After four years of work, Jodie Archer, a former acquisitions editor, and Matthew Jockers, an academic specializing in computational analysis of style, have been able to “predict” which books were bestsellers and which were not with “an average accuracy of 80 percent.” This means that, out of a randomly selected group of 50 bestsellers and 50 non-bestsellers, the algorithm would predict 40 of each correctly.
They built a collection of “just under 5,000 books,” including “a diverse mixture of non-bestselling ebooks and traditional published novels, and just over 500 New York Times bestsellers.”
There’s a prejudice among many readers of esoteric fare that bestsellers are badly written, escapist, and driven by cringe-making sex and implausible plot turns. But the results of the authors’ program suggest that sex doesn’t sell but realism — of a sort — does, and that bestsellers are carefully, even masterfully, crafted, down to the level of the individual sentence.
As to escapism, Americans’ idea of that means inhabiting somebody else’s job. Work is a riveting topic. The authors don’t explore this in detail, but those jobs tend to be emergency-room doctor or fiery litigator, not insurance analyst or dental hygienist. Other favored topics are “intimate conversation” and “human closeness.” Television caught on to this interest in work and talk long ago: Think of the Mary Tyler Moore Show, Friends, Seinfeld. But many so-called serious novelists avoid the world of work, unless it’s university teaching, presumably due to lack of experience.
The list of turnoffs is revealing as well: Fantasy, science fiction, revolutions, dinner parties, very dressed-up women, and dancing, as well as “the body described in any terms other than in pain or at a crime scene.” Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll account for less than 1 percent of bestsellers’ content; sex sells only in a niche market.
As to structure, focus and simplicity work: “To get to 40 percent of the average novel, a bestseller uses only four topics.” One of these should be something many people fear: an accident, illness, or involvement in a lawsuit. And oddly enough, despite such relentless practicality, 9 of 10 recent debut novels that became instant bestsellers were written by women.
The authors are given to the adjective “winning,” as in “winning style,” “winning over readers,” and “winning prose.” They don’t like “long-winded syntax” and “the endless sentences of some classic writers who will write for three paragraphs without a period point.”