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.



  1. A) Hope you have lots of fun with the kid. Life is too short to let stupid stuff get in the way.

    B) “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.”

    Machine learning can be a pretty amazing thing. It can drill down and find all kinds of stuff in a data set. Ants are millions of years old, haven’t really changed at all over that time.

    But, and this is the annoying part, machine learning can’t create new things. That’s our job.

    A machine can probably churn out Tom Swift and his Jetmarine 2.0. Given the characters and setting, it can follow the genre rules and come up with a workmanlike copy of another book, just different enough to sell. For a while. Until people get bored with the same old thing.

    But it can’t invent Tom Swift.

  2. I haven’t read the book either, and I doubt I will. But there is some potential to claim that bestsellers all conform to a formula. The screenplay equivalent worked remarkably well as a hindcast, although it unfortunately meant for a year or two all movies were the same formulaic mess.

    But the problem is that this kind of book almost certainly has both type 1 and type 2 errors. I.e. it omits a bunch of books that met the bestseller formula but weren’t bestsellers as well as missing a bunch of bestsellers that, for one reason or another, didn’t register.

    In the world of ebooks and Amazon that latter is likely to be all the best selling indie ebooks that don’t register in the standard bestseller lists. The former is likely to be all those derivative copy books you mentioned.

    Still there’s definitely a minimum standard that is required for a book to be best seller. A good plot, sympathetic characters and readability for example. But I’m very skeptical that there’s much possible beyond that

    1. There is also the issue of poisoning the well. I read an article recently that talked about how all Hollywood movies are starting to look the same because they followed a proven storyline style. Beat here, turn here, twist there. The details are different, but the format is the same. And while audiences are still responding to it, signs of style fatigue are starting to show.

      If all the movies follow the Super Proven Script Style™, you miss out on quirky little gems that gain a following because they break the mold. Princess Bride broke the mold when it was made. Now, of course, it’s almost a trope of its own.

      1. Yeah, but if anything traditional publishing has the opposite problem. Everyone is trying do something new, to subvert this that and the other, to turn the tropes on their head and redefine the blah blah blah. If you want a proper old fashioned fantasy with virtuous heroes and sneeringly evil villains and sword fights you have to go to indie.

  3. Algorithm? We don’t need no stinking algorithm. Here’s the secret right here: boy meets girl, hearts throb, conflict, reconciliation, happy ever after. Now – go write a best seller.

    Somehow it doesn’t seem likely that it can be that easy. I share your skepticism.

    1. And what kind of best seller are we talking about? By numbers or by durability? _The Goldfinch_ was a best seller by numbers, but I don’t think it will have the long tail that _Starship Troopers_ or _The Dark is Rising_ or _Three Children and It_ have.

  4. “He’s the new/next {Einstein, Ford, Edison, Whatever}.” is nonsense.
    If Gribbleflotz is really that great, he’s the Gribbleflotz.

    Same for authors, or books, or…

  5. Reblogged this on The Arts Mechanical and commented:
    The problem will be that following the “code” in this book will be like following all the othe books that tell you the perfect formula for a best seller, the formula writing. A real beest seller happens because it is a surprise, something new and unique that attracts the readers attention and grabes enough of them to create sales. All the analysis of books from the past will never tell you soemthing about surprise, becuse surprise is not in the past, but the future. All this book will produce is more surprise free books based on past performance, something the publishing industry has far too much of already.

  6. Over on the Kindleboards I saw this one guy post his plan to become a best selling author. He went and found a genre with really good sales numbers for it’s best sellers. He examined the top 40 or so books, he made a list of the tropes covered in each book, and the blurb for each book, and the cover art.

    He was then going to write a book that each covered most, if not all of the tropes and use the combined keywords and base his cover off of all the others. He expected to finish the book in 30 days, publish a short while later and -Instant- BestSeller!!! *Whooo Hooo!*

    I’m serious, he had it all down to a ‘science’ and was just going to follow the fads. Now if he is a good writer, and can write well, and fast, it might work. But I suspect in about another couple of weeks, if I look for his posts, he’ll be raging about those stupid readers and why won’t they buy his books?

    If this stuff was that easy, then everyone would be doing it of course.

  7. The other thing to realize is that if they really DID know the secret to writing best-selling books, they wouldn’t have published it, they would have DONE it. Several times.
    Then after they got rich, maybe, just maybe, they’d share their ‘secret’.

    The fact that they’re sharing it and not actually using it, shows that even THEY don’t believe in it.

  8. Nashville has already done this. That’s why all their songs can be blended and mixed together so seamlessly. And their product sells, but to the experienced listener, it’s crap, the so called Nash-Vegas or Holly-Nash style…

  9. I would really like to see someone come up with a list of common characteristics of, say, “The Color Purple”, ” The Bourne Identity”, “The Hotel New Hampshire”, and ” The Andromeda Strain”. (Aside from the first word in the title, I suppose.)

  10. Actually, such a list has been found. It’s in the introduction to another “the”, namely “The Authentic Necronomicon”. Unfortunately, everyone who reads the answer to your question goes totally mad.

    More seriously, I am reminded of the story many years back where most authors had novel AIs that churned out decent derivative works, and the author who was by far the best in the field And through some process one of his competitors, or perhaps his heir, found the great author’s technical secret. (This one piece of the tale did not age perfectly.) It was…

    An Underwood.

  11. I note the Kazoo request shows a raft with the cross-pieces lashed on below the decking. Hey, boys and girls, can you say “drag”. What about “a really bad idea”? “Someone unskilled in raft-building”?

  12. This may be a dissenting voice, but there is some truth to the “these are the things all bestsellers have in common over the last 30 years.” Dave Farland did a very interesting book called Million Dollar Outlines that lays it out for writers if you’re interested.However, as Uncle Lar pointed out, it does miss the fact that there were plenty of non-bestsellers with those things in common, but it also misses one other major point:

    Most bestsellers in the last 30 years have been bought by a small group of editors, who live in the same place (Manhattan) and share the same work and social culture.

    This is more important than it looks, because it means most bestselling authors first had to have their book accepted, and second had to have their book pushed by a member of this group who believed it had bestseller potential. The bias inherent in a static, closed culture means that the books they pushed as bestsellers will all resemble what they think bestsellers should be. (Few things are more parochial and closed than a big-city echo chamber; they believe all the importance in the world belongs to their city, or a handful of like-minded fellow travelers in a small number of other cities. As such, they never deal with or try to understand other cultures like the rural folks who have to deal with suburban and city dwellers as well as their own.)

    Indie opens up a vast potential to sidestep this gate, too. Hugh Howey’s Wool, Any Weir’s The Martian, Bella Andre’s The Sullivans series… these things may or may not conform to the “bestseller model”, but they didn’t have to, in order to get published. Look for the model to continue conforming to trad bestsellers, and get further and further off base for indie.

    1. So in this case, the famous anecdote about dropped car keys, streetlight, and dark alley is reversed, as the author drops keys under streetlight but the dark alley has a huge magnet. All car keys end up there, with the mugger cleverly disguised as a publisher. 😀

    2. Dissent? Shame on you. Micro aggressions galore!
      Now that that’s off my chest, I tend to agree with your observation about the, shall we say, cliqueishness of big 5 publishers which by its nature propagates downward to the editors who serve them, and even further to the agents who have in effect become second tier gatekeepers. And in my opinion this will be what finally kills them off.
      But small aggressive publishing houses are adopting new paradigms as their only hope to survive. Baen serves a niche market. At least for the most part, though Jim and to a degree Toni is willing to take a chance on a honking good story that doesn’t fit that niche. And in any case, they are in comparison to B5 incredibly attuned to what their readers actually want to see. And we’re starting to see other small press actively paying attention to sales numbers of indie releases and seeking out and courting those authors who have already built a solid fan base. After all, doing a full indie publication all by your own self is a daunting task. For a fair division of profit a small press can take much of that load off a writer’s back and leave him to do what he does best, write solid entertaining stories.

      1. Indeed, I note that Baen’s headquarters are not in Manhattan; they’re much closer to their customer base. And Toni does talk to fans, and bookstores.

        In the days before the indie explosion, she struck gold with her willingness to ignore the “this is what makes an urban fantasy bestseller” and take a chance on an indie-published book by some gun nut named Larry Correia, which starts with an accountant punching his incompetent jackass of a boss out of a 14th story window…

        And not only that, but her willingness, when the first print run sold out, to order more print runs, and keep ordering, instead of refusing to reprint because it mismatched her profit & loss statement. (Which, as I’m sure you’ve known, has happened in the Big5.)

        1. Somehow one must consider the fact that the big5 think a Manhattan address with the horrific cost that entails to be critical to their self image is indicative of that mind set. Once upon a time business was done face to face, and authors make the trek to the publisher to shake hands and sign contracts. That day is long past. The only reason to maintain a NYC addy is that the powers that be feel more comfortable there. And how many books does that sell, anyway?

    3. Dot, I used to devour those “bestseller” books. I can tell you the high points. BUT those books amounted to “How to convince the establishment to push you.” PUSH was the huge determinant in the last 20 years. Now not so much. The messenger might have arrived, but the code in the bottle is for some machine that is falling apart.

    4. Okay, so you’re the guy who mentioned Wool. It is because you did that I have a copy of it now. I was hunting for books in a secondhand shop for my children, and this was there. The blurb in the back was intriguing enough for me to open to the first page. The first two paragraphs intriguing enough that I decided to buy it.

      So yeah, thought you’d like to know. Heh.

  13. I agree – if the 80% of the time covers a lot of Stephen Kings etc it is unimpressive. Best sellers are rare compared to the whole set of books published. An algorithm that simply outputted “not a bestseller” regardless of the book would be right more often than it was wrong for random books. An algorithm that did nearly the same but made an exception for authors who already had a best seller would do even better.

    Spotting *surprising* best sellers would be the trick.

  14. > found a way to identify what
    > books will be best sellers

    My reply on PV, which they apparently found the need to delete, was “Having read a number of best sellers over the years, I figure marketing is much more important than the actual text.”

    “Bestseller” is a default “do not buy” from me, unless it happens to be a known author.

  15. If it’s a set of techniques that’s one thing, but if it’s tropes and doggies and girls in red, the trick will be to just stay away from those, because readers will be sick of them in short order.
    (I first said “formula” but changed it to techniques because there are bad associations with formulas, but “try, fail, try again,” is something I’d call a formula and mean no insult.)

    1. Even if it’s a series of techniques. It ruined one of my books as the agent was obsessed with his own “bestseller form” — except it made no sense to ANYONE who knew actual history.

    2. As a reader I don’t have an issue with a trope as long as its written well. In fact there are times I actively look for books that hope will cater to my preferences in tropes.
      If you look at the Romance book industry there is a whole genre that has, arguably, made the use of tropes part of their success. For example how many books feature a young innocent bookish woman who manages to capture the heart of a nobleman that happens to be a notorious womanizer and causes him to reject his old ways for the love of fore-mentioned woman? The Lit-crit crowd may hold the romance novel in the same disdain as a good old fashion space opera but those books do sell well compared to the latest social justice crowds favorite picks.

    3. Tropes aren’t necessarily bad, in fact, as a reader, one of my guilty pleasures is occasionally choosing books in the hopes that a favorite trope or two will be featured. The issue is more of how well the writer presents the trope without simply become hackneyed in the attempt.

      I would argue that the Romance genre owns some of its success to providing its readers with a raft of favorite tropes. For example, how many romance books feature an innocent and bookish woman who manages to capture the eye of a notorious womanizing nobleman and causes him to reconsider his wicked ways all for the sake of his love for her.

      1. I can’t argue with you there. Maybe what I’m objecting to is the possibility (not having read the book I’m not sure) of lists of “good stuff,” like dogs.

        1. My fave non SF-nal trope is the super competent guy in a field I know nothing about, but which the author is either a part of, or has meticulously researched, who gets his arse caught in the proverbial bear-trap. Story ensues.

          I call it the Dick Francis effect.

  16. My math brain asks “if they are compiling and featuring an algorithm that used 20,000 bestsellers, wouldn’t that mean that taken individually each individual bestseller wouldn’t have been a bestseller by law of averages?

    Or am I just being a negative Nancy here?

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