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Your Guide to Hacking the Bestseller List

Amazon Book Review: The Bestseller CodeMy desk is something of a Dead Letter Office around these halls, the final destination for incoming mail not addressed to a specific person. So I see some interesting stuff: letters requesting a printed copy of Amazon's entire book catalog, hand-written orders from foreign prisons, and many books, each a hopeful missive representing the blood, sweat, and words of an aspiring author. But while self-publishing and digital have opened new channels in recent years, the odds of breaking through are slim. There are still only so many slots on a bestseller list, and for every Fifty Shades of Grey there are a thousand (or ten-thousand) books facing a fate in the stacks.

But maybe there's a key, a Rosetta Stone for deciphering the secret language of literary success. Accomplished data-miners Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers think they've found one. Using "a ground-breaking algorithm might just change the way you think about what you read and write," they analyzed more than 20,000 novels in search of signals in the noise, identifying patterns and markers in bestsellers by Dan Brown, Gillian Flynn, and John Grisham--as well as the book that "most perfectly illustrates this sweet spot in the market from the past 30 years."

Read on to find out what that book is, and learn more in Jockers and Archer's The Bestseller Code, itself Amazon's top-selling new release in Data Mining.




It turns out that two of the bestselling books of all time, Fifty Shades of Grey and The Da Vinci Code, have something in common that only those novels share. The authors call this the hidden beat, or the emotional rhythm of a story that is revealed only when we look deeper than the typical three-act structure. Not all readers can handle such an intense emotional pace, the literary equivalent to listening to fast electronic music, but sales figures suggest the beat of fiction is the way into the mass market. Don't the two novels appear to be very different? You might think again when you take a look at these graphs below. They show a computer plot of emotional intensity over the length of the book—the highs and lows as it were. The regularity and the intensity of the beat is what has readers hooked, but few writers manage it so well.  

Major Scenes & Emotion in Fifty Shades of Grey

Major Scenes & Emotion in The Da Vinci CodeBestsellers-DaVinci

Emotional Pacing: Fifty Shades of Grey & The Da Vinci Code



Almost nine of 10 new authors whose first novel debuts right onto The New York Times list have a background training in journalism, and their understanding of everyday style is key to the DNA of their success. Is there anything in the fact that they are also women? When it comes to prize winning, there is a similarly interesting story. There is a notable relationship between a formal training in literature, prize winning, and gender.


A newbie writer tends to be ambitious with theme—they think they should write about everything they can bring into a multi-layered, original novel. But this is a rookie mistake. The Bestseller Code looks at 500 topics and reveals a centrally important one, human closeness. This is not so much sexual or even romantic interactions, but bonds between families, friends and lovers. Why are these scenes so important, regardless of genre? Closeness turns out to be a vital theme when differentiating between hitting the lists and not gaining traction. Just take a look at the topics Jodi Picoult covers as analyzed by the algorithm; closeness is typically going to be one of a bestseller's top five themes.



Genre is, strangely enough, largely irrelevant when it comes to knowing which novels are most likely to best sell. The fingerprints of characterization, theme, style, plot and setting that show up all over the lists tend to be the same whether a book is a thriller, a romance or a more literary read. The data almost suggests the word "bestseller" could indicate a genre of its own, referring not just to sales figures but to the features of the original manuscript.


After analyzing 2,800 points of data over thousands of novels, the machine identified a "sweet spot" of bestselling DNA, an ideal combination of style, theme, character and plot that is typical to the NYT list. The book that most perfectly illustrates this sweet spot in the market from the past 30 years is The Circle by Dave Eggers. The algorithm behind The Bestseller Code produced a recommended reading list of 100 titles. The first four that followed Eggers are House Rules by Jodi Picoult, Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple, The Burning Room by Michael Connelly and The Hit by David Baldacci.


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