The Bestseller

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.



End of an Era

When I was around the age of ten, I started making occasional trips to the local public library. There was a branch within walking distance and it offered an alternative to an otherwise boring summer. I enjoyed looking at science books and before long discovered the science fiction (SF) section. Thus began my informal summer reading program. I read Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov, Van Vogt, Fredric Brown, Sturgeon, Jack Williamson, Simak, and many others. These authors were part of what was later called the Golden Age of Science Fiction.

That I recall, in those days (late 1950s to mid-1960s) there was only one SF magazine that continuously made its way to the library periodicals shelf: Analog Science Fiction and Fact. I began reading it and found that I enjoyed Analog. John W. Campbell was the editor back then and is widely accredited with helping some of the Golden Age authors get their start. I also especially liked the art work of Kelly Freas. I sometimes purchased the latest issue of Analog at the book store and supplemented it with trips to the library.

My reading of Analog during my adult years was sporadic. This was a consequence of life’s demands and priorities. Even so, I always came back to Analog when my interest in SF was rekindled. There were several periods when I held a subscription to Analog but it never lasted for more than a year. That is, until about five years ago when Analog introduced a Kindle e-book version. The e-book subscription price was half of the print subscription price and well within my budget. I’ve been a subscriber ever since.

In a recent visit to my local library branch (part of the same county library system as before but not the same branch) I noticed they no longer carried the print version of Analog. The reference librarian explained that the print magazine no longer had the number of check-outs needed to support its continued subscription. She also confirmed that all the other branches of the library had already dropped their subscriptions.

It was those trips to the library decades ago that introduced me to Analog. Nowadays, it appears young readers become acquainted with publications through downloads. I have used this method myself to check-out free library e-book materials. Another thing that has changed in the world is there are now a number of SF magazines available (only) online.

It’s difficult for me to compare the download experience with the library experience. While I have fond memories of visiting the library, for the long haul I must admit the download experience is better – if for no other reason than far fewer young people growing up these days live within walking distance of a public library. Not that they would find an issue of Analog there even if they did!