Nov 7, 2016
Literary scholar, publishing consultant, and co-author of the critically acclaimed book The Bestseller Code, Jodie Archer dropped by to chat with me about her journey, the coming revolution in publishing, and the insecurities that all writers face.
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Before earning her PhD from Stanford, Ms. Archer studied English at Cambridge, worked in both journalism and TV, and became an acquisitions editor for Penguin UK publishing.
While at Stanford Jodie taught nonfiction and memoir writing, and researched both contemporary fiction and bestsellers. Upon completion of her doctoral work she was recruited by Apple where she was the lead in research on books.
Her book, The Bestseller Code, is based on her doctoral research with professor Matt Jockers, an algorithm that they tested over four years and refined by text mining over 20,000 contemporary novels.
The Guardian proclaimed that their book “… may revolutionize the publishing industry,” in part because their algorithm was able to predict bestselling books 80% of the time, based on a theme, plot, character and many other big data points.
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In Part One of this file Jodie Archer and I discuss:
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Kelton Reid:Welcome back to The Writer Files. I’m your host, Kelton Reid, here to take you on yet another tour of the habits, habitats, and brains of renowned writers.
Literary scholar, publishing consultant, and co-author of the critically acclaimed book, The Bestseller Code, Jodie Archer dropped by this week to chat with me about her journey becoming a revolution in publishing, and the insecurities that all writers face. Before earning her PhD from Stanford, Ms Archer studied English at Cambridge, worked in both journalism and TV, and became an acquisitions editor for Penguin UK Publishing. While at Stanford, Jodie taught nonfiction and memoir writing and researched both contemporary fiction and bestsellers. Upon completion of her doctoral work she was recruited by Apple, where she was the lead in research on books.
Her book, The Bestseller Code, is based on her doctoral research with Professor Matthew Jockers, an algorithm that they tested over four years and refined by text mining over 20,000 contemporary novels. The Guardian proclaimed that their book may revolutionize the publishing industry in part because their algorithm was able to predict bestselling books eighty percent of the time based on theme, plot, character, and many other big data points.
In part one of this file Jodie and I discuss how a word nerd helped program a computer to predict bestsellers with a high degree of accuracy, why all writers of fiction should read The Bestseller Code, how to turn years of research into an entertaining and educational nonfiction book, and the power of deadlines for beating procrastination. If you’re a fan of The Writer Files, please click subscribe to automatically see new interviews as soon as they’re published.
This episode of The Writer Files is brought to you by Audible. I ll have more on their special offer later in the show but if you love audiobooks or you’ve always wanted to give them a try, you can check out over 180,000 titles right now at Audibletrial.com/Rainmaker.
We are rolling today with a very special guest. Jodie Archer has joined The Writer Files. Thank you so much for taking time out of your schedule to chat with me about this fantastic new book, The Bestseller Code, and a little bit about your process as a writer.
Jodie Archer: Thank you for having me. You’re very welcome.
Kelton Reid: I am just utterly fascinated by the book. I did want to, before we get into chatting about The Bestseller Code a little bit, to just maybe do a little background for listeners who might not know your story, maybe just a little bit of your origins as, you know, I mean I know you’ve done a lot of stuff. You’ve had a background in journalism as well as publishing. I think you’re considered a literary scholar, so there’s a lot to unpack there, but maybe you could just give us the CliffsNotes of where you’ve been.
Jodie Archer: Yeah. I’ll try. I did my first degree in English in the UK, and got into writing and journalism there, and also edited some anthologies of writings and got into the editing side. And straight from university there I went to Penguin where I did this fast tour around the publishing house in what they call the graduate trainee scheme. And so it was actually really beneficial both from the publishing perspective and the writing perspective now, because they trained me in marketing and sales and publicity and all those different things. I eventually settled into being an editor for Penguin.
Then after a while I just went with this inner hunch that had kept surfacing in me that I wanted to go and do a PhD in the US. It had always felt like that kind of too much self-indulgent kind of thing, you know, move across the world and just go and study for another six, seven years. I did do it. I got a scholarship at Stanford that seemed to be the sign, and I went and moved to California and that’s where I started studying for the work that’s in The Bestseller Code about the bestseller, and I met Matt Jockers who is my co-author. We went from there really.
After that I moved to Apple and researched books for them, and then I went back to writing. It’s been, so far, a career that’s been circling the book and engaging with the book from lots of different angles. So it’s nice to settle down and just write for a while.
Kelton Reid: It’s fascinating to me that you had all these incarnations and writing is clearly a love of yours. You’re kind of the ultimate word nerd, as it were.
Jodie Archer: That would be fair, maybe.
Kelton Reid: Did you have an aha moment when you knew you were going to be a writer?
Jodie Archer: I think about this, and I think it’s probably, in hindsight, something that wanted to come to me as a child, but I kind of ignored it. I was a total reading nerd as a kid, and would pretty much hide in a cupboard with a book if it meant that I could get out of doing anything other than reading, but I was always scared of my pen and didn’t think I could ever write a story as good as a Roald Dahl or a Enid Blyton, or anyone I was reading as a child. I remember, actually, when I was thirteen I lied to my mum and said I was going out with a friend, and I actually went to see a psychic. She really wouldn’t have liked it until I was maybe sixteen, you know, getting involved and seeing a psychic.
There was this local psychic, and I crept in and I said, “Will you give me a reading?” She was like, “Sure.” The most powerful memory I had, you know, she told me two things. One was that I would not marry this guy I was madly in love with at age thirteen, but I’d stay his friend, and he’s still my friend and I didn’t marry him. The other thing that she said was that I’m meant to be a writer, and at the time I wanted to be a lawyer because I liked to argue at that time. I thought being a writer was just a silly pipe dream, but she insisted that that was my calling, and it kind of stuck with me and I fought with it for twenty years, and then finally …
Kelton Reid: It panned out. Let’s talk a little bit about this fantastic new book of yours, co-authored by Matthew Jockers, The Bestseller Code. It’s I mean the cover says, “What a groundbreaking algorithm can teach us about books, stories, and reading.” It’s entirely fascinating to me, this work, and the subject obviously is pretty interesting, but it wasn’t what I was expecting as I was reading it. I was just kind of blown away by a lot of the insights in there. It’s an analysis of what makes readers tick, what makes writers tick, but it’s not this dry … I was expecting the idea of big data and looking at the book business and the publishing world being a little bit drier subject, but it’s a really fantastic read. It’s a lot of fun.
Jodie Archer: Thank you. A lot of people have told me who are reading it, it’s just been out this week here in the US, “Oh, it wasn’t what I was expecting.” They haven’t really clarified what the expectation was, but I’m glad with your way of putting it. I’m glad you’ve enjoyed reading it. It was certainly very, very fun for us to write, and I think I’ve found that even though, yes, we’d done a lot of research for the algorithm and before we put pen to paper we had completed that research and would have been able to talk about it then, as we were writing our history as readers and writers came much more into the fore.
We spent lots of times around books where I haven’t been working with algorithms, and I haven’t been working alongside a pro text miner, and so my experience of books has been very traditional like any editor or like any lover of books, or a journalist, or someone like yourself who obviously enjoys books. It was nice to bring that part of me to the page as well, and I hope that’s what’s made a little bit chatty. I hope the book is kind of chatty rather than dry.
Kelton Reid: Yeah. Absolutely. It’s entertaining. It’s definitely educational. I love that literary scholar, Jonathan Gottschall, who, actually, I love his book, The Storytelling Animal, blurbed your book and said that he was just absolutely blown away by it. There’s a lot to unpack there for sure, and with your love of everything literary and also now adding in the big data piece. Basically what you all created was this algorithm, right, the bestseller-ometer.
Jodie Archer: That’s its current nickname, yeah. Actually, I mean my co-author Matt Jockers is the text mining expert, and so what that means is that he brought that training background in how we can make computers read in a kind of a way that approximates different aspects of how humans read or what we notice when we’re reading. And together we sat and talked about how do we, as human readers, process style, how do we process plot, how do we process emotion in literature, and how do we look at words and the words that trigger that, and then we kind of modeled that with code.
It was fascinating to me, because that whole side of literary analysis was very, very new to me, and I was kind of suspicious at first. I’ll admit when I came to it, like many people I felt, “Well, what are computers doing in the space of novels and subjective literary criticism?” or even the other methods of literary critical training that I’d been involved in in my PhD work.
But, I was interested and I think Matt is the real deal, and so I listened and we tried it out, and we were just kind of flabbergasted by the results and we brought our different backgrounds together and that’s what created this really fun quest that we’ve been on that created this book.
Kelton Reid: Yeah. I mean, I think all writers of narrative, I mean of fiction of a longer length should read this. Not necessarily for the reasons that you talk about in the book, obviously you have to have a love of writing and a love of what you’re doing, but there’s just so much in there. There’s so many great little tidbits, great quotes, great factoids, but it is just really compelling, and kudos on the work. It’s a lot of fun. I’m loving it.
Jodie Archer: Thank you.
Kelton Reid: We will be right back after a very short break. Thanks so much for listening to The Writer Files.
This episode of The Writer Files is brought to you by Audible, offering over 180,000 audiobook titles to choose from. Audible seamlessly delivers the world’s both fiction and nonfiction to your iPhone, Android, Kindle or computer. For Rainmaker FM listeners, Audible is offering a free audiobook download with a 30-day trial to give you the opportunity to check them out. Grab your free audiobook right now by visiting Audibletrial.com/Rainmaker. I just hopped over there to grab Stephen King’s epic novel 11/22/63, about an English teacher who goes back in time to prevent the assassination of JFK. You can download your pick or any other audiobook free by heading over to Audibletrial.com/Rainmaker. To download your free audiobook today, go to Audibletrial.com/Rainmaker.
Kelton Reid: Brings me to the question of what could you possibly be working on now? How do you follow this up? Are you working on more nonfiction or are you turning now to fiction?
Jodie Archer: Kind of a bit of both. I think I would like to write another book of essays about books and the book world that are maybe a bit personal and a bit combining advice for writers. Because I’ve been in the writing world for so long and in very, very different roles, that I’ve kind of taken for granted some wisdoms that writers ask me, and like, “Oh, my God. I didn’t know that. Will you write about it?” I may do another book about the book world, but I’m also working on a couple of fiction projects, and I think I’ll settle into one of those, probably the end of this year and into the new year.
Kelton Reid: Cool, cool. It seems like you could do just about anything, especially now with all of your wisdom, that you couldn’t help be successful. I hope …
Jodie Archer: It’s a lot of pressure.
Kelton Reid: I know.
Jodie Archer: People say if you write a novel now, you’re going to have to come up with a good pen name, because the pressure is going to be on. When I’m working on fiction I try to kind of … I would say I try to ignore some of the insights we have. And I only mean that in the sense I don’t try and write by every rule or idea that comes to me from the book we’ve just written, but it is in the back of my mind. I do go back and check myself, and find I plot better now, having written that book, and think better about how to use theme.
Kelton Reid: Yeah. We’ve had a handful of those writers mentioned. I’m thinking of Andy Weir was on this show, author of The Martian, who was great to talk to. Stephanie Danler, most recently, author of Sweet Bitter came on to talk about some of her processes. You’re in good company, and I appreciate you chatting with me about the book, and so I definitely will encourage listeners to seek out The Bestseller Code. Man, it’s awesome.
Moving onto your process. Let’s talk a little bit about your productivity. Just with the different types of reading and writing you’ve done, if you want to go back to kind of the process of writing this book in particular, how much research were you doing? This is years of research, right?
Jodie Archer: Yeah. For this book I mean it’s just building the algorithm and then validating it and checking it, and rebuilding. It took a lot of time. I spent the last three or four years at Stanford that I was doing my PhD mostly involved in this project with Matt, and wrote a PhD thesis on, and the first findings of this study, which is much more academic because you’re writing there for a PhD committee, obviously. My intention was always to write a trade book because I was just really intrigued by the results that we saw, you know, as a non-tech person, that were being shown to me, given this added tool of the computer, and the patterns that it was showing me about readers and writing. I knew I wanted to turn it into a book for the trade that other readers and writers might enjoy and learn from.
That happened some time after I’d graduated, and we totally redid the experiment and started writing a trade book. The research had pretty much been done by the time we started, otherwise, yeah. It’s a long project, but the writing we did fairly quickly actually, in about four months.
Kelton Reid: Wow, that’s amazing. During that process were you then sitting down every day to write and putting in chunks or were you doing word counts?
Jodie Archer: We had this issue of being co-authors, and that’s a really different experience than writing on your own. I was writing from Colorado, and Matt is in Nebraska, and so we had pretty much daily Skype conversations and we wrote in Google Docs together. Because we were under a tight deadline, our publisher moved our submission date forward by about four or five months, just suddenly, to hit this fall for publication. There’s nothing like that to get the word counts there. I think every day we would just write, but we basically had to draft each chapter in about a week, and then took ten to twelve days in total per chapter, so we were writing pretty quickly. I think it suits me to be under that kind of pressure. It avoids procrastination.
Kelton Reid: Absolutely. I’m sure that helped. Did you find that you had a most productive time of day for your writing or a place, like an office or a coffee shop?
Jodie Archer: Yeah. I like to think I can write in coffee shops, and I know now that if I take myself to a coffee shop to write I don’t really intend to write that day. I just intend to get a few clever words down I’m pleased with, and then four words and give myself a pat on the back, and then drink too much coffee and go home. If I really want to produce, I have to be at home, and I have a study at home. I have to start in the morning, as much as I would like to avoid it. If I get on a good speed in the morning, then I’ll probably write all day through to about dinner time, and that’s the way it works best for me.
Kelton Reid: Are you someone who can write with headphones on or do you prefer silence while you’re writing?
Jodie Archer: I don’t like headphones. I don’t like the feeling of them in my ears, but I do sometimes have classical music or any music without not too quick of a beat, because I’m kind of thinking slowly. I don’t like words in music when I’m writing, so I like sort of a soft, just music without words or silence.
Kelton Reid: Yeah. I think I know the answer to this next one because you addressed it actually in your Goodreads Q&A there, but do you believe in writer’s block?
Jodie Archer: You know, I think Sometimes I say yes, and sometimes no actually, so I don’t know what I said in Goodreads, but I think that I’ve heard some really successful writers like Nora Roberts in interview and at conferences say she really doesn’t believe in it. She thinks it’s just an excuse, and I find that I don’t quite fully believe in it, because I think discipline with writing does help overcome it, and she’s probably fully overcome it. She’s written so many books. I find I encounter it if I kind of get three or four ways to open a chapter coming through all at the same time, and it kind of jams my mind, and I can’t pick which way to go, and so I nearly always walk, go outside, and move my body, and that tends to release it.
I used to suffer what I thought was writer’s block much more than I do now, and I think it was just fear of the pen, insecurity, all those things, the idea of people reading what you have to say. I had those when I was much younger, and I think that’s pretty normal, but practice helps.
Kelton Reid: Absolutely. You’re in good company, I think. Many a famous writer has used walking and exercise for breaking through. It’s part of that incubation phase.
Jodie Archer: The problem is then you get this idea when you’re halfway up a mountain in Colorado, and you haven’t got a pen. You see me like running down the mountain not very elegantly trying to get back to my computer before the sentence leaves, and inevitably it disappears just as I get through the threshold. That’s happened to me a lot.
Kelton Reid: That’s funny. Well, you should always carry a notebook. I think you taught us that also. That was one of the things somebody mentioned in your book. Then what about the smartphone? Isn’t the voice to text thing now something all-pervasive on the smart phone?
Jodie Archer: It is. I’ve never got into it. I’m only just getting used to Siri, and that kind of thing. I’m more old-fashioned with my notes. I tend to, everywhere I go, I have, I try to have a notebook with me, and then the days that I forget is where the inspiration comes. But I’m a pen and paper girl more than a smartphone for taking notes down, I think.
Kelton Reid: Yeah. Interesting.
Thanks so much for joining me for this half of a tour through the writer’s process. If you enjoy The Writer Files podcast please subscribe to the show and leave us a rating or a review on iTunes to help other writers find us. For more episodes, or to just leave a comment or a question, you can drop by WriterFiles.FM. You can always chat with me on Twitter @KeltonReid. Cheers, talk to you next week.