Fraser Forum

Algorithmic observation—we eagerly buy books about other people doing their jobs

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An article in Popular Science this week details the success of a computer algorithm designed to predict which novels are—and are not—bestsellers. Given a pile of 5,000 hits and misses to sort, the algorithm was able to tell bestsellers from flops with 80 per cent accuracy, on average.

There’s a lot here for readers to find interesting. Despite the huge success of the 50 Shades series, for example, close analysis of the results indicate that, on the whole, sex doesn’t sell particularly well. Violence does a lot better.

Bestselling novels use more active verbs than novels that don’t sell. As the article puts it:

“Bestselling characters are American go-getters. They ‘need’ rather than ‘want,’ they know, control, and display their agency. Their verbs are clean and self-assured. Characters in bestsellers more often grab and do, think and ask, look and hold. . . . [T]hey make things happen."

Characters in non-bestsellers are more apt to "murmur, protest, and hesitate." Sentences are short and snappy, and titles are as well.

But the algorithmic observation I was the most interested in was the subject matter that seems to sell the best in America is work. We eagerly buy books about other people doing their jobs—particularly if those jobs are high-profile and high stress. Think of John Grisham’s brilliant combining of an insider’s look at the legal profession with the classic crime novel. Or think of Patricia Cornwell’s similar combining of the medical profession and the crime novel in her series about Kay Scarpetta, medical examiner.

We are fascinated by the work other people do and by the ways that work is more exciting, more exotic and more high stakes than our own. And bestsellers are happy to provide us with that escape from TPS reports and other administrivia.

I’ve often said that if people who love the free market are exasperated by literature that doesn’t, they’re probably reading the wrong literature. The bourgeois virtues will be found, and are found, in the literature written for the bourgeois—for the widest popular appeal. This new demonstration that the bestseller focuses on work serves as one more suggestive piece of evidence for that argument.


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