Listen

A Tale Of Two Titles: A Girl, A Train And Thousands Of Confused Readers

Dec 26, 2015

The Girl on the Train is a psychological thriller, set in contemporary London, with a female protagonist and a female author — Paula Hawkins. It was published this year, and received wide acclaim.

Girl on a Train is a psychological thriller, set in contemporary London, with a female protagonist and a female author — Alison Waines. It was published in 2013, and received almost no attention.

You might be able to predict where this is going.

"An incredible number of people were buying the wrong book," reporter David Benoit tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer.

Benoit revealed the case of mistaken identity in the Wall Street Journal — after he experienced it first-hand.

Benoit's mother read Alison Waines' book. Then she passed it to her son.

"I read it in its entirety," Benoit says. "It wasn't until after that that we realized, 'Hey, wait a second, there's another book out there that people are actually talking about."

After talking to readers of Girl on a Train and poring over Amazon reviews, Benoit concluded that most mixed-up readers had purchased the e-book.

"You go on Amazon, you click the first girl-on-a-train book you see on your Kindle, and maybe you never look at the cover again when you're reading, so you don't realize it's a different author," he says.

Not so his mom.

"My mother actually bought the book in a bookstore," he says. "So she didn't misclick. She literally picked up the wrong book."

In e-book and in print, the mistake has led to a boom year for Waines.

"Writing had always been a hobby for her," Benoit says, but this year she says she sold over 30,000 copies of her book.

And she's excited to see what happens when her next book comes out.

Several years ago, Stephen King published Joyland. A novelist named Emily Schultz published a book by the same name back in 2006.

Schultz got an immediate boost in sales (and documented how she spent that money on a website she called Spending the Stephen King Money).

"Now she has a new book out this year that's doing very well," Benoit says — it was featured in NPR's own book concierge, in fact — "in part because she had become a little bit famous with the Stephen King mishap."

Both Schultz and Waines published their books first, so it's not as though this were a cynical maneuver on their part.

And Stephen King and Paula Hawkins are doing just fine — Hawkins has sold over 6 1/2 million copies of The Girl on the Train.

As for the readers?

"Many readers who admit they bought the wrong book liked it anyway," Benoit wrote in the Wall Street Journal.

"One woman I talked to actually liked Miss Waines' book better than Miss Hawkins' book," Benoit tells Wertheimer.

She made her book club, which had planned on reading the best-seller, pick up Girl on a Train instead.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

"The Girl On The Train" is one of the literary breakouts of 2015. Author Paula Hawkins's dark psychological thriller topped 'best of' lists all over the country.

It's also been made into a movie. Critics called it a worthy successor to "Gone Girl," but there is someone else who is benefitting from Hawkins's success. It's Alison Waines, the author of "Girl On A Train." That's "Girl On A Train" minus the article. The Wall Street Journal ripped the lid off this story. David Benoit who is the reporter who wrote it is with us from New York. Welcome.

DAVID BENOIT: Hi. Thanks for having me.

WERTHEIMER: So, David, how did you discover that people were confusing these two books?

BENOIT: (Laughter) Well, through a little of my own experience really. This is one of those stories that - I got the book for my mother, who had read Ms. Waines's book, passed it over to me. I read it in its entirety, and it wasn't until after that that we realized - hey, wait a second. There's another book out there that people are actually talking about.

WERTHEIMER: (Laughter) Well, how did you know that? Remember the plot or something?

BENOIT: No, what's funny about this story is the plots are somewhat similar. They're both set in contemporary London with, you know, female authors and female protagonists and trains.

WERTHEIMER: But you dug a little deeper.

BENOIT: I talked to a lot of people that have read the book. I actually spent some time on the Amazon reviews. An incredible number of people were buying the wrong book. And it seems like mostly, they were buying the e-book, right? You go on Amazon, you click the first "Girl On A Train" book you see on your Kindle, and maybe you never look at the cover again when you're reading. So you don't realize that it's a different author. You don't realize it's different.

I have found out, actually relatively recently, that my mother actually bought the book in a bookstore. So...

(LAUGHTER)

BENOIT: ...She didn't misclick. She literally picked up the wrong book.

WERTHEIMER: (Laughter).

BENOIT: So Ms. Waines has had a booming year for herself. Her - writing had always been a hobby for her. She sold over 30,000 copies, she told me, of the book this year.

WERTHEIMER: I loved her quote in your piece. She said I'm making more money than I ever have.

BENOIT: (Laughter) Yeah.

WERTHEIMER: How much money did she make, do you think?

BENOIT: You know, we didn't get a dollar figure on it. But she's not doing too poorly. And she's excited - she's got another book coming out. We've seen this happen before, where young author wrote a book that Stephen King then published a book with the same title. She did really well, and now she has a new book out this year that's doing very well.

WERTHEIMER: (Laughter).

BENOIT: In part because she had become a little bit famous with the Stephen King mishap

WERTHEIMER: So this could happen to Ms. Waines as well?

BENOIT: Sure, if you name your book right, it seems like a pretty good strategy for an up-and-coming author.

WERTHEIMER: Well, she went first. Is that right? I mean...

BENOIT: That is true. That is true. Ms. Waines wrote her book, published it in 2013 and really hadn't got much attention at all until a couple weeks after Ms. Hawkins's books hit the shelves and sort of flying off the shelves. I mean, she sold over 6.5 million copies.

WERTHEIMER: So we can't really say that Alison Waines has done a dreadful injury to Paula Hawkins.

BENOIT: (Laughter) No, certainly not. I think she's benefited a bit, but I think Ms. Hawkins is doing quite fine with her year.

WERTHEIMER: What was the funniest story you heard in doing the reporting for this book?

BENOIT: I talked to several people who have showed up at book clubs, and they started talking about "The Girl On The Train," the bestseller, and about this alcoholic woman who's trying to find out about her ex-husband. And the readers I talked to were, like, hey, wait a second. That's not the book I read.

WERTHEIMER: (Laughter).

BENOIT: What are you talking about? One woman who I talked to actually liked Ms. Waines's book better than Ms. Hawkins's book and made the club read Ms. Waines's book instead.

WERTHEIMER: So what about you and your mom? Which did you like better?

BENOIT: (Laughter) They both had, I would say, their own attributes. I'm not actually sure my mother's read the - Ms. Hawkins's book yet. Each had its own readability, and they're both sort of page turners. I really wanted to get to the end of both of them.

WERTHEIMER: Well, thank you very much, David.

BENOIT: Thanks for having me.

WERTHEIMER: David Benoit covers finance for The Wall Street Journal. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.