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.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

IronOre September 21, 2016 at 9:35 am

If I recall correctly, the young female protagonists in both of your recent series (Dagmar and Sula) both prefer sex to hugs and are definitely not needy. Funny how that works…

mark September 21, 2016 at 11:22 am

It’s the same thing as the music industry, and Hollywood: they don’t want to depend on Artists (can’t control them, or their output, or even their public opinions, as the station that created the Monkees, lo, these many years ago, discovered.

This is because they don’t care about stories. What they want is a “product” they can package (BLOCKBUSTER! Just Like…..), y’know, like it comes stamped out on an assembly line, or like detergent, all the same, sure to sell.

Another result of mergers and buyouts.


TRX September 22, 2016 at 7:13 am

Essentially… ballocks.

The publishing industry could make last year’s recycled phone books into bestsellers.

The content of the book is nearly irrelevant; what counts is *push*.

Once a “best seller” is selected during the editorial process, it gets the full blitz – author interviews, media coverage, preprinted cardboard display racks for bookstores, and all the usual marketing hype. And it’ll be on sale everywhere from Amazon to Wal-Mart.

I’ve *read* a bunch of those bestsellers. Most of them had enough problems that just the word “bestseller” on the cover is a warning.

Shash September 22, 2016 at 4:29 pm

I find a number of best sellers to be a bit lame and too predictable. My brother claims my taste is too highbrow. I don’t think so. I think I’ve just read too many predictable “bestsellers” and not enough good authors. The day I discovered your work, Walter, is still a day of celebration in my mind.

Jim Janney September 22, 2016 at 8:29 pm

So they’ve found something that backtests well. The real question will be how it performs going forward. Sort of like predicting the stock market. You can always find patterns if you look hard enough.

wjw September 22, 2016 at 11:57 pm

TRX— it’s amazing how often publishers miss even with a big-money push. I once saw a comparison between the list of novels publishers were pushing in a given year, with the novels that actually broke out and became bestsellers. There was some predictable overlap with big names like Patterson or King, but otherwise not much overlap at all.

What sells books is positive word of mouth, which in the digital age can spread like lightning. But it’s extremely tricky to actually create and manage something like that. It was tried with TINAG and failed pretty comprehensibly.

The Duck Monkey September 24, 2016 at 5:56 am

Ah, so This is not a Game was written to be a bestseller. That explains so much!

Like how it was a snail-paced slog revolving around supremely unlikable, self-obsessed members of the moneyed elite. Who, on top of everything, waste their and our time on offensively banal, faddish shit like ARGs.

Smart decision to include ARGs in the Sula story, by the way!

wjw September 24, 2016 at 3:22 pm

All my books are written (by me) to be bestsellers, but so far the public has disagreed.

What TINAG got was not a full push by the publisher, but “viral marketing,” which is defined as “the type of online marketing that doesn’t cost the publisher any money.” The virus failed to transmit, but still I have to count it as a good-faith effort, and better than “no marketing at all,” which is what I usually get.

Jackie September 25, 2016 at 12:54 am

I got told by an agent that a book I had written wasn’t YA because it had multiple viewpoints. And all I could think was that when I was growing up, YA didn’t have evil characters that killed any of the main good guys — until Harry Potter came along and changed everything.

When everyone writes the same characters, literature is boring, boring, boring. Hard to remember the last book I read that I couldn’t put down.

And for the record — cats rule.

TRX September 26, 2016 at 9:13 am

“Hoping for viral” doesn’t compare to the kind of push that has “BESTSELLER” printed on the covers before any books are actually sold, the big folding cardboard racks by the door and register of every major bookseller, and the big spread from the vendors who stock airports, convenience stores, and Wal-Mart.

When 50% of the rack at a (non-book) store are marked “bestseller”, it’s hard to avoid selling some… I’ve bought a few because there was noting else on the shelf other than romances, vampires, or ancient public domain Edgar Rice Burroughs reprints.

Johan Larson September 26, 2016 at 1:45 pm

Big push can also backfire. I think it was the novelization of “The Force Awakens” that got big-time marketing. It sold millions, sure, but it lost money because of promotion costs. It would probably have been a modest success with more conventional marketing.

wjw September 27, 2016 at 7:56 pm

Yeah, if the big push worked all the time, they’d be doing it with every promising book.

I’ve heard editors say that “advertising just doesn’t work” when it comes to fiction. Which I never found encouraging, because my sales pretty much always mirrored the amount of money spent in promotion.

Susan Beaty September 28, 2016 at 10:13 pm

Until I found your blog, I found out about your new books by finding them in the “New Science Fiction” section of my local library. Unfortunately, the library has cut the new SF section in half and given it to New Romance novels. Sigh.

These days, I find out about new books by reading blogs and Goodreads. Viral wasn’t on the radar for me when TINAG came out. Maybe it’s because I’m a boomer though.

Publicity matters; I have run across books by authors I really like that I never knew had come out until I started reading blogs.

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