The fantasy phenomenon that is the Twilight series began as a dream that author Stephenie Meyer couldn’t stop thinking about. Harry Potter started as an idea that entertained J.K. Rowling during a four hour train trip. Both blockbuster stories began with a random thought and later caught on big with readers.
But what if the next hit series isn’t so random? Scientists Joseph Reddington, Fionn Murtagh, and Douglas Cowie recently created a system for diagramming the similarities between books. Their work may be able to predict which new vampire series will be a hit — which might not be a good thing.
The scientists used their system to examine Meyer's Twilight series, and compare it to Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles and the novels by Charlaine Harris that inspired True Blood. They found that Twilight is far more similar to the latter than the former. “It’s no surprise they were pulled out to become famous on the big and little screen,” Reddington noted.
Reddington and his team are now working with a literary agency to help aspiring writers hone their style. Their goal is to eventually provide a recommendation service for readers. If they do so, it will mark the next step in a trend toward personalizing entertainment. Much like Facebook and Gmail, which analyze information about you to serve you targeted ads, more and more entertainment outlets are tailoring themselves to users. To give some completely and entirely hypothetical examples: Watch a lot of romantic comedies on Netflix? Voila, a list of "Witty Films Featuring a Strong Female Lead." Play “Foundations” by Kate Nash repeatedly on Spotify? Check out Feist or the Noisettes.
Books tailored to a ready and willing audience seem like the natural next step. But as a writer, I hope it never comes to that. A world where the next popular book series is simply based on the style of the last popular book series would discourage imagination and result in a cookie-cutter approach to writing.
Yes, trends in writing can predict which books will do well. Writing in the present tense is currently popular, as can be seen in popular dystopian series such as Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games and Ally Condie's Matched, both of which are narrated by a female protagonist. While the two authors' trilogies take place in entirely different futuristic worlds, they share a clean, modern prose that flows easily and leaves just enough up to the imagination. Collins, who thought of her story while dozing in front of the TV one night, does an especially excellent job of placing the reader in heroine Katniss Everdeen’s head, while showing how other characters react to Katniss.
Collins, Condie, and Meyer have had great success, but future authors shouldn't base their books on the style set by The Hunger Games, Matched, or Twilight. A good book comes down to story and originality, and that’s something no data system will ever be able to create.