June 28, 2016
Algorithm calls Dave Eggers’s The Circle the ultimate bestseller, despite its not being a bestseller
by Chad Felix
Have you ever wondered what would happen if someone put all the books in the land on an island, gave them a taste for sales, and had them battle it out? Have you wondered which would prove, ultimately, to be the most bestseller-y of all?
No, you haven’t.
That’s probably for the best.
But Jodie Archer, a former publisher and consultant, and Matthew Jockers, co-founder of Stanford University’s Literary Lab, have dreamed this dream. Which is why they developed, and subsequently wrote about, an algorithm that is capable of analyzing books for bestseller potential.
Archer and Jockers explore their algorithm, which they unfortunately refer to as the “bestseller-ometer,” in their upcoming book, The Bestseller Code, reporting the system’s findings across some 20,000 titles. The algorithm looks at plot, theme, characters, and settings, as well as “significant markers of style.” Then, using that information, it predicts the text’s likelihood of becoming a bestseller—from 0 to 100 percent.
Archer and Jockers expected the highest score to come from “a veteran author who had clearly mastered and repeated the fundamentals of bestselling over and over again.” Someone, they ventured recently to The Bookseller’s Philip Jones, like Lee Child, Nora Roberts, or John Grisham. These are good guesses, authors known for writing bestsellers. What does it mean, then, that algorithm selected as its most bestseller-y book of all time Dave Eggers’s 2013 novel The Circle—which wasn’t much of a bestseller at all?
As The Bookseller points out, The Circle, despite selling a not insignificant 43,638 paperback copies in the UK since spring 2014 (per Nielsen BookScan), “never appeared in the Top 50 or any of The Bookseller’s fiction charts.” So what business does it have scoring a 100% from the bestseller-ometer? Shouldn’t it be pulling, like, 60%…at best? Shouldn’t this book be in detention?
Untroubled and willing to spin, the duo responded to this “back to the drawing board, then” moment by commenting:
Suffice to say that when we read Eggers’ novel we found further faith in our algorithm… What can we say? Dave Eggers, you got 100 percent. Whether you knew it or not, and whether you like it or not, you tweaked the hidden formulas of fiction, even down to the use of commas and conjunctions and everyday nouns. According to the computer, you are the paradigmatic writer of the past 30 years. The algorithm appears to have winked at us all. We weren’t sure whether we should take a sledgehammer to it, or buy it dinner.
Okay. I vote sledgehammer?
Chad Felix is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House, and a former bookseller.