Susanne Althoff asks a pertinent question in her essay in Wired, Algorithms could save book publishing but ruin novels, about what makes a novel like The Da Vinci Code sell 80 million copies. There have been some breakthroughs at the Stanford Literary Lab that can help you find the answer to that one. Jodie Archers and Mathew J. Lockers fed their computers with 5000 titles just to decode what went on behind the plot.
“ Young, strong heroines who are also misfits (the type found in The Girl on the Train, Gone Girl, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). No sex, just “human closeness.” Frequent use of the verb “need.” Lots of contractions. Not a lot of exclamation marks. Dogs, yes; cats, meh. In all, the “bestseller-ometer” has identified 2,799 features strongly associated with bestsellers.”
This kind of software almost eliminates the need for a good editor who can take a chance on a manuscript. There are already apps that tell you how far into a book readers go or how soon they abandon it. Many contemporary editors don’t buy algorithmic wisdom but some books which would otherwise have been ignored are getting their due because technology sees what publishing houses aren’t seeing. This idea extends to books that haven’t been written yet, but should be as the market is looking for such books.
So are algorithms the new toy publishers will have to play with? Let’s wait and watch.