A smash-hit bestseller appears a freak event, impossible to predict, yet in their daring book The Bestseller Code, Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers argue that there is, in fact, a winning formula. All you need is a highly sophisticated algorithm trained on bestseller for years.
It’s a fantastic book and fascinating to read whether you agree with their argument or not. I’m not here to lay out all they are saying and try to prove it one way or another, the book itself does that far more effectively than I could ever hope to. The reason I’m writing a blog post on the book is that no matter how you view the idea of using an algorithm to try and write a bestseller, I think there’s still some useful tips for all authors that despite to computer element, boil down to plain good writing. I’d like to condense them for you all to read here so that even if you don’t have the time or the means to read the whole book (which I highly recommend you do, if possible) you can still learn a little about what they propose.
Here’s the rundown of useful information about bestsellers I learnt from the book. How you use it is up to you.
Topics: The number one topic in bestsellers across the board was about human closeness. In other words, every bestseller the algorithm ‘read’ included numerous moments of people simply being people together. These are the moments that give the reader a pause from all the action and time to connect with the main character as they connect with the people around them.
Titles: They rarely begin with a word that ends -ly. The word ‘husband’ is also rare, while the word ‘wife’ is usually only present if modified in the style of “The _____ Wife” The word ‘girl’ is common in the emerging genre dubbed ‘domestic noir.’ (These are books such as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train)
Verbs: Some of the most common verbs in bestselling books are: wants, needs, misses, loves, does, nods, says and dies. Non-bestselling books favour words such as wish, accept, dislike, seem, suppose and recover. It’s not hard to see the difference in the decisiveness of better selling and less popular characters.
Plot: Okay, an algorithm can’t entirely understand a plot (yet) but it can measure how positive or negative a scene is and the intensity of that sentiment. After all, what is a plot for other than to induce the highs and lows of emotion in the reader and addict them to turning the next page? What I took away from this section was that the most addictive (not necessarily the best but the most addictive) plots frequently switch between highs and lows in a rhythmic tempo that keeps the reader anticipating the next swing. There should also be micro-shifts in the main character’s mood throughout scenes, just as there are in real life minute to minute.
Visceral response: This last part has nothing to do with the algorithm itself as it is something only a real-life human can tell about a book. A bestseller must provoke a visceral response in the reader – sweaty palms, a blush, a laugh, an increase in heart rate – any response in the body to what they are reading. In a casual test with their students, the authors found all the best-sellers they were studying that class produced a visceral response within the first ten pages. For me, this was the most interesting and useful revelation as although I will not have access to that algorithm anytime soon, I do have the option of beta-readers and I think making sure to ask them to note any visceral responses while reading would be incredibly valuable.
The book obviously contains a whole lot more than this brief summary, but these are the points that stuck out in my mind and I thought best to share with you all. You might find use for this information or you might not. Either way, it’s a subject I find fascinating and enjoy debating with my friends and I hope it interested others too. Could this be the future of publishing? Right now it’s still too early to tell, but it’s certainly something to keep an eye on.