So, can there really be a code which will ensure you write a bestseller? We all know, especially if we are experienced book editors, that the answer is a resounding NO. Authors and publishers’ commissioning editors are regularly amazed by what sells well and what languishes unsold.
But the Stanford research of Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers yielded exciting results which are of great value to publishers and authors. If you want to be a popular writer there are guidelines here which may surprise you.
But remember, not everyone is aiming for high sales! Most writers of fiction and non-fiction want to pen the best book they can whether it sells well or not. Literary fiction rarely sells very well, certainly not at first. And to become a set book for school or university the author may well have to qualify by being dead. Thankfully, this is less the case now than in my youth.
To reach their conclusions Archer and Jockers used an algorithm. An algorithm is a set of rules or instructions which define how an operation is done on a computer. So, using the algorithm, many sample books were read by the computer and analysed following criteria that were specified. (No, I don’t really understand either.)
Amazingly, the program was able to predict with 80% accuracy which books had become bestsellers. 20% were therefore random outliers. But 80% is a strong result. For top bestsellers like JK Rowling and EL James the predictability was 90%; the algorithm was 90% sure they were bestsellers.
So, please, please give us the rules! OK, but first, here’s a monster health warning. You or I can follow these rules to the letter and still struggle to sell 500 copies. The magic, the special dust which a bestseller possesses may be absent. This is not analysable. But what these criteria show is that your book is statistically unlikely to be a top seller unless it follows the code. It may still make it out of the doldrums and into the stars but it will be an exception. Here goes.
Narration driven by lots of dialogue
Simple vocabulary, short words
This doesn’t mean you can’t break these rules. It’s simply that top bestsellers generally keep to them most of the time.
Journalists who turn to novel-writing often do well. They have been trained to write in an accessible style. Colloquial, conversational language communicates. The best copy-editors and publishers understand this and can easily separate the communicators from the wordy obfuscators. Never use a word like obfuscatory.
We know when we see a good rom-com that we are being manipulated emotionally. We recognise this and we crave it. It’s a deliberate rollercoaster ride. We love it. It may have four or five highs and lows. It’s a ploy, and we like to be ployed with.
Bestselling novels usually work to the same formula. The more skilful the writer the better the highs and lows work. You still need the magic dust which no algorithm can provide. Bah!
A bestseller needs focus. It can’t meander sniffing the roses along the way. Readers of bestsellers want to follow a clear path. There must be a clear message. There’s good magic and bad magic. So, keep topics clear and focused, and the fewer the better.
Anthony Horowitz, the extraordinarily successful thriller, horror and spy writer did his own research among the young readers of his spy novels. Yes, they loved the suspense, the mystery, the cool spy stuff, but what really hooked them was relationships. Romance they could relate to. And this brings us on to…
Relating to Characters
There is a strong need to identify. Children see themselves as Harry or Hermione. I saw myself as Snape, of course. EL James… Let’s not go there, but you get the idea. The divorced father of twin boys, the abused wife, the harassed, multi-tasking mother. If we can latch on to elements of a character we are more likely to turn the page.
And that’s what it’s about: creating a page turner. If that’s your ambition, of course. Me? I’ll just continue with bad poetry destined for the bin. Poor, but happy. Big Ahhhh…