Last week, to great fanfare, a new book analyzing bestselling books hit the market. In my opinion, The Bestseller Code: The Anatomy of the Blockbuster Novel by Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers is intriguing and provocative, but ultimately an exercise in futility.
Every author wants a short cut to achieve bestseller success. What if there is an algorithm that, if followed, will produce a bestseller? Sign me up!
Before we offhandedly dismiss the findings of the book, let’s look at what they uncovered. Originally, author Jodie Archer studied 20,000 contemporary novels. Her findings formed the basis for a PhD dissertation titled Reading the Bestseller: An Analysis of 20,000 Novels published by Stanford University in 2014. Her system analyzed common themes, plot, character, setting, and also the frequencies of punctuation as a reflection of a bestseller’s style.
For the newly released book The Bestseller Code, Archer teamed up with Matthew Jockers, whose text-mining research has been profiled in the media and who has written a book called Text Analysis with R for Students of Literature. The two refined and focused the system to study about 5,000 books, and included a variety of both non-bestselling and modestly successful novels, plus a little more than five hundred New York Times bestsellers. They assert in the beginning pages that “the bold claim of this book is that the novels that hit the New York Times bestseller lists are not random, and the market is not in fact as unknowable as others suggest.”
They claim that their algorithm can predict with an 80-90% accuracy which novels will hit the bestseller list. Their computer model predicted success for Dan Brown’s Inferno (95.7 percent) and Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer (99.2 percent). Realize that the computer doing the analysis had no previous idea of either of those author’s ongoing success. It was merely “reading” and “comparing” the text of the books to other novels in the sample.
They claim “the kind of reading that computers can do gets us closer to the details of a novel than even some of the most practiced literary critics.”
One Secret Revealed
They, of course, won’t tell us what the algorithm is, but they do take a hard look at common traits in theme, plot, style, and character. In fact, one thing jumped out at me. In analyzing John Grisham and Danielle Steel they claim successful authors spend 30 percent or more on just one or two themes or topics in the novel while others spread widely. Grisham deals with legal themes. Steel with domestic life themes.
That is what we in the industry call branding. If you are a thriller writer you shouldn’t spend 30% of the book discussing the scientific properties of rust and how it has effected the city’s infrastructure. No, instead the story should be fast paced with suspense and danger.
Titles are a Key
Titles pointing “to things, to objects, typically common nouns,” appear often on best-seller lists. Complex titles don’t work. The authors point to The Goldfinch and The Firm as good “one word” titles. Note the title change from Archer’s original dissertation to the title of this popular version. By using an emotionally descriptive word like “bestseller” and an evocative word like “code” the project went from an academic exercise to a popular work.
Note also the key words in the subtitle. “Anatomy” and “Blockbuster” are both excellent descriptors of the contents of this book.
Watch Your Punctuation
Apparently there are very few exclamation points in bestselling books! Phooey! But there are lots of contractions, especially in dialogue. I ‘spose that’ll make the characters sound like y’all.
Bestselling books have more dogs than cats.
Yes. They needed a computer to tell us that dogs are more popular than cats. [True confession, we have a cat in our house. No dogs. So I guess I’ll never be able to write a bestselling novel.]
A Fascinating Read
All kidding aside, there are some truly remarkable findings in their analysis. They discovered a wonderful list of themes that are found in the most popular books: marriage, death, doctors, work, schools, and presidents to name a few. But they also reveal the ones that don’t work as well: desperate grief, seduction, cigarettes and alcohol, and philosophical discussions. I’ll let you read the book and discover the rest of the results for yourself.
There is a hint that the authors have more to offer to the writing community on their web site. Sign up for their mailing list here (http://www.archerjockers.com/home/) and see for yourself what they will eventually share.
It Has Been Tried Before
In 2012 James W. Hall wrote The Hit List: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers. It is an interesting read. Hall identifies 12 features that are shared by every blockbuster book. Everything from “an offer you can’t refuse” to “God” to “Juicy Parts” to the “American Dream/Nightmare.”
In 2014 Yejin Choi, Vikas Ashok, and Song Feng did a computer-based analysis and posted a PDF called “Success with Style: Using Writing Style to Predict the Success of Novels” (PDF).
Earlier this year there was a lot of buzz about JellyBooks a new venture called “Moneyball for Publishers” by the New York Times. To quote an article from NPR “Jellybooks recruits readers by offering free e-books in exchange for allowing the company to collect reading data. It tracks whether or not the reader finishes the book — most don’t get half way through. Jellybooks also measures how long it takes to read a book and asks those who do finish it if they would recommend it.”
Publishers continue to pursue and invest in the science behind the bestseller in various ways. Last October Simon & Schuster announced that it had hired its first data scientist, whose job it is to collect all their sales information, identify trends, and attempt to draw useful conclusions. In May, Macmillan Publishers acquired Pronoun, formerly known as Vook, a digital book self-publishing platform, partly to own and have access to its data and analytics software.
Where From Here?
We love to analyze our industry. It causes us to think deeply about the various issues we face as agents, writers, and publishers. Any tidbit we can glean might help us sell the next book better than the last. But as with all analysis it must be read with discernment. Read past the hype and glitz and find that one thing that improves your understanding today.
At least they haven’t suggested that a computer replace you as the writer…yet.
How can writers not be tempted to buy a book like this straight away?
Just reading your blog post about the book tempts me… even though I dislike non-fiction books in general (I always feel like any non-fiction book can be summed up in one concise blog post).
Thanks for sharing, the points from the book you point out are worth pointing my attentions to in my own work 😛
I might be tempted, but I’ve read five best sellers over the years just to see if I liked them. Though I plowed through them, I felt sick after. They are horrible written, which means, I guess, I read for quality prose and thought. After reading Cormac McCarthy, for example, the bestsellers are depressingly and unintentionally clumsy, goofy, embarrassing. They tap into comatose forms of imagination. The good “literary” novels bring the mind and senses back to life. I suppose there functions are opposite: one is for escape and the other is for waking up.
By poor prose, I don’t mean the lazy typos, such as the ones I made above. A lack of proofreading always gets me. I’m discussing something a little deeper, I think.
I used ideas from the book to revise part of a manuscript. It helped. Individual style and imagination are most important but read the book. Ignore the parts that don’t work for you, but give the rest a try.
Thanks for the post, Steve. I’m interested in reading the book. And the other studies/books you listed should be interesting, as well.
I just wanted to ad a plug for Donald Maass’ WRITING 21ST CENTURY FICITION. His preconference Early Bird session at the ACFW was great. I’m rereading his book for the second and third time and still finding new information – a great book on the same subject.
I’m almost done reading his book (also attended his workshop at ACFW) , and I agree it’s a fabulous book that every writer needs to read.
Christine L. Henderson
I smiled at your last line. It was reminiscent of one from The Player (a 1992 movie) that poked fun at Hollywood…” I was just thinking what an interesting concept it is to eliminate the writer from the artistic process. If we could just get rid of these actors and directors, maybe we’ve got something here.”
Most genres have formulas that work for them. The more they fit into a reader’s expectations and keep their interest with tension and plot surprises, the better a book will do. Marketing also has a lot to do with the book’s success.
What all this is saying is nothing new. You’ve got to grab the reader’s interest, keep it and give them a satisfactory ending that will stay with them.
Desperate grief doesn’t work?
I am also out of luck, being a cat lover and all. Darn. At least I found out now. But I could learn to love dogs, couldn’t I?
Easily. Dogs and sugar gliders are the only unconditional love you can buy.
I had a cat who loved me once.
But you want your pet to love you all the time, not only once.
Steve, the details of the research should have been published in the Ph.D. thesis in a manner that would allow someone to repeat the work. If you want to know exactly how the information was analyzed, you can get a copy of it.
Linda Riggs Mayfield
Steve, I’m envisioning a book proposal you’ll receive next year stating that the author has read all of the books you listed and employed every device that scored above a 76% probabiliy of success with less than a 5% margin for error in each study, thus guaranteeing a best-seller. Why would any agent not jump at such an opportunity? ;-D
You are giving me ideas 🙂
Interesting post, Steve. To think there could be a science behind increasing the chances of writing a bestseller is interesting.
Your line about not having any dogs and relating that to writing bestsellers made me grin. Thanks for sharing this information in such an engaging way. It made it fun to read.
C. Kevin Thompson
I believe the ultimate algorithm this author was looking for was the one which pays for a doctoral degree.
I agree. As I was reading this, I was calculating how much time it takes to read and analyze 20,000 novels–forgive me for being a little skeptical about this. I was also analyzing how much money the author is making from this book. I’m just sayin’ . . .
Linda Riggs Mayfield
Catherine, I assure you that he did not read and analyze 20K books, and would never have claimed to do that: a range of software is available that will do that kind of work for researchers. It’s common today for colleges to use such software, even at the undergrad level, to analyze students’ writing for plagiarism. Turnitin is the one with which I’m most familiar, but I’ve been away from college teaching for five years, so there’s probably another one as popular by now. He had to design the study, choose and probably buy the appropriate software, run or hire someone to run the data, then analyze and interpret it in a way that could be replicated by other scholars. Then he wrote it into a book. I think most doctoral scholars hope to publish their work–we want all that work we did to benefit or inform more people than just ourselves, so please don’t hold it against this one that he was able to do it. ;-D
My head is spinning.
I have made my dog the key feature in my blog. I will let you know when I hit a million viewers a day–LOL! The one thing I took out of this is the “creating a brand” comment. Another author pointed out to me that I am creating a brand with my name/books and that takes time. I had never thought of it that way. Thank you, Steve, for this post.
Thanks for your comments, Steve. We hope to be able to help authors one-to-one later this year.
Even though this is interesting, I Don’t Believe in any of these upfront “programming” of a best-seller or any miracle formula for writing one. After all these 2 authors are now running a consulting business on their name and book. I Believe that what makes a book a best seller is good luck, good timing (giving people what they want to read when the are ready to read it) and good marketing.