Nathan Bransford, Author

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Holy Grail of Publishing

Much like King Arthur, Sir Lancelot and Sir Robin the Not-quite-so-brave-as-Sir-Lancelot, people all over the various entertainment businesses, including publishing, are searching for the holy grail. And, of course, the holy grail of the entertainment industry is....... the blockbuster detector. Our jobs would be, to put it mildly, just a tad easier if we had some computer program, oracle, or witch who would tell us whether a project was going to be a major hit or a major dud. Even something that were just slightly better than the best guess of the best human prognosticators would revolutionize the publishing industry.

Enter the wisdom of crowds. Also James Surowiecki. In an article for the New Yorker in which he modestly does not even take a smidgen of credit for the increasingly common notion that crowds are the best prognosticators despite being the author of a bestselling book that is perhaps most responsible for the fact that said notion is increasingly common (James, seriously, take a bow!), Surowiecki outlines a new program by Simon and Schuster to use the wisdom of crowds (via the website MediaPredict) to help choose projects that S&S will then publish, experimenting with the idea that a huge group of people will be a better predictor of future success than one individual.

This follows an October 2006 article by Malcolm Gladwell about new attempts to predict a formula for a blockbuster movie.

Ever since I started in publishing, and especially when I read MONEYBALL by Michael Lewis, about my favorite baseball team and its boy-wonder general manager, I've been trying to think of what a Sabermetric predictive formula for publishing would look like. What if I could come up with a formula like a publishing OPS that would tell me projects and markets that are undervalued and I could get to them first.

Unfortunately, this isn't baseball. You can analyze a baseball player's performance and possibly predict how he will do next season. But books aren't like that -- there's no clear data before they're published to predict how they'll do except everyone's gut instinct, and then when they're published the investment has already been made. Books don't really play in college before they make the Big Leagues.

And whether the big guess about a book's prospects is from someone off the street, or someone who has spent a lifetime in publishing, or a group of people playing with virtual money on the internet, it's still a guess based on an incredibly complex combination of the plot, the quality, the author, the cover, the cultural waters, the marketplace, marketing, the tastes of some key players in publishing and in bookstores, word of mouth.... how could you begin to quantify all of that?

But I commend Simon & Schuster for trying something new -- anything that can help shed some light on such a mystifying process is fine by me. Now go find me that formula or I shall taunt you a second time.


don killuminati said...

if you are looking for an oracle try the i-ching aka the book of changes aka the oracle. its an ancient chinese text that pre-dates the bible by a couple centuries. apparently the chines figured out the patterns of the universe and use them to reveal what you wish to know. i would say it is a very effective tool. it said my memoir would be successful.

takoda said...

I-Ching is one way, Don. A better method was invented by the Turks.

That's right. Turkish coffee. You drink a small cup in the morning between 5:32 am and 6:11 am then turn the cup upside down and let the granules dry for precisely 2 hours.

If you mail me your cup, I will gladly read your fortune. Or predict the success/failure of your manuscript. The first twenty people to respond to this once-in-a-lifetime offer will receive a 30% discount off this list price of $45.95 per cup reading.

Thank you.

astairesteps said...


The only thing I can suggest:

Break up with your fiancee. Woo and marry Oprah. Sign pre-nup stating that you don't want a penny of hers EVER as long as she includes all of your clients' books in her book club. Cha-Ching! Best-sellers...guaranteed. Awkward marriage...probable.

alternatefish said...

Actually, you should just become Oprah. Surely nobody would notice if Oprah suddenly became a white male. Blame it on plastic surgery or something. Then, of course, Oprah's book club will mention only the books in which Nathan Bransford has a financial interest. Nobody would ever make the connection, I'm sure.

David said...

My God, what an amazing idea! The wisdom of crowds! Using many people to predict the success of a book! S&S astonishes me!

You know what they could do? They could print up many, many copies of a book they're interested in, after of course first paying the author for the right to do so, and set those copies out in some public place, like, oh, I dunno, the racks in bookstores and supermarkets, and then wait to see what happens! That would a way of using really big crowds of people to see if big crowds of people would like the book. Heck, they could even spend some money advertising the book first!

Nah. That idea's just too radical.

Henry Baum said...

This article pinpoints what's wrong in the publishing industry. That a book's worth is only in the amount of money it generates. Turning books into a product. Obviously books have to make money, but putting money before art is killing the publishing industry.

joycemocha said...

Ah, Henry. I suggest you don't whisper that perspective to anyone in the science fiction genre.

We love what we do, but, as ol' Bob Heinlein said, money is the sincerist form of flattery.

I like what I do as art. It's a nice break from the technical writing I do as a special ed professional. But, damn it, I also want acknowledgement in the form of tons of readers beating down the doors to buy what I write.

If I want to do just plain vanilla art, I'll go back to making beaded jewelry that everyone admires but doesn't want to pay cash for because they can make it themselves. BT, DT.

I have more respect for my writing than that.

Dave said...

How does one predict the next fad?

You looked to baseball for an answer but think harder... There is an entire industry that depends on predicting the future - women's fashions, haute couture and everything that follows from the fashion world.
Miranda Priestly asks Andrea, her new assistant, what color she is wearing and she says "blue"... Amanda humiliates her because mere "blue" does not do the history of the color justice. It is meridian blue, or sky blue, or cerulean blue, or royal blue, but never just "blue" and some one, SOMEONE worked hard three years before that sweater hit the racks at "Ur-Local-Dep't-Store" to make that blue sweater as Haute Couture.

Thoae people can predict the future.

Other Lisa said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Other Lisa said...

Gah. Okay, I have to delurk here. I work in film/TV. Of course what everyone wants is a blockbuster, meaning a film that will get the 14 year old boys out there on opening night and generate repeat business.

What you end up with are films written by committee, where every beat is utterly predictable. Generally these movies get a great opening and then fall off a cliff due to less than great word of mouth.

Every once in a while I'm surprised (who knew FANTASTIC 4 the first would do so well?) but generally I can peg 'em once I see 'em.

Thing is, a pitch is just four lines on a cocktail napkin. It all depends on the execution. Especially with books, where there are so many variables that determine quality. I mean, ROMEO AND JULIET sounds pretty lame reduced to its essentials.

The other thing is, in spite of the increasingly bad economics of the publishing industry, I'd like to think that it's still not as totally blockbuster driven as films. Somebody like me is a market. I buy a lot of books, and I don't care about James Patterson or Dan Brown.

So I'm leery about using the wisdom of crowds to predict hits. Maybe it works to a certain extent, for some books. But it's probably not going to work for me, and I'm the more consistent market. I'm looking for execution, stuff that doesn't always lend itself to being boiled down to a pitch.

There's nothing inherently wrong with blockbusters. We need them to subsidize the more interesting things we'd all like to see. But one of the big problems with Hollywood filmmaking is the notion that everything can be reduced to a quantifiable formula, and in my experience, this doesn't work nearly as well as people think it does.

Look at STAR WARS. Huge risk. Everybody thought Lucas was crazy. The biggest mass successes are still the result of somebody's vision, and that stuff is hard to quantify.

I'd say where this idea is really useful is in marketing the finished product, and perhaps in helping to shape its final form.

(I used the wisdom of crowds to craft that last sentence).

Twill said...

Actually, most of Shakespeare was shaped by the wisdom of crowds. He debuted a new play, then fixed whatever didn't work until the result was a crowd-pleaser.

They do this in Hollywood, too, barbaric though it might be. Show the rough cut to an audience and then fix what's wrong with it.

Of course, crowds aren't always right, and certainly aren't consistent, since the initial conditions matter so much. Did you get rowdies who laugh at the wrong places, or lovers on dates ready for something really romantic?

They did an experiment with teenager networks and music. The songs picked as hits by the separate teen networks were wildly inconsistent across networks. what was picked as a 1 in one network might be a 4 in another.

But, movie-wise, if you just produce ten "normal" movies (say a couple mil each) that have G ratings, you will make so much money you won't be able to hide it all. There are so many families who want to see a nice movie, who are stuck with nasty language and sex and PG-13 least common denominator, that G movies will be relatively successful if they manage "C" level competence. You can't say that about R or PG-13 movies.

It is a social silliness inherent to Hollywood that no one wants to make profitable movies, they want to make blockbusters. And now publishing is going the same way. Sigh.

Josephine Damian said...

The more I hear about S & S, the more afraid I am of them.

Well, you can try my Aunt Leona's test. She claims to have been lying on a couch reading a book so engrossing she did not hear the tornado that touched down and removed her front porch.

Now, my auntie was known for telling some tall tales, and I never did ask what book she was reading that day, but I guess the test for you, Nathan - for any of us - is that book you just can't put down - the one you long to be reading when life's responsibilities rear their ugly little heads.

Or when the train conductor informs you it's the end of the line, and you had no idea since you were so engrossed in your book.

I say that's the book that's the blockbuster.

Dave said...

There is a great Hollywood story about the movie "Sunset Boulevard" by Billy Wilder. This is one of the great films of all time (a tiny editorial comment).

The opening scene reveals that a man has been killed and his corpse is seen floating face down in a swimming pool. A narrator explains that the dead man was an unsuccessful screenwriter.

In the original cut, the one they audience tested, the movie opens in the morgue with a dead body under a sheet. The narrator starts his explanation and the camera pans to the toe tag that ID's the victim. THE AUDIENCE GIGGLED AND LAUGHED at the bare foot.

Needless to say, they reshot the opening.

Isak said...

I don't buy into the whole mass opinion thing--Nietzsche warned about that.

A musician friend of mine once told me about a saxophone player he met standing out in the street in Nashville, selling audiocassettes of his songs out of his car. Five bucks. My friend paid for it, popped into his tape deck in the car and went off to wherever. He tells me it was the best jazz he had ever heard, unbelievable, and he curses himself for losing the tape years ago. That saxophone player, to my knowledge, still doesn't have a record deal. It's the diamonds in the rough, that's what you're looking for, and they crop up in the most common of places.

original bran fan said...

But don't many of us do this--on a smaller scale--with our critique groups? (You do have a group, don't you?) My writing posse has looked at all my rough cuts, and I do use their wisdom to make the book better. And I value the "crowd's" opinion. If two or three people say "this part sucks," then I can't cut it fast enough.

Robin S. said...

Hi Nathan,

Thanks for the link to the New Yorker article on the attempts to formalize/formula-ize the rules for making a blockbuster movie, elements of 'story' that make it a commercial success, etc.

Really interesting!

Other Lisa said...

Yeah, but your writers group is an informed group, not a randomized crowd. My group writes different kinds of things but we all have a basic appreciation of each others' work. If it's not the kind of thing I'd write myself, I stlll look at it in terms of craft and how it could be improved. Your random crowd member might go, "well, I don't like romances/science fiction/mysteries, period." So how valuable is that feedback?

There's an awful lot of audience segmentation to consider.

Anon1058 said...


The perfect formula would be, of course, to buy all the books I write!

A Paperback Writer said...

other lisa,
I agree with you about Star Wars. I remember seeing the trailer a month or so before the original one (episode IV) was released and telling my friend, "That looks so dumb. Nobody's gonna pay to see that."
Uh, yeah. I was wrong. And actually, I liked the film when I finally saw it. It's hard to predict what you'll like sometimes.
In the book world, I read reviews of Book of Air and Shadows. It looked fabulous. It wasn't. Such a great idea, and not well presented. I was fooled.
On the other hand, I thought I would hate Harry Potter (1998) but thought I should read it to know what my students were reading. I liked it so much I read the first three books in three days.
My point is: sometimes I can't even predict what I'll like, let alone what someone else will. How can anyone really know?
The screenwriters of Pirates of the Caribbean had no clue what would happen once Johnny Depp got ahold of their lines. On the DVD for pirates #2, one of them says, in relation to the huge success of the first film, "Who knew?" And that's Disney, which has been doing this kind of thing for a long time.
Nathan said, "Books don't really play in college before they make the Big Leagues." It's too bad they don't. Maybe we'd do better at predicting.

astairesteps said...

Many baseball players skip college and go straight to the bigs, or at least a farm team. (Seems much more common in baseball than in football or basketball.)

Why can't self-publishing serve as a sort of "minor league"? Why the automatic disdain? If a book sells well, who cares that it was self-published. The selling should count for something and publishers should be more open to picking up the title.

Katie said...

I, for one, am glad that they can't predict which will be blockbusters. If they could, then those would be the only books printed! And THAT would mean that I'd have lost quite a few of my favorites!

Jenny said...

I've been involved with publishing for 20 years and I had a couple "niche bestsellers," one fairly big.

Quite a few editors responded to my book proposals by saying, "Why would anyone buy this book? It isn't like any other books out there."

It was because my books weren't like existing books that they found an audience.

But my guess is that the folks acquiring books nowadays are not people who read for pleasure.

Because they treat books as "product" and keep using silly techniques to find the "next big thing" they have as much chance of finding successful books as an orthodox rabbi would have of finding good pork ribs.

Nathan Bransford said...


I don't know anyone in publishing who doesn't read for pleasure. We're in this business because we love books.

Jenny said...


Maybe you are dealing a different kind of editor. I was published by the business book divisions of two major houses and the editors there most definitely did not read for pleasure.

In fact, I was never entirely sure if my acquiring editors had even read my books. They outsourced everything including proposal review.

And every editor I had quit in mid-project, too, so by the time the book was published someone else was "my editor" and they definitely didn't read the books.

fiona said...

I went to an agent talk a couple of years ago where the agent blithely informed the audience that she only agented bestsellers. Maybe she has what you're looking for, Nathan.

On the other hand, as I haven't heard of her since, maybe she doesn't. And saying this to an audience of experienced writers probably didn't win her any friends, either.

I'm another person who would be very sorry to see the publishing industry wasting time chasing bestsellers. What makes a book successful in that league is that it's bought not just by avid readers but by people who don't normally read books and aren't particularly interested in quality. I want to read a well-written, engrossing story with excellent dialogue, detailed, convincing characters and the sort of descriptive passages that give you pause. The problem with blockbusters is that they usually chuck one or more of these aspects out of the window in pursuit of the money.

Nathan Bransford said...


I never said I was interested only in blockbusters, and I also don't agree that you have to sacrifice quality to make a book a bestseller. Ian McEwan is on the bestseller list right now, for instance.

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