Friday 14 July 2017

So you want to write a bestseller?

Photo courtesy of bplanet/
Yes? Of course you do. I know I do.
Now, there’s an algorithm that’s been created that can help de-mystify what it takes to produce one. Why did Fifty Shades of Grey sell so well when by all accounts it has many issues from a writing craft perspective? (That’s what I’ve been led to believe not having read it myself)
Well, a couple of people in the publishing/academic biz decided to find out if there was a DNA to what makes a bestseller. I stumbled across this book, aptly titled “The BestSeller Code”, the other week when I was reading the review section of Saturday’s paper. So I decided to investigate a little further.
The book was released September last year and the data used was taken exclusively from the New York Times bestseller list, which is as good a list as any I guess. The model has data supporting 20,000 titles captured over a five-year period. I presume the NYT picks up Christian fiction bestsellers, well those that compare in sales numbers to all other fiction. Do let me know if this is a poor assumption.
I read a number of reviews of the book both from Amazon and others in overseas papers and was a little surprised there wasn’t a nice little summary of what the key attributes were. I’m very happy playing in data (hey, I’m a Chartered Accountant by trade!) and hence the left side of my brain went looking for that nice summary that I could share with you.
A winning formula?
Judging from the various reviews I’ve read the book does not arrive at a formula. Which is no real surprise. If there was one the whole concept of bestseller would have to be redefined, however, by all accounts it does provide some interesting insights into some key commonalities that are typically found in those novels that top the charts. Here are a few that I’ve been able to discern:
  • A well-paced plot and engaging characters do matter, while the setting is less relevant,
  • A compelling inner struggle and closeness between the main characters are important,
  • Characters presented in unexpected and non-traditional ways who “make things” happen,
  • The use of everyday language and active verbs,
  • Consist of “shorter, cleaner sentences, without unneeded words”.

Nothing startling. I like how the review in The New Yorker sums the book up: “… there’s an awkward charm in watching an algorithm discern the things that humans appreciate instinctively.”
Oh well, back to what we know: write the best novel you can utilizing the “key tenets of craft and style.”
By the way, apparently our own Liane Moriarty and Graeme Simsion both rate exceptionally well according to the model.  
Anyone read a good bestseller recently?

Ian Acheson is an author and strategy consultant based in Sydney. Ian's first novel of speculative fiction, Angelguard, is available in the US, UK, Canada and Australia. Angelguard was recognised with the 2014 Selah Award for Speculative Fiction.You can find more about Angelguard at Ian's website, on his author Facebook page and Twitter


  1. Hi Ian. Interesting analysis. I read Life of Pi recently - a best selling book in which the setting is rather important though the inner struggle of the main character is riveting & the characters are definitely unique.

    I suspect that one of the problems with a statistical analysis is that it tends to homogenise the results and discount the existence of outliers. Another is perhaps that the terms that are analysed may already be defined by those doing the analysis. .

    I know that my stories have some of these elements, but that the setting is important and that I don't use a Hemingway sparseness of language. I also know that I appreciate and love the beauty of language in books like Light Between the Oceans, All the Light We Cannot See and The Memory Keeper's Daughter. I'd rather write in a way that gives me joy than write like someone else in an effort to produce a bestseller. That said there are still things to learn from such an analysis.

    Thanks for your post 😊👍

    1. Indeed, Jeanette, I suspect there are many outliers and how they've treated them in the analysis would be interesting.

      The Life of Pi - one of those novels I'd like to read one day. I must check out your review on GR.

      Thanks for sharing your insights once again, Jeanette.

  2. I recently read Liane Moriarty's 'The Husband's Secret' - she's such a good writer, with compelling, identifiable characters, plot twists/ suspense, multiple POV storylines, and traces of wry humour. Love her work :)

    1. Liane's sure getting a lot of air time these days. My wife recently read Truly Madly Quilty and of course the TV show, Big Little Lies, was interesting to watch.

      I'm interested to read your comments about the quality of her writing. I must read one of hers stories.

      Thanks for sharing, Carolyn.


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