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