Recently two writers co-authored a book that looks into the question: what makes a novel a bestseller. The authors, Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers, have published their findings in The Bestseller Code. From what I can make of press releases and book reviews, the authors took a quasi-scientific, computer-aided approach to analyzing over 500 bestsellers, as well as non-bestsellers, to find out what made a novel a bestseller. Their claims include the ability to predict if a novel will be a bestseller with 80% accuracy.
I’m fascinated with the premise of the book and look forward to reading it. However, there are several reasons why I’m in no hurry to do so. First, several reviewers make it clear that the authors are not claiming to tell people how to write a bestseller. Good, because I’ve done enough work in fiction writing and analysis to know that there already exists a number of excellent books on how to write a great novel; even a bestseller. Two that immediately come to mind are Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass and Wired for Story by Lisa Cron. There are others how-to books from popular novelist such as Stephen King and Ray Bradbury.
Another reason I’m a little cool on the book is that I have some experience in tackling projects of this nature. Several years ago, I embarked on a project to develop a categorization methodology for science fiction (SF) stories. A working categorization scheme currently exists and is used by book and story reviewers. It is based largely on the generally accepted types or subgenres of SF, such as military, time-travel, post-apocalyptic, robots, artificial intelligence (AI), space opera, alternative histories, steampunk, and many others. Unfortunately, there are several problems with this categorization approach. First, a specific story may fit into two or three or more of these categories. Secondly, and most important, these categories fail to offer any real insights into the stories themselves. For example, one can read ten time-travel stories and afterwards realize that the stories varied widely in just about every aspect imaginable – except of course for the common fact that time shifting played a role in each of them.
I ultimately set aside my project, primarily because I realized I could not enumerate all the factors that could play a role in categorization. Further, I suspected there were probably interactions between some of the factors. Thus, much more research and expertise was needed than I could apply at the time.
My point is, I expect there are similar challenges in trying to nail down the essential elements of a bestseller. I’m not saying it can’t be done – editors do it all the time. What I am saying is that it seems to me that if it is done successfully, and at sufficient depth, then the results of the work do reveal how to write a bestseller!
I acknowledge that Archer’s book may offer more insights than I’m anticipating. However, I’m waiting to see if I should buy it or not. Even though it is nonfiction, how will I know if I should buy it? Well, obviously, I’m waiting to see if it becomes a bestseller.