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Book News: Will Your Book Sell? There's An Algorithm For That

The study "reveals an intriguing and unexpected observation on the connection between readability and the literary success — that they correlate into the opposite directions."
Oli Scarff
Getty Images
The study "reveals an intriguing and unexpected observation on the connection between readability and the literary success — that they correlate into the opposite directions."

The daily lowdown on books, publishing, and the occasional author behaving badly.

  • Researchers at Stony Brook University have developed a computer model that they say can use stylistic markers to predict the success of a book. In the paper "Success with Style: Using Writing Style to Predict the Success of Novels," they say there are "distinct linguistic patterns shared among successful literature, at least within the same genre, making it possible to build a model with surprisingly high accuracy (up to 84%) in predicting the success of a novel." To determine "success," the computer scientists used download counts from Project Gutenberg, which has more than 42,000 books available for free download, as well as Amazon sales and certain literary awards. (Unfortunately, the study does not distinguish between critical success and commercial success, which can sometimes be at odds.) The researchers found that books that used a lot of "thinking verbs," such as "remember," or "recognize," were more successful than ones with plenty of "emotional or action verbs," such as "jump" or "shout" or "cry." And contrary to the accepted wisdom, books with fewer verbs and more nouns and adjectives tended to be more successful. Finally, and most unexpectedly, the researchers found that "readability" and the success of novels are negatively correlated. They note that it isn't necessarily because readers are attracted to complicated language — they speculate instead that successful books dealing with complicated ideas need complex syntax to express those ideas.
  • Amiri Baraka, the poet, playwright and co-founder of the Black Arts Movement, died Thursday at age 79. As NPR's Neda Ulaby wrote, "His literary legacy is as complicated as the times he lived through, from his childhood — where he recalled not being allowed to enter a segregated library — to the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center." In one poem, he wrote:
  • "We want 'poems that kill,'

    Assassin poems. Poems that shoot guns.

    Poems that wrestle cops into alleys

    and take their weapons leaving them dead..."

    Baraka gained particular notoriety in 2002, when he wrote a poem implying that Israelis had advance knowledge of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001: "Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers /To stay home that day/ Why did Sharon stay away?"

  • The New York Times' Simon Romero gives a fascinating history of the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet's personal library: "His vast library of tens of thousands of books contained almost no poetry or fiction, an exception being The Rigor of the Bugle, a novel about Chilean military life written in the 19th century by Arturo Givovich."
  • Nobel prize-winning novelist J.M. Coetzee recalls Nelson Mandela: "He was, and by the time of his death was universally held to be, a great man; he may well be the last of the great men, as the concept of greatness retires into the historical shadows."
  • Jeff Shotts, the executive editor of Graywolf Press, meditates on "The Art of Rejection": "I am an editor, and I am required to practice the art of rejection. It is an art I do not recommend others devote themselves to, but I am that art's apprentice. There are no masters, and those who claim mastery are, in truth, practicing the arts of pity and condescension, and there are no places for them here. The art of rejection, like the art of writing, requires submission, discipline, patience, failure."
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    Annalisa Quinn is a contributing writer, reporter, and literary critic for NPR. She created NPR's Book News column and covers literature and culture for NPR.
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