top of page

What makes a book a best seller ?

  • 12 October 2019 --  You can read this article as a basis of our discussion

Have you read ‘The Help’? What about ‘The Girl on the Train’? Are you a fan of J K Rowling or Dan Brown?


I have often wondered what makes a bestseller. Publishing seems to be a sink or swim industry. Authors have a very short time in which to try to make a big impact. Book sales peak sometime in the first 15 weeks after publication. After that time, sales drop dramatically. And most of the bestselling authors writing today were successful with their first book. It’s rare for authors to write a bestselling second novel if their first didn’t sell well. (The exception to this is if their book is later adapted for film.)


So, why do some books sell millions of copies? What kind of books do they tend to be? What kind of author writes them?


Researchers from Northeastern University in the USA have looked into this subject. They found that works of fiction or biographies/memoirs were the most likely types of books to become bestsellers. “U.S. readers prefer genre fiction over general fiction, making thrillers and mystery the most represented genres in the New York Times bestseller list over time,” the researchers reported.


What about the author? Does it make any difference if the author is a man or a woman? “In fiction, female and male authors are equally represented on the bestseller list,” the researchers said. “In contrast, in nonfiction, most bestsellers are written by male authors.”

What about the books themselves? Are there any similarities when it comes to plot, writing style or theme? 

Americans Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers recently created an algorithm that has the answers to those questions. The algorithm can predict with 80 percent accuracy whether a book will make the New York Times’ bestseller list.

The algorithm found that readers of bestselling books liked shorter sentences and voice-driven narratives. Authors who have worked in journalism have the greatest chance of writing a debut bestseller, according to the algorithm, precisely because “that kind of training helps you write for a popular market and means your style is often accessible and colloquial”.

As for plot, Archer told the press: “In certain bestsellers there is an emotional high followed by a low, then another high, then another low. If you get that pattern symmetrical you will keep readers turning the pages.” Can you guess which two novels out of the thousands studied by Archer and Jockers had the perfect emotional ‘beat’? ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ and ‘The Da Vinci Code’!


Personally, I am still in shock that an algorithm can predict which books will be bestsellers! I wonder whether this knowledge will influence future authors. Will they use it as a blueprint for their own writing? Will this lead to stories that all feel a bit too familiar because they follow a similar structure or include similar themes?  I hope not, in any case.

bottom of page