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.
Van Pelt spent several years rewriting the first few chapters, until she and a writing partner made a pact to finish their books. She wrote the bulk of it in 2020 during the height of the pandemic, when she was home with her children, then 4 and 6.
In November of 2020, she sent a query to several agents. One of them, Kristin Nelson, wrote back immediately. “My assistant reached out to me and said, ‘This query came in today and it’s either brilliant or it’s bananas, because there’s a talking octopus,’” Nelson recalled.
In one lucky stroke of timing, the manuscript went out to publishers not long after the release of the critically acclaimed documentary “My Octopus Teacher,” which centered on the surprising bond that develops between a man and a wild octopus.
“I couldn’t have planned that better if I tried,” Van Pelt said.
When Helen Atsma, Ecco’s publisher, heard the pitch for the book, she was intrigued, and a little skeptical. She had seen “My Octopus Teacher” and was curious to see a fictional representation of the mind of an octopus, but wondered if it would land. “I thought, wow, that is going to be a tricky voice to nail,” she said. “I remember thinking to myself, it’s either going to be really good, or really not good.”
The first chapter opens from Marcellus’s perspective, as he rails against the tedium of his life in captivity, and Atsma was immediately won over. Ecco bought the novel in an auction, with a six-figure advance, and positioned it as one of their big debuts of 2022.
The novel had a strong start that May, with robust orders from independent stores, Target and Barnes & Noble. It got a boost when Jenna Bush selected it for her “Read with Jenna” book club, which led to an appearance by Van Pelt on the “Today” show. It was an Indie Next List pick, a compilation of anticipated new books put out by independent bookstores, and it hit the New York Times best-seller list in its first week of publication. The attention was thrilling and nerve-racking for Van Pelt, who had been a stay-at-home mother and was unaccustomed to making public appearances.
Shortly after its release, the momentum died down. The novel fell off the Times list after a week, and sales mostly stagnated over the summer.
Months later, in the approach to the holidays, it landed on several “best of 2022” lists, and demand began to pick up again. It became a favorite among book clubs, and Van Pelt did events with hundreds of book clubs, bookstores and literary festivals. So far this year, it has sold more than 1.1 million copies, more than triple its sales of 300,000 in 2022.
Daniel Goldin, who works at Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee, said “Remarkably Bright Creatures” was an in-store favorite that he and other staff regularly recommended to customers. But he knew the book was evergreen when, a year after its release, people kept coming into the store asking for it.
“You’re always looking for a book that sells well enough that your customers start selling it to each other, and that’s what is happening with this book,” he said. “Sometimes it reaches escape velocity.”
Hardcover sales have been so strong that Ecco has put off issuing a paperback edition, which is now tentatively scheduled for the winter of 2025. Booksellers expect that “Remarkably Bright Creatures” will have another sales spike when the paperback is released and if a screen adaptation is made (a movie is currently in development with Anonymous Content and Clubhouse Pictures).
In the meantime, Van Pelt, who lives outside of Chicago, has continued to give talks and meet with book clubs and readers. Often, when she makes a visit to a bookstore or library for an appearance, she is told that readers have been clamoring for “that octopus book.”
“I should have called it ‘that octopus book’,” Van Pelt said. “That would have been a better title.”