A recent article argued that there is a formula to writing bestsellers. The article says the algorithm is “built to predict, with 80 percent accuracy, which novels will become mega-bestsellers. What does it like? “Young, strong heroines who are also misfits (the type found in The Girl on the Train, Gone Girl, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). No sex, just ‘human closeness.’ Frequent use of the verb ‘need.’ Lots of contractions. Not a lot of exclamation marks. Dogs, yes; cats, meh.” So if you are writing a novel and want to trump your competition, you should abide what this book says, right? Let’s see how I’m doing with my upcoming science fiction novel:
* Young, strong, heroine — check.
* Misfit — check.
* No sex — this one is an in betweener…you’ll have to read the novel to understand.
* Human closeness — check.
* Frequent use of the verb “need” — hmm… 154 times in a novel of 116k words…I can work on this one.
* Lots of contractions — I probably need more, so this is fixable.
* Not a lot of exclamation marks — I’ve got too many. I can fix this.
* Dogs — Several of them.
* Cats — One. Dead.
I suppose if I put an image of a young woman on the cover… Bestseller, here I come!
Joking aside… The problem with such methods is that they are “chaser” models. That is, they can tell you what has been popular. They aren’t so good at telling you what will be popular next. Additionally, the more people use such models, the faster they will saturate the market’s desire for such writing.
This is not to say they are worthless, just that they have limits (obviously). And if the market or trend is moving too fast, if you take 2 years to react, the market may have moved on by the time you get your book to market.
And I don’t think this is overly profound. There are other, simple ways to do similar types of research. For instance, you can use Google Trends (with a variety of filters, to include for books) to see what search terms are popular and which way they are trending. Further, you can search Amazon to see how many books there are of a given genre or category, and then map that to what is and is not trending as a search term. You can then divide the number of searches by the number of available books. Doing this will quickly show you some very different ratios, which may or may not imply that there could be opportunities.
Write To Market is another view on how to write what will sell well, though the data collection method detailed is more qualitative.
Also keep in mind that this research is based on a small sample size and only bestsellers — not good sellers, for instance — and is only predicted to be accurate 80% of the time. That is a damn big margin for error. And even if it is correct, there is a lot of room to write books that sell very, very well outside the 5000 “mega bestsellers” they have looked at. I’d be more than happy if my book is just a typical bestseller. 🙂
All said, writing a great story — however defined — is still the better bet. Though their research is interesting to think about, it is not going to sway my view on how to write, and I don’t think it is going to have much of an impact on the publishing industry, as one publishing insider noted in the article — this is just one more piece of evaluating a manuscript.
Check out the article and tell me what you think.