Can We Predict the Next Bestseller?

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I am finally over my reading slump, and I am determined to tackle my writing slump in order to get back into this blogging business. After all, I’ve got lots of good books to tell you about. But let’s start with a little discussion first.

If you for some reason subscribe to the newsletter of dbw (Digital Book World), then you’ve read the recent articles about the importance and usefulness of data in publishing. The essential question is whether data—the way readers read, what they like in books, and what they expect—can help predict, or even create, the next bestseller.

There is not a business out there today that does not use data, especially to track everything from inventory to consumer preference. So it is only natural that publishers should do the same. After all, they are there to make money. On that level, I have no problem with someone analyzing Gone Girl, for example, to figure out what made that book so successful and then try to copy that formula. After all, that is why we end up with cover blurbs advertising a book as the new Gone Girl or the next Harry Potter and get protagonists who promise to be even better than Lisbet Salander or Sherlock Holmes.

On an emotional level, it scared me at first to think that future bestsellers might all be a variation of what’s currently on top of the lists. I wondered if there is already someone telling someone else to put more drugs, disfigured children, and abused animals into a manuscript to make it more “sellable.” Yet after mulling this over, I think my fear was premature. I am absolutely sure that there are books being written following a certain formula and adding certain elements that are proving to be popular at the moment. (I wonder what will replace vampires and zombies in the near future.) But on the whole, even if reading behavior and preferences can be put into a spreadsheet, the magic that is reading cannot be captured by a computer program. Sure, you can take a rich, handsome, and brooding earl, set him in Victorian England, and then pair him with an impoverished, shy, and beautiful maiden, but you will need more to create a believable romance. You can come up with ever more brutal ways to have a serial killer dispose of her victims, but you need more to create a page turner that readers can’t put aside. You can take the most interesting event in history, but you still need a unique way to present it to the reader—and whatever unique way a writer comes up with might work for me, but not for you.

So for now, I don’t think my favorite pastime—browsing through actual and virtual books for hours on end—is in any danger.

Throw all the data you have at me, you won’t be able to harness my whims.

If you are interested in reading more about how data can work in publishing, you might like The Bestseller Code by Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers. If you don’t mind having your reading habits tracked in exchange for free books, check out jellybooks.com. But before you do that, tell me what you think… will we ever be able to predict the next bestseller with any type of accuracy?

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24 comments

  1. I definitely think you can sell books by mimicing best sellers, but only until readers get sick of it. I think there will always also be a desire for something new and different. One of the things that makes me love a book is feeling as though it’s unique – a hard thing to mimic! I don’t think we’ll ever be able to predict which books will be bestsellers though. There are just too many books and too many variables, including dumb luck.

  2. Such an interesting discussion!

    Looking at follow-up books to bestsellers, from my understanding of writing and publishing, a book that comes out six months to a year later was probably already written when the first book became popular. What changes is how it’s marketed–both how much the publishers push it, and the language they use for it.

    And since there’s nothing new under the sun, there will always be books in production that have a similar theme or focus to the latest runaway best-seller, right? I mean, imagine if authors wrote using zero tropes. I guess something like Ulysses would qualify, and let’s be honest–not many people want to read books that are 100% experimental and new.

  3. Yeah!! I hope the reading slump doesn’t return for a good and long while. Read like the wind for now and enjoy the magic that is reading!

    Interesting post. You’re definitely right that there isn’t a magic formula for creating a best seller. It becomes obvious when certain books were written as reactions to huge popular ones. They can gain much success, but they’re usually not as successful as the one that influenced it, either in sales or critical acclaim. For example – The Girl On The Train / Gone Girl and Divergent / The Hunger Games. And there will always be a new book every few years that sets trends and blazes new trails. That’s the magic of human creativity.

  4. I think you’re absolutely right. There will always be tropes, trends and formulas, but the thing that REALLY makes a book sing is the way it’s written. Two authors could write very similar books and one could be mediocre while the other is fantastic. I don’t mind if a book follows a trend if it’s done well!

  5. Welcome back! I read the same article and had similar thoughts to you. I feel like the publishing industry and book media have a lot of influence over what becomes a bestseller. But no one forces a reader to choose the books they read and what they ultimately like, and there seem to be a lot of readers who enjoy formulaic stories. The market will always cater to what the consumer demands. I’m grateful for book bloggers who can break through all of that by giving attention to books and authors that the publishing industry or media are not highlighting, and help hidden gems become successful.

    • I am not sure if the process is quite up to the point yet where new hit subjects can be predicted. But I am sure an expert could tell what might work well after reviewing recent successes. After Anthony Bourdain had success with his book about the secrets of the restaurant industry, the theme was quickly picked up to produce similar tell-alls about other industries.

      • I do love me some Anthony Bourdain, even if just because he’s totally handsome! I would think we would have an idea of which monsters will be popular: vampires, zombies, and maybe werewolves will come next because of that werewolf teen from the Twilight books.

  6. Interesting analysis. The only thought I have is that the next ‘bestseller’ isn’t necessarily the next ‘best read’.
    “Throw all the data you have at me, you won’t be able to harness my whims.” I’m with you there

  7. I think there is some science to it. Jennifer Lynn Barnes teaches about fiction writing and she’s written about it on her tumblr. She definitely has some of it down as her writing is fantastic. I feel slightly manipulated every time I read one of her books, but they sure are good!

  8. Interesting topic and I feel like I heard a discussion about publishing data being used to try to create the next bestseller on some podcast awhile back.

    And, I agree, whether a book touches the emotional chords necessary to create a bestseller is dependent on so much more than elements that can be inserted in response to data. For me, so much depends on style and writing.

    • Very true. That’s why it is so fascinating to see which books are surprise bestsellers and which ones are busts. Even on a personal level, we’ve all had “I should have loved this book, but…” moments, but luckily, they are always offset by “I didn’t think I would love this book so much.”

  9. Great post! I’m glad you’re over your reading and writing slumps. Ideally, writers should produce authentic work (the stories they want to tell), but market forces have always played a role in the stories the public gets to read.

      • Yeah. It probably happens whenever an industry grows around artistic endeavors. One of the reasons I support books produced by small indie presses and self-publishing avenues (even before I went that route) is that they have a tendency to be more authentic to the writer’s original vision.

  10. I think there’s probably always been a formula for writing bestsellers – old penny dreadfuls, then golden age mysteries, pulp fiction, Mills & Boon romances etc. You’d think the only data they’d need are sales figures, but hey! presumably they know what they’re doing. I do get tired of formulaic books after a bit – serial killer novels were great when they were new, but now I can’t be bothered with them. And vampires have surely been done to death – and not with a stake! But sometimes it’s good to turn to something familiar in style for a bit of easy comfort reading. I do hope they never try to make literary fiction into a winning formula though… there, I only want people writing them who feel driven because they have something serious to say…

    • You’re right, of course, there have always been books that have been written with a certain formula in mind. And in an ideal world, those reliable successes will help “sponsor” those books that come from a different place. At that point, I hope that money won’t always be the #1 driver. I’m not sorry to see the vampire craze has ebbed a bit, and zombies seem to be going the same way.

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