Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The Bestseller Code For Authors & Book Marketers

Big awards.  Favorable books reviews.  Great endorsements.  Huge book publisher.  Great social media platform.  We believe some combination of these things – coupled with word-of-mouth for a well-written book – serve as the foundation for a formula on hitting the best-seller lists.

Not exactly, says a recently published book.  The Bestseller Code: Anatomy of the Blockbuster Novel by Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers.

The authors created a groundbreaking algorithm that they believe tells us not only how and why we buy and read what we do, but it can predict which books will be best-sellers.  Okay, maybe not predict a specific book’s fate, but it can compare it to those that have become best-sellers and give you a score on its potential to be a best-seller.

All of this sounds fascinating but it just fails too many tests to become some kind of gold standard for handicapping the next best-seller.

For instance, little in the book takes into account factors such as:

·         Author’s credentials
·         Publisher’s pull to get reviews
·         Size of ad/marketing campaigns
·         Resources to promote the book

Patterns only exist for so long.  Once one trend gets used up, another takes its place.

The nation’s mood, demographics and economy change over time, and these will influence what gets published and purchased.

The biggest reason a book becomes a best-seller, in my view, is because the author previously hit a list.  A big buy-in and expectation comes with follow-up books until that author releases a clunker, and loses some goodwill.

The next biggest reason a book is a best-seller, in my view, is there’s a big, savvy, far-reaching marketing machine and PR push behind the book.  How can you ignore a book that gets on TV, is heard on radio, has bloggers discussing it, has ads on Facebook and receives reviews from PW, Library Journal, and Kirkus?

The authors go so far as to suggest that a computer, given all of their research, could possibly write a bestseller.  They wrote:  “Given our research on novels using algorithims, we are often asked about our interest in a machine producing a novel.  It is natural to wonder what programmers might be able to do if given access to all of the data that we have compiled for our work on best-sellers.  We trained our computers to detect and measure the presence of several thousand ingredients that are essential to best-sellers.  It might be an attractive idea to take all this data and develop, new scripts that build novels from our set of variables.”

The authors initially looked at 28,000 features or variables to examine a book for comparative analysis.  They settled on a core set of 2,799 data points that they believe are genuinely predictive.

So who are these authors and why are they qualified to say anything on bestsellers?  Jodie Archer was an acquiring editor for Penguin UK, earned a Ph.D., and worked for Apple as their research lead on literature.  Matthew Jockers is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln.  He directs their Nebraska Literary Lab.  His text-mining research has been profiled in The New York Times, LA Review of Books, and The Sunday Times of London.

The authors also noted what doesn’t seem to work if a book is to be a best-seller – all things fantastical and other worldly.  Tell that to J.K. Rowling, but she appears to be an exception.

“Perhaps it is fair to speculate that the portion of the American public that actually reads fiction likes to read more or less about itself,” say the authors.  “To us, it seems like readers enjoy seeing their own possible realities dramatized.”

Surprisingly, the bestseller DNA that the authors uncovered shows sex, drugs, and rock and roll each, thematically, represent a tiny percentage of best-selling novels.

“Contrary to what you might expect, given the prominence of sex in TV, movies, and the media,” writes the authors, “the U.S. reading public of the past 30 years has demonstrated a preference for other topics.  The mix of topics that tend to dominate contemporary best-sellers suggests a reader who wants books to be something different from the lowest common denominator.”

The authors also notice that at the core of the best-selling narrative in the current era is realism.  They don’t see books about far-away topics for people who are nothing like us as being popular.

So what else did they notice of their thorough analysis of New York Times best-sellers?

“The model showed that symmetry in a plotline, and a clear three-act structure, used to indicate that readers will find a novel pleasing, and we also saw that a carefully manipulated emotional ride, can lead to high global sales.  But without an understanding of style, no author will make it to the list, even with the right themes, and a driving plotline.”

Their machine was able to accurately identify that 80% of the books that had made the best-seller list should be best-sellers.  That means any book fed into the machine - and there were thousands – it could accurately say which one’s a best-seller.  That sounds powerful but I’ll believe it if they can take books being released in 2017 and tell us – before they hit a list – whether or not they make it.

We know there are general patterns that successful books or authors follow.  The more that follow such a pattern, the more likely that they will be successful.  But if everyone does the same thing, they can’t all break through.  It still takes a creative author with an interesting background, a Big 5 publisher behind her, and a fat marketing campaign to position a book for success.  If the book’s not well-written and fails to get good word-of-mouth it is likely to die out.

The Bestseller Code was interesting and shows us where we’ve been.  Imagine a new code will develop over the next decade.  And then another and another.  Go write the book you believe in – and the rest will take care of itself.  The minute you seek to copy some formula you lose your edge, your uniqueness, your writing soul.

All-New 2017 Book Marketing & PR Toolkit 

Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog 2017©. Born and raised in Brooklyn, now resides in Westchester. Named one of the best book marketing blogs by Book Baby 

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