The Roundabout Blog
The Bestseller Code - Part 2
Posted by Phil Whitmarsh on 04/07/2017
(NOTE: Last fall I shared a review of sorts of Jodie Archer and Matt Jockers’ book, The Bestseller Code: Anatomy of the Blockbuster Novel (St. Martin’s Press - 2016). I wrote about the book and its findings. Many have asked what I think the book could mean for authors, agents, and publishers. This post will answer that question. The opinions expressed here are my own.)
Competing to write, locate, and publish the best
Authors, agents, and publishers all face a similar challenge. Each wants to create and sell the best book they can. Authors compose the foundation, the story, or content that is the basis for everything that comes after. Agents “discover” those manuscripts and often elevate them to a level where they’re ready for a publisher. A publisher further distills (or builds up) the story for the audience. Competition in the market creates a need for authors to write the best story they can and for agents and publishers to reject hundreds of thousands of inquiries to locate only the best. Or do they?
Writers don’t only compose the best manuscript they can. They also have to write the perfect pitch letter. Given the vast number of inquiries that agencies receive, most authors are tossed based on the inquiry letter alone.
An agent’s subjectivity either helps or hurts a writer’s chances of discovery. They have relationships (or hope to create/build them) with publishers who seek the kinds of manuscripts they’re representing. Properties that don’t fit their paradigm are rejected.
Publishers walk a delicate line looking for stories that resonate - yet are fresh. Like agents, they’re looking for the next best thing and the next big thing. Acquisition editors are the most experienced “book people” at publishing houses. It’s up to them to locate and champion bestselling books.
Leveling the playing field
Subjectivity can be a blessing or a curse. If manuscripts are judged on their pitch letters only, great novelists are being shut out from the very beginning. The algorithm at the heart of The Bestseller Code can level the playing field. Computers and their algorithms do not read books. They are able to evaluate and score manuscripts by comparing and contrasting which most closely match the identified elements and components that bestselling books share.
Imagine the following pitch letters:
“Dear Ms. Smith -
I recently completed a novel that scored an 94SM on the Bestseller Code evaluation. Would you like to receive it for review?
“Dear Mr. Grey,
I’ve recently finished a manuscript. It scored an 94SM using the Bestseller Code model. Would you like to read it?
An author’s experience, age, ethnicity, gender, track record or ability to write a perfect pitch letter matters at this stage of the inquiry process. No one needs to know that Mr/s. Brown is a junior in college studying creative writing. Who cares that Mr/s. Jones has been writing for thirty years without ever getting up the courage to send an inquiry note? Let it be a surprise that a bestselling author has a project in a new genre that their regular publisher has turned down.
- Anonymity provides objectivity.
- Objectivity levels the playing field.
- The certified score awards credibility.
One novel with a score of 94 may be every bit as good as another manuscript with a 94 … according to the algorithm. This is where human readers take over again.
Helping publishers market smarter
Marketing matters. Archer and Jockers talk in their book about how a marketing team could launch a book smarter if it knew how it scored against similar titles. Knowing how those books were either successfully or unsuccessfully marketed to similar audiences could help them market new books cost-efficiently.
Sometimes marketing makes the difference in a good seller or a bestseller. The more the marketing team knows about the book, the better they can market it to the right readers. The Bestseller Code’s list of the 100 highest scoring adult fiction books contains several that were not #1 bestsellers … and many that were.
More Successful Publishing
The publishing industry could follow the model of our federal government; working as three branches relying on each other (and checks and balances) to bring out the best books. The Bestseller Code could help authors, agents, and publishers, work together in more efficient ways. They could be more successful together.
Happier authors, given a fair chance. More successful agents, giving fair chances and discovering better-written manuscripts. More profitable publishers, putting out wider catalogs from new, previously-overlooked and unknown talent.
“Win. Win. Win.”
Readers would be the real winners. More better books to read. More better sellers to consider and discover. Win!