The Bestseller Code

I don’t know too many writers who don’t want to write a bestseller. For most of us, the thought of everyone loving and buying your books is like winning a key to freedom castle.

It’s no secret that the majority of us are struggling to pay the bills and keep the roof over our heads. So being able to write bestselling books would relieve us of 50% of our worries. (The other 50% being worrying about how to write a decent book in the first place.)


I know from teaching writers that some of us are looking for that magic formula. I have even had a student drop out of class when he found out that I didn’t have a magic formula to give him. (I wish)

So then, the big question – is there a magic formula and if so, what is it?

Well, according to a book called The Best Seller Code by Jodie Archer and Mathew Jockers there is such a magic formula. It’s called ‘text-mining.’

‘Text-mining’ refers to a procedure whereby a computer analyses thousands of features in books in order to predict which ones are the mostly likely to succeed in the market.


Some of the features analyzed are things like (see below to learn why I underlined this particular word) how often certain words are used, and which punctuation marks are used. The computer revealed that 90% of bestsellers use the same ones.


The computer also revealed that the genre of a book isn’t as important as the topics. The most successful topic is human closeness, with home and work coming up next.

The least successful topics include sex, fantasy and grief. I found these findings strange and surprising considering the success of Fifty Shades of Grey.


But, according to the authors it has to do with rhythmic beat of the plot and providing a roller-coaster of emotions. I remember being told by a lecturer at film school that the reason people go to the cinema is to ‘have emotions.’

This emotions theory is something I agree with. We certainly don’t want to go and see films and feel nothing. So this is something you might want to think carefully about when you are planning your next novel.


Worth noting is the finding that bestseller characters are never found ‘seeming’ or ‘waiting.’ Bestseller characters are more likely to ‘need’ and ‘want.’

This again brings me back to film school basic script-writing class where you are told to make sure your character ‘wants’ something badly. More importantly – make sure you know what it is they ‘want.’

Knowing what your character wants is good advice. Story comes from want. If your character is simply going along without wanting anything then they are going to bore your reader.

A character who grabs the attention of a reader is the one who wants something – anything. Whether it is a box of gold, a lost world or even peace of mind.


Another conclusion drawn from the text-mining computer is that bestsellers use shorter, simpler and vivid sentences, free from extraneous words and elaboration. Stephen King places huge emphasis on this in his must-have book for writers: On Writing.

This of course is great advice. Too many writers focus on ‘being literary’ by writing unwieldy, lengthy sentences instead of focusing on what’s important – telling that story.

By the way, if you haven’t read Stephen King’s On Writing yet, I highly recommend you do so soon. It is packed full of great practical tips and advice on all aspects of writing. Best of all he dispenses his wisdom and experience while sharing his wonderful sense of humor. This is actually the funniest and most human book on writing I have ever read.


Story and clarity of writing is hugely important but there’s another thing that the computer found that’s also apparently important. Having read this myself I would love to go back to my old school and give my English teacher a good talking to.

My teacher drummed it into me that using the word thing in my stories and essays was lazy and that a good writer should find much better substitutes for this offensive little five letter word.

I wish I hadn’t listened to her because the biggest surprise in the book was learning that the word thing is used six times more in a bestseller than in a non-bestseller – please be sure and tell me if you can figure out why this is.

Whether or not you decide to start working out how many times you can work the word thing into your writing it might be a good idea to read The Circle by Dave Eggers, because, according to Archer and Jockers, this is the book which managed to score 100% on bestseller material.

The Circle apparently ticked all the bestseller analysis boxes and if that doesn’t make the book worth reading at least to us writers, then I don’t know what does.

So, whether you think this sort of analysis is a load of twaddle or not, at least it’s worth thinking about. You never know. One thing’s for sure, the more you learn about writing the better.

In the mean time, keep on writing and the best of luck in getting that place on the bestseller list.

As for me – well I’ll keep you posted.


P.S. I am an affiliate for most of the books I mention on this site. This means I gain a few cents if you click on the links. This helps pay the expenses of maintaining the site. I only recommend books I have read and which I truly feel will be useful to you writers.



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