Bestsellers tend to be fiction titles, published in winter, study finds

BOSTON — Want to write a bestseller? Certain genres and times of publication may help guarantee success, a new study finds.

Researchers at Northeastern University in Boston recently analyzed data on nearly 4,500 books that made the New York Times Bestseller Lists from 2008 to 2016, allowing them to understand what helped certain titles sell better than others.

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Want to write a bestseller? A new study finds that your best shot may come if you pen a fiction novel and release it in the winter.

Their analysis showed that general fiction sold the best, followed by biographies. Additionally, books that showed strong sales numbers out of the gate were more likely to continue their forward momentum.

Paradoxically, non-fiction books were more successful at retaining their spot on the bestseller list than fiction books, the researchers found, despite inferior overall sales.

For example, Laura Hillenbrand’s “Unbroken,” a non-fiction title which tells the story of a famous American war hero, had the best sales figures of any title examined, staying on the bestseller list for 203 weeks — or nearly four years. Meanwhile, Kathryn Stockett’s novel “The Help,” the highest-grossing fiction title examined, only lasted 131 weeks on the bestseller list, despite being optioned for the silver screen.

Fiction writers, most of whom were women, were most likely to make the bestseller list multiple times, the researchers noted. Male authors who decided to write fiction, however, fared no worse than females in terms of sales numbers.

Generally speaking, men were more likely than women to write — and achieve bestseller status with — non-fiction titles.

All in all, three factors could reliably determine whether a given book would sell well: its audience (thriller and mystery titles fared best); its author’s past success (the larger the sales numbers, the better); and its time of publication (Christmastime was optimal). Two other driving forces for high sales were celebrity endorsements and TV or movie adaptations, the researchers said, but even established authors can rarely count on either.

“The analysis of bestseller characteristics and the discovery of the universal nature of sales patterns with its driving forces are crucial for our understanding of the book industry, and more generally, of how we as a society interact with cultural products,” summarizes Albert-László Barabás, the study’s lead author, in a press release.

Barabás et al. published their findings April 6, 2018 in the journal EPJ Data Science.