A few years ago, a reporter from the Chicago Tribune stumbled upon what was widely reported as ‘the Holy Grail of chicken’: a version of Colonel Sanders’s secret recipe that his second wife had scribbled in an album. Anyone hoping that it would contain exotic ingredients such as powdered lark’s tongue or virgin snow from Kilimanjaro was in for a disappointment. Those famous 11 herbs and spices turned out to be sadly humdrum: salt, pepper, oregano, thyme, and so on. It sounded like the kind of thing someone might come up with by dropping a spice rack on the floor and then adding a bag of flour. But none of that mattered to modern fans of KFC. Now they could recreate their favourite fast food much more slowly at home.
In The Bestseller Code, Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers promise to do something similar for popular fiction, although they caution that ‘This is not a prescriptive “how to” book and comes attached to no guarantee.’ (The few tips they do offer tend to be snappy and practical — for example, ‘endless adverbs and strings of adjectives are like sticking fat tyres and flashing rims on a vintage Jaguar’.) Instead, they summarise some complex analysis they performed on New York Times bestsellers by the likes of John Grisham and Dan Brown — hence the winking allusion to The Da Vinci Code in their title.
Their ‘bold claim’ is that the success of these novels is ‘not random but predictable’. Feed any novel into a computer that has been programmed to notice details that usually slip beneath a reader’s radar, such as the fact that around 30 per cent of a bestseller’s pages are devoted to just one or two topics, and it becomes possible to predict how likely it is to succeed.