Time is running out
No, no, not in that way. It’s just that my schedule for the week just got turned completely on its head. Everything I had planned for the next five days — writing, errands, appointments, sleep — now must be condensed into 24 hours. The reason is one I wouldn’t trade. My son is coming home on leave and he will be here longer than we first thought. But, as almost any parent with a parent in the military will tell you, when they can come home, you push everything else aside.
But time is also running out for publishers who keep clinging to the old business practices that no longer work in today’s world of e-books, Amazon and indie publishing. There are some in the industry who have at least an inkling of this and others who are grasping at straws in order to find a way to help their business models survive. At the moment, a new ripple of concern, possibly even discontent, had appeared in the publishing pool and I can hardly wait to read the book that is the source of the concern.
The Bestseller Code by Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers first came to my attention through The Passive Voice. The short version is the authors believe they have found a way to identify what books will be best sellers. They have done this through analyzing a number of previous best sellers, scanning texts and compiling data until they were able to come up with an algorithm that will do the trick. According to the Wall Street Journal article linked to on TPV, this has caused concern amongst some publishing industry employees that the algorithm might put them out of a job.
Now, we all know the ultimate aim of publishing has been, from its inception, to create that best seller that will bring the publisher the most money possible. It is the aim of many writers. That is especially true if the writer is taking the traditional publishing route. Why? Because traditional publishing loves their best sellers. The problem is they have yet to figure out how to consistently identify best sellers when a manuscript comes over the transom.
Need an example? How about Harry Potter? I don’t remember right now how many publishers turned it down before Rowling finally found someone willing to take a chance on that first book.
Another problem traditional publishing faces is that once it does have a best seller, it tends to try to push a trend. How many Da Vinci Code-lites did we see following the release of that book? Or 50 Shades of Grey? Let’s not forget the publisher who pulled an entire line of books so they could rebrand the covers to make them look similar to 50 Shades. The problem is that made a number of different books by different authors all look the same and that is confusing to readers and, much more important when you’re talking about publishers, the bookstore buyers. They see a cover that looks too much like another book they have already purchased for their stores and they are likely to think there is nothing new and pass that new title by.
So, does The Bestseller Code really give publishers and authors a way to accurately predict whether a book will be a best seller or not? I don’t know. It will be interesting to see what their process was in determining this algorithm. What factors did they look at? Was there more considered than just a book’s text?
That last question will tell the tale for me. No matter how well-written a book is, no matter how entertaining it might be, there is so much more that goes into making a best seller. Of course, the first thing you have to do is define what you mean by “best seller”. Does it mean making one of the so-called best seller lists? Or does it mean selling a certain number of books?
Other questions I’m wondering if they considered in creating their algorithm are:
- How much push did the book get?
- What sort of push or promotion did the book get?
- What sort of pre-orders did it receive?
- How many printings?
- What are the differences between a best seller by a first time author and multi-published author?
I also wonder how the authors chose which books to analyze. I’m sure their process is described in the book but it is a question that must be answered. As we all know, data can be easily manipulated simply by cherry picking your data pool. I am hoping the authors didn’t do this but I will remain skeptical until I have the book in hand and can see what their data pool was and how it was selected.
Going to the last question I posed in the above list, it is much more difficult for an acquisitions editor to predict that an author’s first book will be a best seller than it is to predict that Stephen King’s next book will be. That has to be taken into consideration in this algorithm. If not, there is a flaw in the methodology.
My biggest concern about the book comes from the description itself. “Fine-tuned on over 20,000 contemporary novels, the system analyzes themes, plot, character, setting, and also the frequencies of tiny but amazingly significant markers of style. The “bestseller-ometer” then makes predictions, with fascinating detail, about which specific combinations of these features will resonate with readers. Somehow, in all genres, it is right over eighty percent of the time.”
See, as noted above, there are other factors besides the words on the page that go into making a best seller. If the publisher isn’t going to put money behind pushing the book, it most likely won’t make the best seller lists no matter how closely it follows the algorithm. If that is addressed in the book, fine. Or if this is merely meant to be a guidepost for acquisition editors, telling them what they need to look for, fine as well. However, color me skeptical about the whole thing. That is especially true after looking at the sample chapter. But we will see.
Will I buy the book to see what it has to say?
My initial response was “we’ll see”. Then I went back to the product and the decision is a big NO. Why? Because the publisher is being an idiot, and that is putting it kindly. I wasn’t surprised by the print price for the book. It seemed right in line. But the kindle price surprised me. It was listed as $0.00. Of course, when you follow that to the kindle page, you see that isn’t the pre-order price. There isn’t one. In fact, there isn’t a price for the e-book once published listed at all. The $0.00 is for a sample of Chapter 2 of the book. That smacks of nothing but disdain for digital readers, especially since the book is due to be released in a week.
So, no, I won’t be picking this book up, at least not in such a way that the publisher will see a penny of my money. If you want me to take you seriously as a publisher, you have to take me seriously as a reader. The fact this is a Big 5 publisher doesn’t surprise me. It is that lack of respect, and lack of understanding, that has helped put them in the situation they are now in. Keep grasping for those straws, Big 5. Maybe you will one day have enough to light the fire that will finally burn down your house.