It’s often been said recently that author John Green is having a moment. But more accurately, he’s been having quite a decade. Long before the success of the book and movie versions of The Fault in Our Stars, his Vlogbrothers YouTube channel, or the blockbuster fundraising campaign Project for Awesome, Green was an aspiring writer looking for a way to channel his intense emotions into a story. He did just that with Looking for Alaska, his first novel for young adults (Dutton, 2005), which won the 2006 Printz Award, was a PW Flying Start, and eventually became a bestseller. Next month Dutton is marking the book’s birthday with the release of a special 10th-anniversary edition and a celebratory marketing campaign.
“I guess it really started in two places,” says Green, reflecting on the origins of Alaska’s tale. “I went to a boarding school in rural Alabama, so a lot of the story is autobiographical. Secondly, after graduating college [in 2000], I worked as a student chaplain at a children’s hospital for six months. I felt helpless and angry after my time as a chaplain and I wanted to write about love and grief and forgiveness, and how we can be hopeful in a world marked by ambiguity and questions we can’t ever find the answers to.”
As those big themes simmered in Green’s imagination he focused on his day job as an editorial assistant at Booklist in Chicago. “I never even would have tried to write the book had I not worked there,” he says. “One of the editors there, Ilene Cooper, was also an author. I saw that real people like Ilene wrote books; they weren’t written in ivory towers.” Green told Cooper about his book idea over lunch one day, and she was encouraging. “But I didn’t really work on it till late 2001,” says Green. “That’s when I got the idea for the before-and-after structure.” Green wrote a first draft and presented it to Cooper to read. “It was 40 single-spaced pages in 10 point font,” he notes. Cooper offered a detailed editorial letter and served as a mentor for Green through subsequent versions of the manuscript. “After a third draft working with Ilene, she sent it to Dutton and six months later I had a publishing contract” Green says. “It was a heady day. It was a very small advance – I call it a four-figure book deal. I remember going out to dinner and spending two percent of the advance that night.”
At Dutton, Green’s manuscript fortuitously made its way to the desk of Julie Strauss-Gabel. “I had been here for about a year,” Strauss-Gabel recalls. “The manuscript came in un-agented [via Cooper, who had published many books with Dutton] and it was acquired [in summer 2003]. My publisher at the time [Stephanie Lurie] came in and said ‘I have this book that I think would be a good fit for you. It’s called Looking for Alaska.’ I said, ‘Let me stop you. I’m not particularly good with survival stories.’ ”
Of course, Strauss-Gabel quickly discovered that the romantic and emotionally hard-hitting story of Miles and Alaska wasn’t the kind of survival story she had envisioned. “Contemporary YA fiction is my greatest focus and greatest passion,” she says. “We were lucky to be put together,” she notes of her partnership with Green. “We’re lucky someone played matchmaker.”
One quality that immediately stood out to Green’s editor was his writing voice. “His voice is impeccable, no matter how many changes and evolutions the manuscript went through,” says Strauss-Gabel. She recalls a powerful experience later in the editing process. “By the second or third revision, it was January and I was on a train heading to Vermont and reading it,” she says. “I hit a moment and I just stopped and looked out the window; I could feel time stop. You don’t find people like that in your life very often and you don’t find talent like that in your life very often. To have both is the happiest accident ever.”
As the book inched closer to publication, it was creating some buzz. “It felt different and special and magic from the start,” says Strauss-Gabel. “People in-house remember when they first read it. As it moved from bookseller to bookseller, from librarian to librarian, you could feel something special happening. I could see the ripples it was making at Penguin and in the industry. It was a book I couldn’t not talk about.” Penguin sent Green on a bookseller dinner tour as the book was being released to further build momentum. “It was huge and wonderful for me to meet the booksellers and hear what the landscape of YA fiction looked like to them,” says Green. “Meeting the people who were central to the success of a small book like this, to connect on a personal level, was a great pleasure.”
Though Looking for Alaska made noise with all the right people early on – earning critical praise and passionate, book-promoting fans – it was a slow starter sales-wise. “It only sold a few thousand copies,” says Green. “It was getting handsold really well, but it wasn’t catching on at the big chains. I thought, ‘All the people I like liked the book,’ and that’s all I wanted. I felt very happy.” Green felt his expectations of success were pretty reasonable, saying, “At Booklist I had seen lots of good books come and go, books that didn’t get the readership they deserved. My goal was to see it survive to paperback.”
Then came awards season. “I was overjoyed when I won the Printz,” says Green. “It’s probably the purest moment of joy I’ve experienced. Even when my children were born it wasn’t as raw and surprising. It’s what I think about when I’m running and I want to stop running. That people I respect so much gave it this award meant a ton to the book. It changed the trajectory. Sales doubled, and then doubled again. It was an amazing year.”
Sales continued to steadily improve as Green published successive novels, but Strauss-Gabel notes that Looking for Alaska didn’t officially become a bestseller until seven years after publication, in 2012. “I was in a meeting when I got the email and saw it on the bestseller list for the first time and I just ran out of the room,” she recalls. Green remembers the moment, too. “She called me in tears,” he says.
Anniversary Bells and Whistles
As Looking for Alaska approached its first decade in print, Strauss-Gabel kept a watchful eye. “It’s a book that never leaves my mind,” she says. “It’s in my consciousness every day so I was keenly aware a year and a half ago that we were coming on 10 years. We knew it was important to mark this milestone.” Strauss-Gabel says the anniversary presented “an opportunity to make a beautiful book even more beautiful.”
The anniversary edition, which will be released on January 13, features a new jacket by Rodrigo Corral. “I had no interest in throwing away any of the elements that made the original jacket evocative and iconic it its own way,” Strauss-Gabel says. “I told Rodrigo that it should be exactly the same but totally different and he knew exactly what I meant.” Inside, the book has been redesigned with more leading in between the lines of text and includes a plethora of bonus material. Green has written an introduction and an extensive Q&A about the book. Michael Cart, chair of the 2006 Printz committee, contributed an essay. And the special edition also includes never-before-seen deleted and revised scenes from the original 2003 manuscript, accompanied by commentary from Strauss-Gabel and Green.
The marketing campaign for the 10th-anniversary edition largely focuses on the recollections of fans, Penguin personnel, booksellers, librarians and others who helped launch the book as they remember where they were when they first were introduced to Green and his debut. Things kicked off at the NCTE conference in November where Penguin distributed buttons reading “John Green and I Go Way Back.” Much of the marketing will be done via social media. Penguin is launching a Looking for Alaska Tumblr to serve as a hub for fan-created content inspired by the book. January 10 is Alaska Day, which will feature white flower images (a key bit of imagery in the book) on the Tumblr and across all of Penguin Teen’s social media channels. On January 13, under the theme First Loves, Last Words, art featuring some of the last words used in the book will be featured on the publisher’s Tumblr and other social media accounts. And throughout January and beyond, via Penguin Teen social media venues, fans will be asked to share their Alaska Memories.
Both Green and Strauss-Gabel have taken a peek at some of the early responses in the campaign. “Every one of them makes me want to cry,” says Strauss-Gabel. “So many people who built this book with me are still part of the team today. There’s a lot of history; it’s like a family. This is entirely the book that made me an editor. It was sparkly and shiny and wonderful. You don’t realize until you look back how unusual and special that is.” Green has also been moved by the reactions. “Looking for Alaska has a more passionate readership than my other books,” he says. “When people connect to it, they do so intensely.”
As Looking for Alaska’s anniversary year begins, Green has been a fixture on set as the movie adaptation of his 2008 novel Paper Towns is being filmed in North Carolina. “I am trying to write, but it’s hard at the moment,” he says. “But it’s been hard before. I’m sure I will be doing it again next year. I’m working on the movie and Project for Awesome, and my day job—making educational materials for the online series Crash Course. It’s all work I love, so I’m lucky in that respect. But I love writing. I miss it.”