No, You Can’t Predict a Best-Seller by Analyzing a Book’s Contents
The last one was a startup which wanted to eliminate the middleman by becoming a middleman, and now someone thinks they can predict the next best-seller simply by running the text of a book through an algorithm.
Good news for budding authors needing a little hand in writing that best-selling book: there’s now a formula for writing successful novels. Well, it won’t help you write the whole book, but it may help you get on the right track.
Former acquisitions editor for Penguin UK, Jodie Archer, and associate professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Matthew Jockers, have been compiling data for the last five years, trying to find out what makes a bestseller.
After analysing 20,000 randomly selected novels from the past three decades, the pair worked out what makes a book ‘successful’ (i.e. one that has appeared in The New York Times bestseller list).
The result is an algorithm – titled the ‘bestseller-ometer’ by its discoverers – which measures certain aspects of books such as theme, plot, style, character and vocabulary, and tells you whether it will be a bestseller; they claim it can pick out a future bestseller to an 80% degree of accuracy.
Yes, they say they can predict the next best-seller based on the text of the books which made the best-seller lists twenty and thirty years ago.
Never mind that the market and audience was different 30 years ago; never mind that publishers are gaming the best-seller lists, and have been for decades; never mind that people buy books based on marketing, word-of-mouth, and other aspects which can’t be found in the text; never mind that the best-seller lists don’t accurately reflect a book’s true sales; never mind that the method for generating best-seller lists has changed over the decades.
Pull the other one; it has bells on.
I find I agree with Mike Shatzkin’s take on this idea:
My team’s view is unanimous. The idea that the odds a book will make the bestseller list can be calculated from the content of the book alone, without regard to consumer analysis, branding, or the marketing effort to promote the book, is ridiculous.
As Pete has explained to us, repeatedly, the customers you’re looking for have not read the book. You capture them by appealing to their interests and their searches in ways that they find appealing and in language they understand. He reminds us from time to time that the words “civil rights” “don’t appear in To Kill a Mockingbird”.
According to its Amazon page, “the Bestseller Code boldly claims that the New York Times bestsellers in fiction are predictable and that it’s possible to know with 97% certainty if a manuscript is likely to hit number one on the list as opposed to numbers two through fifteen.”
Our verdict on this: absolutely impossible.
And our hunch is that their publisher feels the same way. After all, if you had access to a capability like this, and you believed it, wouldn’t you do a few bestsellers on your own before you revealed any of it to the world?
That last point may or may not be compelling, depending on whether you like or dislike major publishers, but TBH I had reached many of the same conclusions.
And frankly, if this is such a great idea then why aren’t we reading about Archer and Jockers launching a startup to capitalize on it, and publishing a book to promote the startup?
image by vonguard