Goodreads: The Bestseller Code
Published: September 20, 2016
Ask most people about massive success in the world of fiction, and you’ll typically hear that it’s a game of hazy crystals balls. The sales figures of E. L. James or Dan Brown seem to be freakish—random occurrences in an unknowable market. So often we hear that nothing but hype explains their success, but what if there were an algorithm that could reveal a secret DNA of bestsellers, regardless of their genre? What if it knew, just from analyzing the words alone, not just why genre writers like John Grisham and Danielle Steel belong on the lists, but also that authors such as Junot Diaz, Jodi Picoult, and Donna Tartt had tell-tale signs of success all over their pages?
Thanks to Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers, the algorithm exists, the code has been cracked, and the results bring fresh new insights into how fiction works and why we read. The Bestseller Code offers a new theory for why Fifty Shades of Greysold so well. It sheds light on the current craze for dark heroines. It reveals which themes tend to sell best. And all with fascinating supporting data taken from a five year study of 20,000 novels. Then there is the hunt for “the one”—the paradigmatic example of bestselling writing according to a computer’s analysis of thousands of points of data. The result is surprising, a bit ironic, and delightfully unorthodox.
There are two major reasons people might not like this book. 1) They might be hoping for more “how to” instructions to write a bestseller. 2) They might be aggrieved at the idea there’s some sort of formula that makes books “good” (or at least compulsively readable enough to sell tons of copies). I think if one comes to terms with the idea, however, that the authors are trying to explain large-scale similarities of what bestselling books have in common and that they aren’t making judgments about whether the books are thoughtful, insightful, full of beautiful prose or great ideas, etc.,–just noting that they do something that helps them sell lots of copies–then there’s some great information to be mined from the book.
The authors address a number of topics, such as the titles of bestselling books, what major topics they tend to address (sex? family? crime?), how often they use the word “the,0 what verbs tend to be associated with protagonists in bestsellers,” etc., but if one is looking for “applicable” advice, I think the most interesting sections are about how bestselling books are structured. I don’t think anyone is really going to count up how often they say “the” and then try to change that. A writer might, however, think about how many major themes and topics are in their book (three are common in bestsellers) and look at the structure of their book to see how many “turns” there are (bestsellers tend to have major changes in plot around one third, one half, and two thirds of the way through the book). The information is interesting even if you’re not writing a novel (again, the book isn’t really meant to be writing advice), and it gives an overview of what sells and reasons why that is.
The authors also address issues like marketing and why some books might be outliers. Fifty Shades of Grey is the obvious example, since their algorithm determined that books about sex don’t really become bestsellers. Their explanation here involves a combination of factors, such as that E. L. James’s book has the right plot graph with ups and downs (which closely matches that of The Da Vinci Code) and the argument that the the book is not actually about BDSM but rather about the protagonist’s relationship to and decisions about BDSM. It’s basically a personal journey, not erotica. (Disclaimer: I have not read the book myself.)
Since I read a lot of YA and MG, I was disappointed that the book doesn’t address bestsellers in the children’s market at all, beyond some occasional references to Harry Potter. I wonder if there are different patterns to popular children’s books. Likely they would have similar plot structures with ups and downs and the right pacing to keep readers’ engaged, but would they address different topics? Would the prose be different? Would the characters want and do different things? Presumably the authors could feed children’s bestsellers lists into their algorithm and get this data. They just didn’t.
Also, they mention in the book that they fed one of their friend’s manuscripts into the algorithm and, after he revised based on suggestions, he was able to find a publisher for a book that had been agented but getting rejections from editors. This suggests to me that, even if the book isn’t a “how to” guide, their algorithm perhaps could tell writers how to write. A Google search reveals that they have founded Archer Jockers Book Consultancy, and you actually can pay to have them run your manuscript. So that’s interesting.
If you’re interested in why books sell or what seems to “work” in writing, this is worth a read.
And, f you’re interested in this topic, you probably would also like Nabakov’s Favorite Word is Mauve.