28/06/2013 13:26 BST | Updated 28/08/2013 06:12 BST

Why Do Some Books Have the X-Factor?


We all have our favourite books but what makes some books so special that they become a favourite book for millions of people? Without doubt, great editing, engaging cover art and clever marketing all play their part but I am more interested in what the initial ingredients are that go into making the writing itself special.

I guess if it were possible to bottle that secret sauce then all books would be bestsellers.

A book that appears to encapsulate this indescribable X-Factor is the Young Adult novel The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Not only has it topped numerous bestseller lists but a quote from it was the most added quote on Goodreads in 2012. Many people, including the author himself writing via his blog, have attempted to understand the meteoric success of this novel but none have gotten to the bottom of it, so I thought I might have a go.

When a book becomes special to a reader 69% of them, according to Goodreads, want to discuss it with friends. The thousands of reviews on Amazon and Goodreads that The Fault in Our Stars has garnered is a testament to this.

In my attempt to understand what makes a book special, I took the text of about twenty or so positive reviews of The Fault in Our Stars and pasted them into Wordle, a website which allows you to generate word clouds that reveal which words appear most frequently in the source text. (I removed words like the book title, author name, character names and most commonly used prepositions so as not to skew the data).

Here is what I found.


The most prominent words in this Wordle form a sentence that sum up the essence of The Fault in Our Stars 'Amazing Story, Life Like Characters'.

1. Characters

Characters has emerged as the most commonly used word by readers in their reviews of this novel. Some mention that the main characters Hazel and Grace 'have the likeability factor'. Others that they completely 'fell in love with them'. Even the secondary characters are found to be engaging in this story.

In order for a book to really resonate with readers the characters must become like family members or close friends. You need to be able to like them and love them and see bits of yourself in them. Like the protagonist in The Fault In Our Stars who is obsessed with finding out what happens at the end of her favourite book, when a book is special you care what happens to the characters after the story ends. The whole phenomenon of Fan Fiction has evolved for this very reason and now readers have an outlet to come up with alternative endings for their favourite books.

2. Takes On Big Subjects

The Fault In Our Stars has been praised for taking on big subjects like life and death despite being a Young Adult novel and it is no surprise that the word cloud features these words prominently. Most reviewers have commented on the fact that for them this book has changed how they view the world and their existence. All great books have this power to change your life.

3. Shared Experiences

'Love, Sad, Teens' form another possible sentence from the cloud revealing that the readers of this book, mainly young adults, want to read about other teenagers going through the same experiences of first love and heartbreak. When we find a book that truly resonates with us often it is because the experiences the characters go through are common to all of us, living, loving and dying.

4. The Desire to Evangelise

Another word that has prominence in The Fault in Our Stars word cloud is 'Recommend' revealing that readers want to evangelise about this book and let everyone know how great they felt it was. Only a really special book will make you want to tell all your friends about it and only an extra special book can test a friendship when that person doesn't see what you see in it.

When I set up a digital publishing company last autumn I did so because I wanted to discover a book that had the magic to become the favourite book of many people around the world. However, I wasn't actually expecting to find one as there have been only ten books in my life to date that have had a profound effect on me. But I did find one, The Sea and the Silence by Peter Cunningham.

If I were Wordle, and had to sum it up in just a few words I would say, The Sea and The Silence is a story for your head and your heart.