I’m currently re-reading The Bestseller Code by Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers. Such a thought-provoking book. It reveals things about reader behavior few others discuss—and which some people refuse to believe despite the evidence. Maybe that’s why only computer algorithms could dig up those truths.
The book is also a failure.
It promised a system for predicting which manuscripts would become New York Times bestsellers with 80% accuracy. But it doesn’t deliver. It hints at which features predict a bestselling manuscript—to be fair, the hints are strong—but it falls short of giving an editor the tools to make the predictions at 80% accuracy themselves. It teases the reader about the ‘code’ without sharing it.
The book never made it to the NYT bestseller list itself. Over five years after publication, acquiring editors don’t use the system to evaluate manuscripts. This book has fallen into obscurity. It didn’t deliver on its promise.
It’s a failure, yes, but it has much to teach .
The book includes a list of the 100 books which the computer program flagged as best matching the traits of a typical NYT Bestseller. I haven’t tried to read most of the books. Of the books I’ve tried, I DNF’d most of them because they bored me. Of the two (only two!) I finished, one was for a book club. We all agreed the book was tedious. I wouldn’t have finished it otherwise. The other was a page-turner, but left me feeling empty when it was over.
Maybe I was unlucky in the books I’ve tried from that list. Maybe every other book on the list would suck me in.
What if it’s not a coincidence? Why would the books which best exemplify NYT bestselling qualities bore me?
The authors say that the NYT Bestsellers list from the era they studied is biased against speculative fiction. Guess what I like to read?
I’ve seen in the Amazon reviews I’ve read that some readers really, really don’t like speculative fiction, and will be unhappy if they are tricked into reading speculative fiction because the book wasn’t properly labeled. It’s something I mention in my new guide, “The Key to Unlocking Readers’ Hearts” (you can get your copy here).
Sometimes I love books which aren’t speculative fiction. In 2020, I became a Lisa See fan, and only one of her novels, Peony in Love, is speculative fiction. Some of her novels have been NYT bestsellers, and one (Dreams of Joy) was a NYT #1 bestseller.
Apparently, the people who avoid speculative fiction buy more books than the people who prefer speculative fiction, thus non-speculative fiction is over-represented on the New York Times Bestseller list. Maybe that’s the main reason the books the algorithm labels as the most likely to be NYT Bestsellers bore me. When I only consider novels published in English (no Chinese books) published by a big name publisher (no small publishers), which aren’t speculative fiction, (by now most of my favorite novels have been disqualified) there’s a large overlap between my favorites and NYT bestsellers.
But I feel there’s more.
Most of my favorite novels, speculative or not, written in English, Chinese, or another language, have something else in common: they are evergreen.
Bestsellers sell many copies in a brief window of time. Evergreen books continue to find new readers long after publication.
Some books are both bestselling and evergreen. Many evergreen books bore me too. But an evergreen book is much more likely to appeal to me.
Evergreen books excel at serving a particular group of readers. That group of readers may not be large enough to put a book onto a bestseller list, but they keep the word-of-mouth recommendations flowing for a long time.
I won’t mind if the novels I’m working on become bestsellers. ‘Bestseller’ is a useful credential. But it’s not what my heart yearns for. Having a novel of mine zoom to the NYT #1 spot once, then crash into permanent obscurity isn’t what I want. I’d rather that my novels never become bestsellers yet persist for decades because a certain type of reader loves it enough to continue recommending it. Heck, why stop at decades? I want people to read them a thousand years after my demise.
My dream isn’t to be a bestselling author. It’s to be an evergreen author.