Another Formula

by wjw on September 21, 2016

So former publishing person Jodie Archer and analyst Matthew L. Jockers have developed an algorithm to isolate features common in bestsellers, and will reveal their new formula in their soon-to-be- published work, The Bestseller Code.

What does the algorithm (and the public) 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. In all, the “bestseller-ometer” has identified 2,799 features strongly associated with bestsellers.

What Archer and Jockers have done is just one part of a larger movement in the publishing industry to replace gut instinct and wishful thinking with data. A handful of startups in the US and abroad claim to have created their own algorithms or other data-driven approaches that can help them pick novels and nonfiction topics that readers will love, as well as understand which books work for which audiences. Meanwhile, traditional publishers are doing their own experiments: Simon & Schuster hired its first data scientist last year; in May, Macmillan Publishers acquired the digital book publishing platform Pronoun, in part for its data and analytics capabilities.

I must admit that on reading this article I mentally reviewed some of my unsold proposals to see if any of them featured young female protagonists who preferred hugs to sex and were particularly needy.  (Not much luck there, I’m afraid.)

The authors state that this will enable editors to point to the algorithm in order to justify the purchase of a book by an unknown author.  (A book, that is, featuring a young female protagonist who prefers hugs to sex and is particularly needy.)

The editor’s higher-ups, of course, will likewise point to the algorithm in order to justify turning down an otherwise fine work that does not feature a young female protagonist who prefers hugs to sex and is particularly needy.

And in fact they’re much more likely to point to the algorithm as a reason to fire the editor, or at least the editor’s assistant (assuming they haven’t fired her already).  Why should literary taste enter the equation?  After all, there’s already an algorithm that tells them which book to buy, and that would be the one that features a young female protagonist who prefers hugs to sex and is particularly needy.

When I teach Taos Toolbox, I spend a bit of time going into literary formulas such as the Hero’s J0urney and Lester Dent’s Master Plot Formula.  And while I point out that a lot of good stories have elements drawn from these formulas, once you start employing formulae by rote you stand the chance of your writing becoming, well, formulaic.  As for instance if every work features a young female protagonist who prefers hugs to sex and is particularly needy.

So if publishers take this algorithm to heart, and buy lots of works featuring a young female protagonist who prefers hugs to sex and is particularly needy, the books (those featuring a young female protagonist who prefers hugs to sex and is particularly needy) will start to seem, I dunno, just a little bit repetitious.

So the publishers will overbuy one particular type of story, as happened recently with urban fantasy, and has happened in the past with horror and bodice-ripper romance and historical family sagas, and then there will be a crash, and nobody will want to read books featuring a young female protagonist who prefers hugs to sex and is particularly needy ever again.  (Until a really good one comes along.)

I suspect that the people best profiting from this new formula will be agents, because they can market new works highlighting  young female protagonists who prefers hugs to sex and are particularly needy, and just market the shit out of those books until the bubble bursts, and then it’s on to the next formula for all concerned.

Maybe some of those editors will even be re-hired.

Oh, wait, no.  Never mind.  That won’t happen even in a fantasy.


BoA Physics

by wjw on September 17, 2016

Friend of the blog Michael Wester tells me that noted science foundation Bank of America has issued a report to its clients that there is a 20-50% chance we are living in a Matrix-style simulation.  (Where are my cool shades and shiny leather coat?)  The report cites Elon Musk, Neil de Grasse Tyson, philosopher Nick Bostrom, and others.

You may well wonder why the Bank of America takes such an interest in the question.  Perhaps they want to assure their clients that any money lost by BoA never really existed.

Still, you may remember my Implied Spaces, where I suggested that the existence of cosmological constants would point to the artificiality of the universe, because such a constant would just be an arbitrary number or formula inserted by the creators to make their experiment work the way they wanted it to.

Still, “artificial” is not the same thing as “simulation.”  To run a computer simulation of the entire universe would run up against the Bekenstein Bound, which limits the amount of information that can be contained in a universe with a finite amount of energy.  To describe a single hydrogen atom takes a megabyte of information, so to describe the actions and interactions of all particles in the universe would take . . . well, a heck of a lot of megabytes.  Any computer big enough to run a simulation of the universe would have to be larger than the universe itself, and with a lot more energy.

Personally I think we’re all living in the Hardwired universe, albeit a few years before the action of the book begins.


Beware the Black Spot!

by wjw on September 14, 2016

Arya Stark puts her sword Needle to good use, here skewing every beauty product ad ever made.



Long Weekend

by wjw on September 10, 2016

rainbowI’m up at the Ski Valley this weekend, soaking in that peaceful autumn high-mountain vibe.  My usual venue is closed, so I’m staying in a mountain chalet so retro that it has no wi-fi.  (Yeah!  I was surprised, too!)

So unless I drive down to Arroyo Seco’s coffee house (as I just did), it’s unlikely I’ll be posting much this weekend, or responding to email.  If you need me urgently, you’ll just need to phone and talk to me in person, just like we did in the Stone Age.


Impersonations: The Excerpt

by wjw on September 7, 2016

IMG_3599There’s a lengthy excerpt of my new Praxis novel Impersonations available at

Please feel free to drop everything you’re doing and read it.


Watch List

September 6, 2016

As you might have been able to tell from my last couple of posts, I’m getting a little grumpy about my entertainment options. Just look at TV.  We are really in television’s golden age, with dozens of channels programming 24 hours per day, and an unprecedented number of high-quality series on networks or available for […]

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Kings and Kings

September 4, 2016

Went off to “the historic” El Rey theater last night to see the Gipsy Kings.  (I won’t claim to have actually heard them.) I’m aware of the claim that rumba-flamenca is merely flamenco-lite, and I don’t care.   I like me that Afro-Peruvian-Aragonese-Andalucian-Havana-Provençal sound, so sue me. So I went to The King (El Rey) to […]

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Reviews in the Nick of Time: Stranger Things

September 3, 2016

Netflix’s Stranger Things has been widely appreciated for its deft appropriation of 1980s film and music (much of which is actually Seventies film and music, but nevermind), and one acquaintance of mine called it “the movie that Stephen King and Steven Spielberg never made.” I understand that people might enjoy a series that sort of name-checks […]

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Free Books!

August 30, 2016

I have some advanced reading copies of Impersonations, my new novel, and I’m happy to give them away to eager readers. So I’ll be running a contest, but the contest will be available only to readers of my newsletter. So if you want the books, you should sign up.  And even if you lose the contest, […]

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Days of Romping About

August 26, 2016

I’ll be spending this weekend romping about Bubonicon 48, New Mexico’s plague-friendly science fiction convention, which means I’m unlikely to be posting here.  You, however, are welcome to join me at the convention, which is scheduled to be awesome. In the meantime, please remember that my 99-cent sale on Ambassador of Progress still has a few […]

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