Literary success? There may be an app for that

Media companies and writers are usually interested in hits. They are what typically bring in the profits. That's why people in the industry so often look for formulas, whether cat photos on the Web or celebrity pictures on magazine covers. (For example, reality stars trump Hollywood celebs for magazine covers that sell copies.)

So expect book publishers to take note of new research from Stony Brook University. Some computer science researchers analyzed books from Project Gutenberg, a website that offers free e-book downloads. The group undertook statistical stylometry, a form of mathematical analysis that examines and categorizes literary style, on thousands of books and short stories. The researchers then compared the popularity with style characteristics.

According to the researchers, there is are "distinct linguist patterns shared among successful literature" within a genre. They found that their analysis could predict a novel's success with up to 84 percent success. That was true even for novels whose authors were previously unknown. Here are some of the winning characteristics of adventure novels:

  • More popular books frequently used such conjunctions as "and," "or," "but," or "since" to connect concepts and thoughts.
  • A higher use of nouns, pronouns, adjectives, and words that made nouns more specific (like "your letter" rather than "a letter") were associated with success. Writing "I," "me," and "my" was characteristic of more successful books.
  • Thinking verbs -- "recognized" or "remembered," for example -- were successful.
  • A higher use of emotional or action verbs ("want," "took," "promise," or "urge"), adverbs, and foreign words were more common in less successful novels.
  • Less successful novels also made wider use of extreme or negative words, "typical locations," and use of overused topical words like "love."

Clearly, though, this could vary by category. "Murdered," a negative word for adventure, would seem necessary for many top selling mysteries. And how would you write a romance novel without a mention of love?

However, there is a big caveat in the findings: Project Gutenberg focuses on books in the public domain, not new titles, and it doesn't charge for books. It might be that the audience for Gutenberg is not similar to the book buying public at large and that when people put money down for a title, other factors -- like big name authors and large marketing budgets -- have much more influence on sales outcomes.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.