Bestselling Novels – Is There an Algorithm for That?

A Review of The Bestseller Code by Jodie Archer & Matthew L. Jockers

What makes one book “take off” and sell a zillion copies?  If you love novels (or write them), you surely have pondered this question.  But is it possible to answer the question of what makes a bestseller using science and a computer?

Yes, it is.  In their new book, The Bestseller Code, Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers have done just this.  It’s all about pattern recognition, which computers do quite well.   The authors, a former editor and an English professor, fed the manuscripts of 20,000 contemporary novels into a computer program and came up with commonalities of books that “take off” and become bestsellers.

Proof that their algorithm works?  The two authors the computer targeted as most likely bestsellers are two authors who are very famous and household names.  (I won’t spoil the book by telling).  Many of the books ranked highly by the computer are indeed bestsellers, including the infamous Fifty Shades of Grey.  (Love it or hate it, you probably need to have read this book – and other recent blockbusters – to fully appreciate this research.)

As a writer myself, The Bestseller Code gave me very valuable insights as to “what works” and what I need to avoid in my writing.  I was thrilled to find that books with characters who are “femme noirs” are likely sell lots of books, at least for now.  I wonder if this research will need updating in future years.  But for the meantime, this book gives writers truly valuable information to use in their work, along with interesting information for bookworms and those who just plain love to read. The tone is conversational and easy to read.

Does The Bestseller Code give us all “the secret” or “the code” for writing a surefire winner of a novel?  I’ll have to say no to that one.  The book the computer picked as most likely to be a bestseller is a novel I had never heard of, though by a very fine writer you probably have heard of.  (Again, no spoilers here.)  The book is certainly not one I’ve ever heard anyone rave about.

This leaves me with the assurance that there is still a certain “magic” to the art of writing.  No matter how much you meet the criteria of good technique, careful plotting, and lovely language, there is still something indefinable about a really good novel that makes you say “I love this book,” that makes you never want it to end.

Cynthia Coe is the author of several nonfiction books and the author of the upcoming novel, Runaway Kitty.  Her blogs are www.sycamorecove.org and www.spiritualearthed.org . Her author page on Amazon.com is: http://amzn.to/2d0TV2g

A “Hillbilly” Reacts to “Hillbilly Elegy”

A Review of Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance
I bought this book as soon as it came out. I wanted to love it. Finally, I hoped, someone would write about contemporary Appalachian culture in a positive light.

This book was not about life in Appalachia. This book was about white poverty among people in small towns in the Midwest, many of whom are descended from Appalachia migrants. The experiences of Vance growing up poor were well worth reading, but I expected much more reflection and analysis on “Hillbilly” culture. There was the beginnings of a good discussion on upward mobility (around page 200), and I had hoped this would be the crux of the book.

My own parents grew up in grinding poverty in Appalachia, and I married the son of an investment banker. The difference in lifestyles and attitudes between my parents’ early lives and my adult life were jarring and often difficult to reconcile. My life as a wealthy person in Appalachia is light years away from that of poor Appalachian people living less than a mile away. Yet we do still have the same “culture” in many ways. I had hoped this book would address this culture, including the love of the land, the rich musical heritage, the pride in Cherokee heritage most of us have, and the extraordinary generosity of people in this region. I had also hoped a book such as this would have covered the vast changes in this region in the past fifty or so years.

This idea for this book was a great concept, but it focused too much on the author’s personal story – and that story took place among exiled mountain people in the Midwest, not in Appalachia itself. The focus on violence in this book was real for this author, but I wish he had been able to see this problem in context and understand that hair trigger temper tantrums are, in this region, more a symptom of class, rather than pervasive among everyone in this region. It only told part of the story of the people in this region.

I hope someone will eventually write about contemporary culture in Appalachia in a way that does justice to the subject.  It grieves me that in America, it is still considered acceptable to ridicule “hillbillies” and “rednecks.”  I hope at some point, this will end.