The Bestseller Code

by Steve Laube

Take the Bestseller Code test. I dare you.  [[UPDATE: As of today April 24, 2012 the bestseller code web site is down.]]

The web site is fascinating. Through some mysterious algorithm it evaluates about 500 words of your novel and grades it on a scale of one to twenty (1 to 20).

Does it work? I gave it a try with a recent proposal from a bestselling client. I took the first page and a half and plugged it into the test. It scored 20.0. A Perfect Score!

Then I took the first page and a half from a recent unsolicited novel and plugged it into the test. It only scored 4.6…out of 20. I had to agree, that sample was awful.

Now is your chance for fun. Go to the site and get your score. Then come back here and tell us in the comments, if you are brave.

Disclaimer: Do I need to write one? But in case you aren’t sure, we do not use this for our in-house evaluation purposes. A computer cannot tell if yours is a good story or not. It can only compare word choices and number of syllables. It has no sense of style or storytelling ability. This is simply a fun way to look at the structure and craft of your writing.

But I will say the comparison of a bestselling author to an unschooled first-timer (20.0 vs. 4.6) was rather astounding.

51 Responses to The Bestseller Code

  1. Avatar
    Timothy Fish January 23, 2012 at 4:34 am #

    It appears that my writing doesn’t use complex enough words to satisfy it. Ironically, the book of mind that people seem to like the most came out with the lowest score of any of them, 1.6. The first pages of Mother Not Wanted does better with a score of 4.6, but when I put in the last chapter it has a score of 19.9. That isn’t the perfect score, but it is better than what I got for Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which came in at 15.2.

    For all I know, the number of syllables in the words we use may influence people’s opinion of a book, so I won’t totally discount this approach, but based on what I’m seeing, it looks unreliable as a method.

  2. Avatar
    Sara Baysinger January 23, 2012 at 5:34 am #

    I got a bestsellers score of 17.0 on my prologue. Not perfect, but I’ll take it. 🙂

  3. Avatar
    Kathleen L. Maher January 23, 2012 at 6:25 am #

    I got 19.1 out of 20, with a word complexity of 6.1 (6.4 being the average for my genre). My average sentence length was 11.51 (genre average 11.3).
    That was pretty fun. Wish it helped me skip the slush pile. 🙂

  4. Avatar
    Robin Patchen January 23, 2012 at 6:36 am #

    So interesting. I put in the first 6000 or so words and got a 17.6. But I’ve been told I should start the story a little later, so I then chopped off the first page and put the next 6000 words in and got a score of 19.9. So now I think it’s the prefect tool that all agents should use to assess submissions. 🙂

  5. Avatar
    Richard Mabry January 23, 2012 at 6:36 am #

    Steve, Fascinating tool. No, I didn’t get a 20, but I certainly scored what would be a high B+. Now I’ll worry all day about how to upgrade that to an A.
    Seriously, thanks for sharing this. And I’m glad agents and editors don’t use this tool.

    • Avatar
      Timothy Fish January 23, 2012 at 7:23 am #

      Try throwing in the word “Japanese” somewhere. I think that’s what gave me a higher score.

  6. Avatar
    Cecelia Dowdy January 23, 2012 at 6:40 am #

    My score came out at 19.9 out of 20…

  7. Avatar
    C.J. Chase January 23, 2012 at 6:57 am #

    Ha! I think my agent should drop me as a client. I scored a 1.2 on the proposal I just sent him (and my editor).

    It seems I used too many “complex” words for my genre — words like minister, imagine, something, and forever. Imagine! Using “minister” in a novel with Christian themes.

    Out of curiosity, I took a sample from a few pages later and miraculously (um, that word isn’t too complex for anyone, is it?) bettered my score to 15.6. But then I did it a third sample and got a 1.1. And then I decided I’d better stop.

    I hear Burger King is hiring…

    • Avatar
      Timothy Fish January 23, 2012 at 7:26 am #

      Just replace “minister” with “elder” or “bishop”. They have fewer syllables.

  8. Avatar
    Matthew Sheehy January 23, 2012 at 7:33 am #

    The first 500 words of my novel got a 20 out of 20. The other thing that surprised me was that my sentences and word complexity were only 75% of the average.

    Just for fun, I entered Genesis 1 from the King James Bible (which I think is the best selling book of all time), analyzed it as literature, and it only got a 9.3.

    • Avatar
      Timothy Fish January 23, 2012 at 10:30 am #

      Too funny. I’m sure God is more interested in being understood than making sure he uses big enough words.

  9. Avatar
    Dee Bright January 23, 2012 at 8:00 am #


    With my short prologue plus a bit of my first chapter, I got a 10.2 out of 20.

    With the beginning of my first chapter only, I scored a 20/20!

    Glad I didn’t toss the laptop after the first try.

  10. Avatar
    Kathy Fuller January 23, 2012 at 8:33 am #

    I felt really bad about my score–3/20. Until I put in the first 1k of To Kill a Mockingbird and it got the same score. Then I changed the category from literature to Young Adult for TKAM and it went all the way up to 10/20. Things that make you go hmmmm.

  11. Avatar
    Steve Laube January 23, 2012 at 8:57 am #

    You guys are having too much fun with this! Which was the whole point. While we can be critical of the results it is a good idea to occasionally get a completely out of the box evaluation of our writing. And this one is certainly “out-of-the-box.”

    For those of you putting in samples from older books note that the site’s own criteria is based on current books. Not classics. Language has changed considerably since the King James Version and Mark Twain.

    And again, this test won’t evaluate whether yours is a good story or not. Only how word choice and structure compares to modern bestsellers according to a mathematical formula.

    • Avatar
      Timothy Fish January 23, 2012 at 10:33 am #

      That may be, but both the King James Version and Mark Twain are still outselling most authors.

    • Avatar
      Matthew Sheehy January 23, 2012 at 10:48 am #

      OK…I tried Genesis 1 in the NIV and it came back with a 14.1 score. I think this website is biased against God. 🙂

    • Avatar
      Steve Laube January 23, 2012 at 10:57 am #

      And now, to drive everyone CRAZY? I plugged Genesis 1 from The Message into the test.

      It scored 20.0. A perfect score.

      The new 2011 edition of the NIV scored 12.2

      The New Living Translation 8.3

      The ESV (English Standard Version) 14.9

      The Common English Bible 7.4

      The Holman Christian Standard Bible 14.9

      Of these, The Message is known as a paraphrase, not a translation. And thus would have a better score in this “test” simply because it is written in a conversational manner.

      • Avatar
        Matthew Sheehy January 23, 2012 at 12:12 pm #

        I checked the NIV under Literature. When I rechecked it under Young Adult, it got a 20 out of 20.

  12. Avatar
    Lauralee Bliss January 23, 2012 at 9:22 am #

    A relatively older historical sample of biographical fiction I wrote on Pocahontas scored 15.6. My current historical romance 6.4. Hmmm.

  13. Avatar
    KD Fleming January 23, 2012 at 9:41 am #

    That was fun. I scored a 15.5 on one manuscript and a 15 on another. At least I’m semi-consistent.
    I plugged in a story that has haunted me for the past couple of years while I’ve tried to figure out what genre it is and it scored a 6 in romance and an 8.3 in literature. I think it goes back into the drawer for a bit longer.

    I really love your blog and all the fun things you guys do to keep it interesting yet still very informative.

  14. Avatar
    Chana Keefer January 23, 2012 at 10:14 am #

    Okay, now I’m bummed. Thanks a lot. I’m not so much bummed that my sample ranked 13.9/20 but that three syllable words would be considered “too complex” for today’s reader. But I can happily report that two 12-yr.-olds have read my novel and loved it. But they are the kind of 12-yr.-olds who read Tolkien. But, I was glad to see it didn’t highlight any sentences as needing revision–just that words like “easier” and “catapulted” were too complex. By this measure, Harry Potter would probably not rank well since one of my favorite things about Rowling is her rockin’ vocabulary. “Leviosa” would definitely not fit the parameters.
    Thanks anyway for the fun test–
    Now I’m gonna go in and test the first few of a love story–my first novel. We’ll see.

    Chana K.
    Then I too will see if Burger King is hiring 😉

  15. Avatar
    Barbara Early January 23, 2012 at 10:21 am #

    Interesting tool. Thanks for sharing it. I’ve looked at average sentence, word, and paragraph lengths, and the reading level of my work ever since learning that bestsellers always seem to be easy reading. The score on the draft of my WIP was 17.4. On an earlier manuscript I haven’t found a home for yet? 16.1. Might give that one another edit.

    The novella I was able to sell? 20 out of 20. Double Hmm.

  16. Avatar
    Rachel Wilder January 23, 2012 at 10:42 am #

    Very interesting indeed. Out of two different manuscripts I got everything from 4.6 to 12.8. With one of the samples I did it for each genre just to see what it did and the 12.8 score was a romance scene identified as young adult.

    My sentence length was always above average and complexity was about average.

    I’m glad computers don’t make the decisions! The scene that got a 4.6 opens a book Tamela went nuts over the idea and asked for the full plus a series proposal.

  17. Avatar
    Carol Moncado January 23, 2012 at 11:25 am #

    My prologue, uh, not so good. Mainly because of the people involved there’s short words/sentences I think. Chapter 1, on the other hand, 17.3 ;).

    Think I like that one better :D.

    I can’t see the poll though – in either firefox or chrome…

  18. Avatar
    Regina Merrick January 23, 2012 at 11:29 am #

    Interestingly enough, after plugging in several different scenes from my manuscript, I got everything from a 1.2 to a 20! Fortunately, the 20 was one of my opening scenes!

    This could get addicting! 🙂

  19. Avatar
    Phillip M Bryant January 23, 2012 at 11:32 am #

    15.6 for my historical novel and things I already knew, to wit that this was not mass market appeal (niche market). The word complexity is a bit of double edged sword based on both the time period and the market segment I’m appealing to. The terms and designations are, at least in my opinion, required to give feal and accuracy to the prose. But the choices did not exactly fit either and literature was the closest to choose from.

    So, I had a lot of red on my sample with above the average for both word complexity and sentence length. I didn’t try different chapters, but I think in general it probably would not have moved that needle much in any direction. This was fun, though.

  20. Avatar
    Selina Gonzalez January 23, 2012 at 11:45 am #

    Interesting. Excerpts with lots of dialogue, especially fast-paced dialogue, got low scores. Excerpts with lots of description, narrative, and/or internal dialogue got significantly higher scores. Although, I have to agree with the comments about word complexity. ‘Troubadour,’ ‘tapestries,’ ‘beauty,’ ‘dutiful,’ ‘attitude,’ and ‘insolence,’ are too complex for fantasy since when? And some of it gets low fantasy score, but has ‘too complex’ of words and ‘too long’ of sentences for YA. Hm. Again, interesting. I echo the others–thank goodness computers don’t make publishing decisions!

  21. Avatar
    Mary Young January 23, 2012 at 12:07 pm #

    Can’t access the poll, but the first two pages of one of my short stories garnered 14.1, so I’m happy. LOL I went ahead and tried all genres — it rang 20/20 on YA, and 4.1 across the board on the rest.

    Intriguing… and FUN!

  22. Avatar
    Trac Tyne Hilton January 23, 2012 at 12:50 pm #

    The opening scene to my Cozy Mystery Eminent Domain scored 19.5. : ) I’m definitely brave enough to share that! : )

    • Avatar
      Traci Tyne Hilton January 23, 2012 at 12:56 pm #

      But I rather wish I could edit the comment to fix the typo in my own name. d’oh! ; ) My first book Foreclosed, which has been a pretty good Amazon seller (233 last October. Oh how us Indies love to # drop!) ranks consistently between 14.5 and 18 which I think is a pretty accurate reflection of how it has sold over the last year. I can’t stop plugging things into this test though…can’t stop…I only have 4 more hours until I need to pick my kids up from school…must stop before then…

  23. Avatar
    Josiah DeGraaf January 23, 2012 at 1:13 pm #

    The site is interesting, but I agree that it seems kind of unreliable… My first submission I got a 1.6 (ouch…) and then added an extra paragraph and got an 11.7 (! Big difference there…)

  24. Avatar
    Charles Westbrook January 23, 2012 at 1:59 pm #

    Interesting test! Got 17.6/20. Submitted first three devotions of a new book of devotions I will soon complete. Thanks for the heads up on this. Blessings!

  25. Avatar
    Peter DeHaan January 23, 2012 at 3:25 pm #

    Gee, since I write non-fiction, I can’t play along. But, I’m glad everyone else is having fun.

  26. Avatar
    Sarah Thomas January 23, 2012 at 5:30 pm #

    This is a HOOT! First pages of novel one got an 18.4. First pages of novel two (just finished, MUCH less polished) got a 3. I think this crew has the right idea, though, not to take this tool too seriously. Like several others, I found I could raise that second score by fishing around in my MS. Guess it’s not a rating of the novel, but of no more than 7,000 characters frozen in time. Almost as much fun as Wordle!

  27. Avatar
    Kelli Hughett January 23, 2012 at 6:54 pm #

    Wow. That was fun. My first score was a 1.6. My second WIP, a historical, scored 14.9. Interesting… I’m going to send this one around. Thanks for the invitation!

  28. Avatar
    Sherri Wilson Johnson January 23, 2012 at 8:39 pm #

    My latest novel received a 19!!! Woo hoo!

  29. Avatar
    Daniel Smith January 24, 2012 at 1:56 pm #

    My first chapter (which I’m considering cutting) got a dismal 6 in the Thriller genre but a 13 in YA which is the correct genre. I’m writing YA Suspense.

    Chapter 4 (My real chapter 1) got a 10 in YA.

    Interesting but it’s too limited in terms of the genres available.

  30. Avatar
    James Fryar January 24, 2012 at 3:12 pm #

    I plugged in a random passage from my YA book, Patrick Patterson and the World of Others, and was surprised by the results. After reading about this Bestseller Code, I told myself that there was no way that some mysterious code would be able to tell you whether or not a book would sell well. Now that I’ve received a 19.9 out of 20, I’m convinced that it’s meaningful! Ego boost!

  31. Avatar
    Susan Falck January 25, 2012 at 8:16 am #

    Since the unsolicited only scored a 4.6 I didn’t expect a very good score, but then got a 15.6/20. I have too many complex words. Over all, not bad. Getting closer all the time. Still have a lot to learn. Thanks for sharing.

  32. Avatar
    Laura Kirk January 25, 2012 at 12:01 pm #

    Scored 20/20 on my first couple of pages! Cool.

  33. Avatar
    Laura Kirk January 25, 2012 at 12:14 pm #

    Has anybody plugged in the first few pages of “The Help”? Hm, might have to try that! 🙂

  34. Avatar
    Laura Kirk January 25, 2012 at 12:26 pm #

    First page and a half of “The Help” scored 1.2. Yikes!

  35. Avatar
    Suzanne Hartmann January 25, 2012 at 7:28 pm #

    I got an 18.4. WOOHOO!!!

  36. Avatar
    Michele Archer January 25, 2012 at 7:53 pm #

    Hey, my YA novel got a 19.1. ‘Danny Doc Dilly and the Dangerous Duck’ DIDN’T quack up on me.

  37. Avatar
    Ginger Solomon January 26, 2012 at 8:31 am #

    My first “submission” ranked a perfect score of 20. My second received a 3, but I think that’s the Scottish dialect talking (haha, pun intended), too many misspelled words.

  38. Avatar
    Jack Cavanaugh January 26, 2012 at 11:50 am #

    I inserted two selections from the same book — the narrative selection scored 19, the dialogue selection scored 3.

  39. Avatar
    Jane Steen January 26, 2012 at 7:55 pm #

    That was fun. I tried four different chunks from the same novel and got 17.7, 11.2, 3 (a section with foreign words in it), and 20 for the four tries. At which point I stopped, because 20/20 is definitely ending on a high note.

    As this novel was historical suspense, I didn’t quite know which genre to select from the drop-down list. I tried both Literature and Romance, and strangely enough I got the same score for both for all four samples. Now I know that I use long words a lot, so I would expect to score lower in Romance – but no. So are romance readers in fact closet intellectuals?

  40. Avatar
    Becca Whitham January 30, 2012 at 12:55 pm #

    Like Jane Steen, I also write Historical Suspense so I wasn’t sure what genre was closest but got the same score under three different ones. My results? First 500 words = 14.7; 500 to 1000 = 20 (Woot!); 1000 to 1500 = 1.8.


  41. Avatar
    Heidi Gaul January 30, 2012 at 2:37 pm #

    12.2. ‘Nuff said.

  42. Avatar
    Deborah Dunn February 8, 2012 at 3:16 pm #

    Bestsellers Score: 19.9/20 on my WIP, Albemarle Sound. But honestly, I cheated. The first time I tried it I scored around a 9.0. I just shortened a couple of sentences, changed a few words and there you have it, a bestseller, proving that anything can be manipulated if you know how to do it.

  43. Avatar
    Karen Silvestri April 24, 2012 at 5:36 am #

    The site doesn’t appear to work anymore. 🙁

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