Neither Predictive nor Prescriptive, “The Bestseller Code” is Anything But

Book Review: “The Bestseller Code: Anatomy of the Blockbuster Novel” by Jodie Archer & Matthew L. Jockers, published by St. Martin’s Press, 2016

We’ve all read about studies that made us scratch our heads—research results that told us things we already knew, such as a healthy diet is key to living longer and people who exercise are in better shape than couch potatoes. “The Bestseller Code” is one of those studies.

“The bold claim of this book is that the novels that hit the New York Times bestseller lists are not random, and the market is not in fact as unknowable as others suggest,” wrote Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers.

Indeed the book identified patterns in best-selling novels. It stirred a lot of interest, too. So, how come neither publishers nor midlist novelists are drooling over the algorithm (called “bestseller-ometer”) that the authors used?

I finally read the book and found out why the hype surrounding it has fizzled out. The computer model used by the authors could neither predict a future best-seller for publishers nor prescribe novelists how to write a best-selling book. It only confirmed past best-seller lists.

Why do we need to confirm that “The Da Vinci Code” and “The Firm” are mega hits? I’ve read both books and enjoyed them. I don’t need a study to tell me why they are popular.

The book identified some common elements of popular books and presented interesting facts, but it did not reveal a “code.” Archer, who has a publishing background, and Jockers, with an academic background, conducted their text-mining research using thousands of books published before 2010.  Here are some interesting nuggets of information from the book:

  • Only about 200 to 220 novels make the New York Times best-seller lists (less than half a percent of novels published) and only a handful manage 10 or more weeks on the lists.
  • The term “best-seller” first entered the dictionary in the late 19th century, around the time a list of books ranked by consumer sales was printed by a literary magazine in London.
  • “The” remains the most successful way to begin a title, maybe because “the” gives readers a clue about how to relate to the story. Again, just think of “The Da Vinci Code,” “The Firm,” “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” and “The Notebook.”
  • Best-selling books use everyday language.
  • Best-selling books use few exclamation points; they use a lot of contractions.
  • The bestseller-ometer considers “The Circle” by Dave Eggers as the perfect novel, with 100 percent chance of hitting the New York Times best-seller list.

The book is interesting, but the study itself is superfluous. The authors certainly learned from their own research when they chose their book title. They didn’t deliver the goods, but the book’s title succeeded in piquing readers’ interest.

Read other book reviews:

“Other Women’s Children” by Perri Klass: The Doctor as Literary Heroine

Rex Pickett’s “Sideways” Deserves a Toast

Two Chinese-American Novels Redefine the American Dream

Jess Row’s “Your Face in Mine”: Would You Change Your Race if You Could?


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