The Bestseller Code

The Bestseller Code

Jodie Archer & Matthew L. Jockers

The Bestseller Code: Anatomy of the Blockbuster Novel is a great read. It’s well-written and stays on-topic through the majority of the book. For those seeking information about how certain elements of pacing, wording, and plot affect readers, absolutely go read this book. For those of you seeking tips on how to write the next bestseller, you can find all of the actionable information on pages 68-69, 100, 133-136, and 162-168

The Bestseller Code is about an algorithm that takes manuscripts and determines whether they’re likely to be a bestseller or not. The algorithm has an 80-90% accuracy rate, which means it correctly predicts whether or not a manuscript will be a bestseller 80-90% of the time. Now, it’s important to note that Archer and Jockers don’t define what a “bestseller” is, outside saying that they plucked a portion of their sample from bestseller lists. This includes lists like the New York Times bestseller list, which is known for being an editorial list rather than a list that’s actually based on sales. That said they reference multiple titles throughout the manuscript, usually while stating how many books that title has sold, so it’s unclear whether those books’ “bestseller” status is based on sales or accreditation.

On pages 68-69, you’ll find a list of topics bestsellers are most likely to contain and not contain. On the positive side is marriage, death, taxes, technology, funerals, guns, doctors, work, schools, presidents, newspapers, kids, moms, and the media. The preferred placement of a bestseller is in a town or city. The preferred character is a real person.

On the negative side is sex, drugs, rock and roll, seduction, making love, the body described in any terms of than pain or at a crime scene,  cigarettes, alcohol, the gods, big emotions like passionate love or desperate grief, revolutions, wheeling and dealing, existential or philosophical sojourns, dinner parties, playing cards, very dressed-up women, and dancing. Most bestsellers don’t take place too far from home, so they don’t recommend desserts, the ocean, other planets, the jungle, or a fancy ranch. In-line with bestsellers using real people, they don’t recommend dwarfs, lords, warriors, priestesses, sergeants, dukes, wizards, or unicorns. 

A caveat here is to keep in mind that the foundation of The Bestseller Code is research. Their data is sound. Their interpretations of the data, however, are just that. Two people looked at the data they gathered and decided on what they thought it meant. As with any research project, be it an article in an academic journal or a book like this, it’s best to separate out the data from the interpretation and draw conclusions of your own. There are many bestselling authors who use the topics, places, and people less likely to be found in bestsellers (e.g., Neil Gaiman, Brandon Sanderson, Seanan McGuire, E.L. James, etc.). The only thing their data actually says is that, for the generalized bestseller lists they’ve pulled from, the positive topics are much more likely to show up and the negative topics are much less likely to show up. If you’re writing a book solely for the sake of becoming a bestseller, this is important. If you’re not, take it with a grain of salt and move on.

Page 100 includes a plot graph which is, according to their research, the most successful plot type. A few books whose plots adhere to this graph include E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey, Stephen King’s The Stand, and Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife. I’ve included the graph below. 

Pages 133-136 gives an overview of stylistic choices that appear more often in bestsellers than non-bestsellers. Bestsellers are more likely to contain the words ‘do, okay, and thing,’ contractions (e.g., don’t, you’re, you’d, they’d, etc.), question marks, and ellipses. Non-bestsellers are more likely to contain the word ‘very,’ exclamation points, a strings of adverbs. 

Pages 162-168, quite possibly my favorite part of the book, give lists of words you’re more likely to find in bestsellers and non-bestsellers. This is the only part of the book I actively recommend reading.

In bestsellers, you’re more likely to find the verbs need, want, grab, do, think, ask, look, hold, love, tell, like, hear, smile, reach, pull, push, start, work, know, arrive, be, spend, walk, pray, miss, eat, nod, open, close, say, sleep, type, watch, turn, run, shoot, kiss, die, and survive. When speaking, the character is more likely to say or ask. 

In non-bestsellers, you’re more likely to find the verbs halt, drop, demand, seem, wait, interrupt, shout, fling, whirl, thrust, murmur, protest, hesitate, accept, dislike, suppose, recover, wish, grunt, flush, tremble, cling, jerk, shiver, break, fumble, and yawn. When speaking, the character is more likely to begin, speak, accept, exclaim, mutter, answer, protest, address, shout, or demand. 

And now, as far as actionable information goes, you’ve read The Bestseller Code. If you liked this and found it useful, please share it on your socials and with your friends. You can sign up for my newsletter here. If you have any books you’d like to see on Too Busy for Books, you can contact me here. I’d love to hear your recommendations!

Thanks for reading,


One response to “The Bestseller Code”

  1. Another great post. Thank you!

    I read this book and worked with A-J a long time ago. I loved the concept, but was very unimpressed by the results of how they’re applied. You can see the test here:

    – Shawn

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