Just what makes a book a bestseller has been evading agents and publishers for decades—whether it’s a writer’s unmistakable talent, a brilliant marketing plan, a shift in technology (the rise of e-readers and erotica, for instance), an untapped genre or a combination of many factors, the one thing the publishing industry has been able to agree on when it comes to what makes a book a bestseller is that there can only ever be predictions, but no guarantees.
Or are there?
One book has stated that there might actually be a “code” to follow in order to reach bestseller status and that their research has distilled this data into a few simple-to-apply rules. Entitled The Bestseller Code and written by Jodie Archer, a former acquiring editor for Penguin with a PhD from Stanford for her work on the bestseller, and Matthew Jockers, software engineer and current Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Washington State University, this book examines the similarities in top bestselling fiction of the last decade and describes how authors can apply it to their own work.
Some of The Bestseller Code’s highlights on what features make a book successful include:
- Bestselling books focus at most on three to four topics, and at least 30 percent of the pages of those books are dedicated to discussing those topics. (Archer and Jockers assert that new authors who incorporate too many topics within their story create an unwieldy plot that becomes too difficult hard for the reader to feel passionate about.)
- Bestselling books most frequently center on the topics of marriage and death, and the work-life balance.
- Bestselling books include contrasting themes for a large amount of tension—i.e., “sex and church,” or “children and guns.”
- Bestselling books include protagonists who exhibit kindness, confidence and who are inclined toward action (versus passivity).
- Bestselling books include specific style choices more than non-bestselling books such as:
-More periods and question marks.
-Less exclamation points.
-More ellipses (to demonstrate unfinished thoughts).
-Lower usage of adverbs and adjectives.
- Bestselling books use action verbs more often than non-bestselling books, and the most popular words include: do, need, want, ask, hold, love, tell, smile, reach, push, pull, start, work, know.
What Others Believe About the “Code”
There are some skeptics who question The Bestseller Code’s validity, or who have decried the data as generalized results that don’t reveal anything new. Jia Tolentino writes in The New Yorker that the authors’ algorithm doesn’t do much beyond confirming what the industry already knows about the craft and style readers invariably crave (a decisive, strong main character, ease of reading in the form of contractions and concise prose), but perhaps for some authors this was just the reminder they needed in terms of what makes commercial fiction so marketable. While a fresh take on plot and characterization might catch the interest of an agent, publisher or a new readership, too much differentiation from these basics of bestselling literature can only end up working against you.
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