Famous writers just have more readers

Author: Mikhail Simkin

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, 'Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.' On this Ernest Hemingway commented, 'Yes, they have more money.' Are the very famous writers different from the obscure ones?

This is how I started the article which reported the results of the test, where the takers had to tell the prose of Charles Dickens from the prose of novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who was widely ridiculed for bad writing. The average result of the test was on the level of random guessing. So I finished the article by answering to the above question 'Yes, they have more readers.' The article stirred uproar among literary critics, many of whom vehemently rejected my findings. Recently I found out that my experiment is not the only evidence.

The website goodreads.com contains reader ratings of millions of books including those by Dickens and Bulwer-Lytton. The table below contains ten most rated books by each of the two authors in question ordered according to average rating. By most rated I mean the books with maximum numbers of ratings. One may object that I should have selected the highest rated books. However this way the rare or foreign language editions with a single 5 star rating get on top.

Author Book Average rating Number of ratings Percent of top ratings
Dickens A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Writings 4.11 18624 40.0%
Dickens A Christmas Carol, The Chimes and The Cricket on the Hearth 4.09 29317 39.4%
Bulwer-Lytton Zanoni: A Rosicrucian Tale 4.01 129 37.0%
Bulwer-Lytton Rienzi, Last of the Roman Tribunes 4 13 23.1%
Dickens A Christmas Carol 3.98 231038 32.9%
Dickens Bleak House 3.97 43509 36.7%
Dickens Little Dorrit 3.94 20034 32.9%
Dickens David Copperfield 3.92 92783 33.3%
Bulwer-Lytton Pelham or Adventures of a Gentleman 3.86 28 28.6%
Bulwer-Lytton Paul Clifford 3.8 20 20.0%
Dickens Oliver Twist 3.79 133568 23.4%
Dickens A Tale of Two Cities 3.74 454445 29.3%
Dickens Great Expectations 3.68 283732 25.5%
Bulwer-Lytton Harold: The Last of the Saxon Kings 3.65 26 7.7%
Bulwer-Lytton The Haunted and the Haunters 3.61 93 28.6%
Bulwer-Lytton The Last Days of Pompeii 3.6 684 17.9%
Dickens Hard Times, A Longman Cultural Edition 3.46 24630 16.6%
Bulwer-Lytton A Strange Story 3.44 25 12.0%
Bulwer-Lytton Money 3.22 9 11.1%
Bulwer-Lytton The Coming Race 3.18 363 19.0%

As you can see from the table the real difference between Dickens and Bulwer-Lytton is in the number of ratings (which, one can guess, is proportional to the number of readers). For Dickens’s books from the list this number ranges from 18,624 to 454,445. For Bulwer’s books it ranges between 9 and 684. Even the most read Bulwer’s book is 27 times less read than the least read Dickens’s book from the list. On average, Bulwer’s books are thousand times less read than Dickens’s.

However, rating-wise Dickens’s advantage is meager. The average rating listed in the table of Dickens’s books is 3.87. For Bulwer this number is 3.64. The Dickens’s rating is only 6% higher than Bulwer’s. In addition many particular Bulwer’s books are rated higher than many particular Dickens’s books.

One may argue that the average rating is not a very useful parameter. For example, an average 3 star rating can consist of 100% three star ratings or of 50% one star ratings and 50% five star ratings. In the first case nobody really liked the book but in the second case half of the readers liked it. One may argue that the fraction of 5 star ratings is the important metric since it shows the fraction of real fans. For this purpose I gave the percentages of 5 star ratings in the right column of the table. The average percentage of 5 star ratings for Dickens is 31% and for Bulwer it is 21.5%. So Dickens has a 1.5 times bigger fraction of 5 star ratings than Bulwer. This is a noticeable difference but it does not signify any fundamental difference between the two authors. It falls far short from the thousand-fold difference in the number of readers. In addition several of Bulwer’s books have a higher fraction of 5 star ratings than several Dickens’s books.

So it is just that indeed. The famous writers just have more readers.

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