earlier, in the spring of 2022. Even more surprising, sales continued to accelerate after the holidays, into the winter and spring of 2023, and have never died down. “The book with the octopus” was Bookmarks’s top selling novel of 2023, and requests for it have spiked again this holiday season.

“I don’t think it’s going to drop off, because everybody who reads it wants other people to read it,” said Seufer Buss, who is giving the novel to two of her aunts for Christmas. “This is a universal recommendation. No matter what you’re in the mood for or what you’re going through, I can put this book in your hands.”

In an unpredictable retail environment where best sellers are often created by viral TikTok posts and ephemeral genre trends, “Remarkably Bright Creatures” is one of those increasingly rare success stories: a quiet, quirky literary debut that has been buoyed by bookseller love and word-of-mouth recommendations.

To date, the novel has sold 1.4 million copies, an impressive feat for a debut that features an ornery octopus narrator. This December, sales have outpaced last year’s holiday bump, and the novel recently reappeared on The New York Times hardcover fiction best-seller list.

While many of the factors driving demand for “Remarkably Bright Creatures” are unique, its trajectory also reflects an ongoing shift in the book business, with sales of older titles overtaking new releases. Of the top 50 best-selling adult fiction titles of 2023, only 16 were published in 2023, while the rest were backlist titles, according to Circana BookScan, which tracks print sales. Some of this year’s top selling literary novels, including Gabrielle Zevin’s “Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow” and Bonnie Garmus’s “Lessons in Chemistry,” have been out for about a year and a half; both of those titles had higher sales this year than last.

The unusual staying power of “Remarkably Bright Creatures” took its publisher, Ecco, by surprise. Typically, book sales are strongest in the weeks just after publication, when there is a blast of media attention and reviews, then taper off. But after a brief lull in the summer of 2022, sales for “Remarkably Bright Creatures” rebounded, and then snowballed, launching it back onto the best-seller lists in 2023. To date, Ecco has ordered 28 printings of the novel.

“It has all the hallmarks of an organic build,” said Kristen McLean, an industry analyst at Circana BookScan. “We’re back to good old-fashioned word-of-mouth recommendations, from a bookseller, from a friend.”

Van Pelt, a former financial consultant, first had the idea that morphed into the novel in 2013, when she took a fiction writing workshop at Emory University in Atlanta. One of the assignments was to write a short story from an unusual perspective, and she came up with an acerbic octopus who was bored and frustrated by his confinement in an aquarium. Her teacher pulled her aside and suggested she build something larger around the character, and she began writing vignettes about the octopus.

At first, she didn’t worry too much that she was taking a creative risk by having a highly intelligent octopus narrator and protagonist, because she didn’t think her work would ever get published. “I wasn’t thinking too hard about, is this salable?” she said, “because I never thought anybody would read it.”

She kept toying with the character and eventually saw the potential for a novel, but realized it would be difficult to sustain an entire book from an octopus’s perspective. She came up with Tova, a 70-year-old widow with a painful past who works as a cleaner at an aquarium. The story is set in a fictional town in the Pacific Northwest, where Van Pelt grew up; Tova is based on Van Pelt’s stoic Swedish grandmother.

Tova develops a bond with Marcellus, the aquarium’s resident giant Pacific octopus. Over the course of the narrative, Tova confides in Marcellus as she reflects on her past, tormented by her son’s disappearance decades ago, and frets about her uncertain future as an older woman living alone. As their connection grows, she helps Marcellus find some freedom, as he escapes from his tank each night to wander around the aquarium and feast on the inhabitants of other exhibits.

Read the full story here.