The Bestseller Code: Anatomy of the Blockbuster Novel

Image of The Bestseller Code: Anatomy of the Blockbuster Novel
Release Date: 
September 19, 2016
St. Martin's Press
Reviewed by: 

There is something about a machine named the “bestseller-ometer” that has a snake oil feel to it, and yet The Bestseller Code by Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers raises one’s curiosity.

The idea that someone(s) can create a machine and develop the necessary algorithms to help a writer hoist himself onto the New York Times bestseller list is certainly an idea to be considered.

While Archer and Jockers define their findings in often confusing ways, the book itself touches on the creative techniques of fiction writing such as theme, character, plot, and style that any writer, especially a novice, would and should be learning about. This is not, however, a discussion about how to develop those skills and employ them in writing a story.

Each chapter devotes discussion to one of these points and provides the reader with a list of titles of books that have been fed through the b-ometer and the little bugger has, in turn, spit out a list of 10 (+/–) books that have what it takes to achieve that grand goal of status on the New York Times bestseller list . . . or any other bestseller list, for that matter.

The book is riddled with illustrations that leave one scratching his or her head. If the reader can get beyond the illustrations and the detailed discussions about algorithms, and how many times an author uses the word “the,” there are small gems of information to be highlighted or underlined for future reference.

For instance, “In short, style is important; it is the mechanism through which plot, theme, and character get delivered.” Or “. . . that first sentence will often give you a strong sense of how much an author is in control of what is to come, and whether or not he or she has captured the style that will appeal to millions of people.”

There are several quips that rise to the surface that the writer should take note of. In the chapter that talks about topic, the authors make a good statement: “The final significant lesson to take from Grisham and Steele on the subject of topic is all about the mainstream . . . a book’s topical profile must have the potential to appeal to a mainstream audience.”

In a discussion about description, Archer says, “Scenes that display this most important indicator of bestselling are all about people communicating in moments of shared intimacy, shared chemistry, and shared bonds.” Now that’s good advice the reader can take to heart.

And there are more such gems, but one must dig deep to find them and until some time in the future when there is an affordable table model of the b-ometer for each writer’s use, that place on the bestseller list will probably remain elusive to most.

In another interesting discussion on topic, the b-ometer informs us that the good topics include: “marriage, death, taxes, modern and vaguely threatening technologies, funerals, guns, doctors, work, schools, presidents, newspapers, kids, moms, and the media.” So what are the bad topics? “sex, drugs, rock & roll, seduction, making love, the body described in any terms other than in pain or at a crime scene, cigarettes and alcohol . . .” and the list goes on. Who would ever have thought that seduction was a bad topic and presidents a good one!

Asher and Jockery spend a substantial amount of time unpeeling several authors who have made it to the top, as well as several books. John Grisham and Danielle Steele take up a lion’s share of the discussion on the author side; Fifty Shades of Grey hits the big time in discussion mode as well.

But it isn’t just current books and authors that get the b-ometer’s attention. An 1855 novel, The Lamplighter by Maria Susanna Cummins, garners some attention as well. Criticized by some of the more noteworthy authors of the day, it sold over 170,000 copies in Britain in its day. Certainly bestseller worthy.

Any writer at any level of his craft would do well to study, network, read, read, read, and become familiar with the skills needed to take that fabulous storyline from his head and place it into the readers head so that when the reader reaches the end of the book, he says: “Yes! As it should be!”

While the goal of bestseller status is a lofty one and certainly gives a writer something to work for, the operative word there is work. In the end, if any writer is looking for that easy access, s/he won’t find it in this book. If such a machine with its detailed algorithms exists, the writer cannot submit his novel with a $25 finder’s fee to have it evaluated.

There may be a place on an author’s bookshelf of reference materials, but only for those gems that need to be noted with little sticky tags and yellow highlighter.