How good are you at predicting commercial hits?

Amazon has a new feature that shows the percentage of reviewers who "liked" a book. That's a combination of 4 and 5-star reviews divided by the total number of reviews. I decided to see how my nine original books came out on the "liked" ranking. I was curious if sales were aligned with reviews.

Liked              Title

90%     How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big
88%     Dobert's Top Secret Management Handbook
87%     The Dilbert Principle
82%     Dilbert and the Way of the Weasel
78%     The Dilbert Future
76%     The Religion War
71%     The Joy of Work
68%     God's Debris
67%     Stick to Drawing Comics, Monkey Brain

So given those user ratings, let's see how good you are at predicting hits. In this case you're predicting the past, but since you don't have complete data you still need a lot of intuition or experience to answer these questions.

1. Which two books have been read by the FEWEST people? 

2. Which two books has been read by the MOST people? 

If you can answer even one of those questions correctly, you would be the best book publisher in the world.

Scroll down for the answers.




The two books that have been read by the FEWEST people include the one that is least liked (67%) and the one that is most liked (90%).

The two books that have been read by the MOST people are The Dilbert Principle (88% - 3rd place) and God's Debris (68% - almost tied for last place).

If you ask a publisher (and I have) how well they can predict hits, they'll tell you no one has that ability. The quality and likability of a book have no correlation to sales.

I've been talking to a lot of folks who work in the venture capital field (including seed and angel) as part of the CalendarTree.com ramp-up. Start-up funding is a bizarre world in which everyone holds these two contradictory views:

1. A successful start-up must have the following elements (x,y,z...) 

2. No one can predict which start-ups will succeed. 

As far as I can tell, the only reason for the first item on the list is so folks have something to talk about in the meetings. Obviously there are some minimums, such as the ability to create an actual product, but beyond that no one can predict anything.

Publishing has the same absurdity. It goes like this.
  1. Bob, it's your job to pick our next hit book.
  2. Bob, no one can predict which books will be a hit.
I'll bet you're having the same kind of conversation at your job. It goes like this.

Boss: Add this new feature to our product even if you have to work nights and weekends.

You: Will that increase sales?

Boss: Beats me.

Scott Adams

Co-founder of CalendarTree.com





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May 22, 2014
Scott, I liked your How To .. book, and I have a suggestion to make it better.

There are parts of the book that I liked "a lot". Some one liners / sometimes whole paragraphs with great one liners stayed with me and I, in all seriousness, wanted to come back to them (re read them). It wasn't a page turner, but that wasn't my expectation anyway.

After reading it once, I could not bring myself to re-read the one liners. That has never happened before. I have a hypothesis on why it happened this time.

Let me give you an example of a book with more content than yours: The Foundation series by Isaac Asimov. It has some great one liners and small paragraphs of witty philosophy, the kind I like. Lets ignore the quality of the witticism. If you look at the ratio of great lines per 100 pages, your book will have more engaging, easy to remember, easier to pronounce, even easier to relate quotes.

But, whenever I want to read something witty (with deeper meaning), it is very easy for me to find a quote in The Foundation series (in total a much larger book), but seems daunting to do in your single book. I can't "find" the good stuff, despite the fact it is more available in your book. That was point 1.

Another point is about how "any" book feels everywhere. There are some books, which you can open from anywhere and be smiling after a page or two. H2G2 is such a book. I thought your book is one of them. I am not wrong in that, but I am not very right either. It just takes too long to get that smile sometimes.

With these two points as my observation, my suggestion to you is to remove some content from the book. Not edit, it is already tight, remove content altogether. May be remove the diet and exercise altogether. I know, a lot of people found that useful but they would have found the book useful without those two topics as well and probably liked it better or promoted (to their friends) easier. The diet and exercise topic could be separate short e-book.

There is too much disparate not-too-deep content. I don't mind the not-too-deep thing. I actually like it, to an extent. But the sheer variety could be less and readers might savor more.

Just an opinion. Please know that I liked your book and it made me think at times, smile at others.
May 22, 2014
While we're on the subject of your books, why is The Religion War still not available in Kindle format?
May 22, 2014

It's becoming increasingly obvious that you are slightly obsessed with the fact that your current book has not sold as many copies as you had hoped. This is understandably disappointing given your pledge to use the proceeds from this and other future endeavors to help try to make the world a better place. I also realize that the purpose of the book is also to improve the world by helping to improve the lives of it's readers. With this in mind it seems like maybe you're focusing on the wrong metrics for the success of this book.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
May 22, 2014
The Dilbert Principle did well because it was released in the heyday of the Dilbert strip (soon after the initial downsizing wars of the early 1990s). Name recognition and critical acclaim combined to make a blockbuster. As for God's Debris, it was a free download. Free stuff is popular.

Your least popular books seem to be marketed as "The Dilbert guy, but talking about non-Dilbert stuff." They're a little like if sportswriter Bill Simmons wrote a book about opera or reality TV shows. He might well be interesting or even an expert, but it isn't going to be your first stop unless you are a huge fan and interested in the topic. Also, you are pushing it as a self help book, which is offputting to a lot of people. And the reviews that are out say it's half a good book and half recycled blog posts, the latter of which we've already read.

Stick to writing books structured around your comic, monkey brain. :)
May 22, 2014
Stop the presses! Scott Adams has made startling new discoveries:

Quality <> Quantity; Quantity <> Quality.

People lie to themselves, and thereby create the world they wish to see, rather than the "actual" world (cf., religion**).

(They say, "A successful start-up must have the following elements (x,y,z...)", when they really mean, "I like (and thus invest) in companies that have following elements (x,y,z...)", creating the self-fulfilling prophesy that <x,y,z..> companies succeed (...in getting invested in.).

Gee, whodathunkit?

{**also politics; "beer glasses"}
0 Rank Up Rank Down
May 22, 2014
On a side-note, John Niven has written a very funny and entertaining book about exactly this kind of inability to pick a hit in the music-industry of the nineties in Great Brittain, called "Kill your Friends". Its unscrupulous main character knows very well about this difficulty in his job but succeeds to make a career anyway through sheer ruthlessness and a bit of luck.

Maybe you are to honest.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
May 22, 2014
I got only one right (The Dilbert Principle), and only because I KNEW that.

What about this: The two worst selling books have the longest titles, that also form a complete sentence.

Give the book a shorter title, something like:
- Cool failures
- If I can win, so can you

Ah, forget it. I can't do it either.
0 Rank Up Rank Down
May 22, 2014
The "Liked" numbers are %ges where as read by "most" or "fewest" are numbers. So they may not correlate. Looking at the actual number of respondents who "Liked" may be more relevant here.
Another factor is amazon.com. I guess, Dilbert Principle came out at a time when writing reviews on amazon was not that prevalent. I would imagine that the fraction of those who write review after reading the book is higher for newer books than for older books.
I think a fair comparison is to look at books released around similar time and see if there is vast difference in their rankings in terms of number of likes and number of readers.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
May 22, 2014
Hi i answered both correctly

Just want to brag with my train of though now.

First I thought critical acclaim and number of people that have read the book has no correlation. So no info given there.

Next thing that got into my eye was '67% Stick to Drawing Comics, Monkey Brain'. That publishing sounds like a b-side of the first demo of a punk rock band. Plus, if i remember correctly, this WAS your first book aka book written by a nobody. So i chose that to be the least read book.

Then the next fewest read book was easy. you have marketed How to fail on your blog like a desperate madman. And you have complained about the sellings. Additionally there had to be some sort of hard-to-guess factor amongst your question. i thought this had to be it (the good critical reception deking).

As the most read books i immediately chose gods debris and dilbert principle. Debris because years ago before i read your blog it somehow got into my attention so it had to be wide spread. And it was free. And good. Dilbert principle because it is suggested by one of my teachers on a whiteboard in our finnish class (means widely known) and i somehow grasp it as your career-book
May 22, 2014
What an amazing post !!
+8 Rank Up Rank Down
May 21, 2014
It reminds me of something an ad rep once told me:

"Only half of advertising works, the problem is nobody knows which half."
May 21, 2014
OK, I got one in each category. I picked Monkey Brain and missed How To Fail, and picked Dilbert Principle and missed God's Debris (for which I promptly kicked myself, as I remember you gave it away for free - a sure fire way to get readers).

But look at it this way, Scott: at least you got published.

As I've mentioned here before, I have written a thriller novel, and am finding out how tough it is to get above the noise level. The circular process goes something like this (similar to what you've written here): to get published, you first need an agent. To get an agent, you first need to be published.

The late Vince Flynn is a great example. He received more than 70 agent rejections for his first book, "Term Limits." He ended up self-publishing his book, which somehow he got into some book stores, where it did well through word-of-mouth. Somehow, an agent got wind of it and signed him. The rest is history, as they say.

I asked some authors for advice. What came back was largely, "make getting an agent your full time job, and prepare to spend a lot of time and money." Their advice includes flying around the country to attend conferences where agents who handle your type of book are appearing; pay to take writers' workshops for thousands of dollars from Gotham Writers' Workshops, among others. Find out what the agent likes (and doesn't like); more on this later, and tailor your book to the specific agent. Then, spend all your time working on the first thirty pages/first few chapters or so until they read like something the agent would have written, as that's as much as agents usually read. Then if agent #1 rejects you, do the same thing for agent #2, and so on ad infinitum.

Agents have certain things they like or dislike based on the market and publisher(s) to whom they sell. Some don't like prologues (really). If you have a prologue, then it's instant rejection, regardless of the quality of the writing. Some don't like men (one agency, which shall remain nameless, represents 90% women writers - of the 10% who are men, only one of them is not an ethnic writer, and he's a sports writer).

Some don't like male lead characters. Surprising in the thriller community, where the big names write mostly using male leads, but there you are. Some don't like stories where no one dies in the first few pages, while some want complicated backgrounds for their characters, such as a woman who is half Cherokee and half Jamaican, with a PhD in Mideastern history whose mother was brutally murdered by a skinhead biker when she was just nine years old, which headed her on a path of vengance which ultimately caused her to question her humanity. Oh, did I forget to mention that she only has one leg?

And almost all of the time, there's no way for you to know this. The agents don't include it in their submission guidelines, although they should. Of course, they don't want to be considered to be prejudiced against any type of story, even though they'll nail you without explanation if you violate one of their invisible rules.

In fairness, they do get a lot of submissions. Some agencies get a thousand a month. It's a lot to weed through.

Maybe Scott can make his next website a place where writers could collaborate with other authors and critique each others' works. So far, only two agents have actually read a significant part of my novel; I know they're busy, but I sure could use some feedback. The book is written in first person, which is not easy, but works for this story. Here's the total amount of feedback I was given: "It is very fast-paced, but the first person narrative was a little flat for me." Gee, thanks.

This process so far has been like standing in a pitch-black room and throwing a dart at a dartboard you can't see. Then, the only feedback you get is, "You missed."

So don't feel too bad, Scott. It could be worse.
May 21, 2014
I think your data points are useful but not complete to arrive at a conclusion.

Likes or dislikes come from a strong positive/negative reaction.

I would argue the books with lower % "like" failed to generate such reaction once the
reader started reading it.
May 21, 2014
Scott: Not related to this post exactly, but wanted to share this:
I bought the "how to fail.." book and I liked it very much. But I love God's Debris. It is one of my most favorite books. I will admit - "how to fail..." has actually improved some aspects of my life much more than I anticipated. In fact, unless I consciously think about it...I did not even realize how much that book has influenced me to change my lifestyle and outlook. All changes started the week after I read your book.
But for some reason, I never review things in amazon (or wherever) (I know it is sounds unfair...but I paid at least bought the book :)

I have a curiosity question - Did you write affirmations regarding the sales of this book? And may be the sales have not worked to the full potential?
May 21, 2014
Ack, I realized after posting that I left out my main point: the reason no one can identify the "It" factor for success is because there ISN'T an "It" factor. The factors that make something successful are entirely beyond your control. It isn't a matter of having X, Y, and Z; some random person's burnt toast, that causes them to go out for breakfast, where they overhear a conversation, which prompts them to search for a certain song -- that is just as likely to be the "ultimate" cause.
May 21, 2014
There was a study a few years ago on how people chose/rated music. Participants were given a list of songs and the opportunity to download a few to keep. Some participants saw others' activity (i.e. how many times a given song had been downloaded), others did not.

For people who did not see others' ratings, some songs were favored over others, but the spread was fairly large. For the people who DID see other ratings, though, a few songs quickly became "massive hits" and were downloaded over and over. The interesting thing was that when the data was reset, and the experiment rerun, the songs that became massive hits changed.

You could take this as a commentary on how easily people are lead around by the nose, but to me it suggests that the best strategy is to optimize your business to be able to switch from one product to another as rapidly as possible, and then take a shotgun approach to selling. Start with a lot of options, see which ones are popular initially, and throw all your weight behind those (and abandon the rest). I don't much about the publishing or music industry, but my sense is that this is how they have evolved to operate. For VCs, it seems like the analogous behavior would to find the minimal level of investment that would allow a startup to move far enough along to see if it had legs, but not enough to actually succeed.

You could also try to game the system in any number of ways, i.e. the way record companies used to send out free promotional copies of records to radio stations to try to get their airplay up. In the modern world, I could see someone developing stealthware that would download content to people's computers for free, just in an attempt to create buzz.

In any case, "fail fast" is clearly a better long term strategy. Interestingly, it also makes a lot of marketing tactics unnecessary; as long as you can adapt to public demand with maximum efficiency, why bother pushing one of your products over another?
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
May 21, 2014
I picked the Dilbert Principle because I guessed that it came out at the height of Dilberts popularity and had a simple, direct title. I picked God's Debris because I guessed it would appeal to a different set of people and I remembered you gave it away for free years ago.
May 21, 2014
[x,y,z are considered totally necessary until someone ignores one of them and succeeds, which happens on a regular basis. No one knows what is necessary, in part because the environment is changing and the product itself changes too. Everything is a moving target. But as I said, obviously you need to be able to create a working product. But no one believes that part to be the stopper. -- Scott]

Well, yes - but wrong is not the same thing as contradictory. I agree that no-one can predict the success or failure of any given thing. In economics as in nature.

This is why diversity and competition are considered necessities for a robust system. The thinking is that success and failure are mostly situational, and we are not capable of either predicting or comprehending complex situations to any degree of accuracy - probably because of chaos.

So diversity and competition are useful to cover as many contingencies as possible, so that when the right situation comes along, there is something already in place to take advantage of it, for the benefit of all.

This is also why ideology, monopolization, assimilation, etc, are so damaging - it destroys diversity in the interest of 'the best'. When in reality even something that is obviously superior is only conditionally superior for a given place and time.
May 21, 2014
Didn't you recently write a comic somewhat relevant to this topic?

May 21, 2014
The problem, although not how to defeat it, has been studied academically and comes down to "cumulative advantage" stemming from social influence, almost like a "butterfly effect." See Matthew J. Salganik et al. in Science vol. 311 pp. 854 - 856. I can send you a pdf if you are interested.
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