The Bestseller Code: The words that make a successful book

'Need', 'want' and 'do' are twice as likely to appear in bestselling books than others

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The Independent Culture

Good news for budding authors needing a little hand in writing that best-selling book: there’s now a formula for writing successful novels. Well, it won’t help you write the whole book, but it may help you get on the right track.

Former acquisitions editor for Penguin UK, Jodie Archer, and associate professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Matthew Jockers, have been compiling data for the last five years, trying to find out what makes a bestseller. 

After analysing 20,000 randomly selected novels from the past three decades, the pair worked out what makes a book ‘successful’ (i.e. one that has appeared in The New York Times bestseller list). 

The result is an algorithm - titled the ‘bestseller-ometer’ by its discoverers - which measures certain aspects of books such as theme, plot, style, character and vocabulary, and tells you whether it will be a bestseller; they claim it can pick out a future bestseller to an 80% degree of accuracy. 

Speaking to The Times about the study, details of which have been published in their book The Bestseller Code, Archer said: “We found that the use of plotline is very important… The perfect curves of fiction, the use of usually emotional and stylistic language to create these very symmetrical curves.

“Novels with high or low emotions tend to have a stronger chance of hitting the [bestseller] lists and staying on them.”

A couple of pointers from the findings: real people are more appealing to readers than fictional being, so stay away from Dwarves, unicorns, and elves as main protagonists. Those characters who appeal the most are also more likely to “grab", “think” and “ask”.

The words “need”, “want” and “do” are twice as likely to appear in bestsellers, while the word “okay” appears three times as much. Words like “love” and “miss” appear more often in successful books, apparently appearing three times for every two in lesser selling books.

For 50 Shades of Grey fans, having sex in every chapter in a book does not necessarily make it a bestseller; readers are more interests in those aforementioned “curves of fiction”.

According to the results, the bestseller The Circle, the 2013 novel by Dave Eggers, is the algorithm’s perfect book, about a fictional evil internet firm (remarkably like Google).

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