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What Makes a Book a Best Seller?

New research reports the most popular tomes tend to be thrillers, mysteries, and memoirs.
A customer shops at Barnes and Noble in Rockefeller in New York City.

Every author dreams of making the New York Times best-seller list. The odds are not good: Over 100,000 new titles are published each year, but fewer than 500 crack the Times' tally.

Who writes them? How do they get there? How long do they typically stay? In the journal EPJ Data Science, researchers from Northeastern University analyzed eight years worth of data to provide some intriguing answers.

Let's start with some unambiguously good news: People are still buying old-fashioned, ink-on-paper books. Over the years covered by the study—2008 to 2016—2,468 works of fiction and 2,205 non-fiction books made the list for at least one week.

"Approximately the same amount of hardcovers are being sold today as they were in past years," writes a research team led by Albert-László Barbási. "The increasing availability of books in the digital format has [had] no influence on hardcover sales."

OK, but what types of books typically take off? Barbasi and his colleagues report they tend to be works of fiction or biographies/memoirs.

"U.S. readers prefer genre fiction (plot-driven fiction like mystery or romance) over general fiction, making thrillers and mystery the most represented genres in the New York Times best-seller list over time," the researchers report. "Biographies and memoirs are the most preferred genre within nonfiction, making up half of the nonfiction best-sellers."

The researchers found a certain amount of gender equality among successful authors. "In fiction, female and male authors are equally represented on the best-seller list," they note. "In contrast, in nonfiction, most best-sellers are written by male authors."

Fiction authors are also far more likely than their non-fiction counterparts to have multiple books become best sellers. While fiction writers often create successful series, for non-fiction, "the norm is one best-seller per author," the researchers write.

In any genre, it's rare for a book to see delayed success. "Almost all books, regardless of category, peak in the first 15 weeks after publication," the researchers report. In terms of sales, "Most fiction books have their peaks strictly in the first two to six weeks. For nonfiction, even though peaks at weeks two to five are common, the peak can happen any time in the first 15 weeks"—after which sales "drop dramatically."

So the window for success is short. What's more, most authors only get one real shot at it.

"Most best-selling authors who started their career on or after 2008 were successful with their first book," the researchers report. "Yet later success is not unheard of. Many two-book authors got into the New York Times best-seller list with their second book—eight in fiction, and 44 in non-fiction," while another 17 made the list with their third or later volume.

Very occasionally, there are anomalies, as when a book finds a new audience once its movie adaptation is released. (This happened with Kathryn Stockett's The Help, which stayed on the list for the longest time during this period—131 weeks in a row.)

But for the great majority of writers, publishing is a sink-or-swim business, in which a book either attracts attention quickly, or quietly disappears.