What Makes a Successful Novel? The Bestseller Code Delivers on Its Title

They analyzed thousands of books on and off the charts with a groundbreaking algorithm. And you won’t believe what they’ve discovered.

First, let me apologize for the clickbait in the headline. I phrased it to parody how I felt about the title of Jodie Archer’s and Matt Jockers’ book The Bestseller Code: Not convincing and too good to be true.

But it proved to be quite the opposite. Their book is brilliant and full of new insights. A must-read for writers and publishers alike. And a possible game-changer.

Do you remember reading a major global bestseller, like The Da Vinci Code or Fifty Shades of Grey, and being hooked and upset at the same time?

I do.

In my opinion, The Da Vinci Code makes for a vibrant thriller, but also a poorly written novel — the plot is mundane, the main character resembles Indiana Jones a bit too much and the villains come across more as caricatures than real.

Yet there is also something about Dan Brown’s book that grabs you to the point where you just can’t stop reading it. It’s pace, blended with action and mystery, and the structure of an emotional roller-coaster seem to be fine-tuned for success and sales. But how?

Archer and Jockers are the renowned literary scientists who set out on this seemingly impossible quest to discover what makes these types of books so special.

They gathered a huge database of The New York Times Bestsellers from the past few decades, both from high and low literary genres, along with thousands of other novels, that weren’t selling that well. And they developed a sophisticated computer algorithm to analyze which of the myriads of measurable attributes were the most responsible for an increase or decrease in the probability of turning a book into a bestseller.

Hold your breath. After years of work, they’ve come up with a model which is able to predict some bestsellers with up to a 97 % probability rate merely on the basis of a text analysis, i.e. without considering the author’s reputation or previous sales.

That’s a major accomplishment indeed. For the first time in history of literary fiction studies, there’s an objective, computable index of a book’s potential to succeed in sales, no matter if it is a serious highbrow novel written by Jonathan Franzen, or a new blockbuster by the same old Dan Brown. The computer doesn’t care which is which and simply delivers a clear answer.

I won’t throw any spoilers at you, because The Bestseller Code is definitely worthy of your precious reading time. It is so good indeed, that I am pretty sure the authors must have run it through one of their algorithms to position it for success.

But I wouldn’t be giving too much away to reveal that some attributes are much more important than others. For instance, work sells better than sex and a location seems to be much less important than how the main characters behave, talk and think. And while some writers seem to have embedded the “bestseller code” into their literary genes and sell exceedingly well for decades, others are off the beat and seem to miss it with almost every page.

There are certainly blind spots for the algorithm that need to be filled in by future research. For instance, the researchers were able to detect positive/negative emotional drifts by analyzing the collocation of particular words. But on the other hand, they weren’t able to detect wit and humor, which is obviously a positive trait much harder to detect than affectionate love or a quarrel.

Whether you are an aspiring author, a publisher or you’re just interested in literary science, The Bestseller Code is definitely a book to read and ponder. It is a serious, evidence-based attempt to decipher the structure hidden between the lines of your favorite novels. The mystery it reveals is deeper than Da Vinci’s cheap thrills.