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Mel-o-rama
09-23-2011, 05:38 AM
Here's something on the lighter side. I wrote this blog post (http://meloramawrites.blogspot.com/2010/10/alphabetical-discrimination.html) about Alphabetical Discrimination a while back. I halfway meant it as a joke, but then it's kind of festered inside of me, and I wonder if there's any truth in it.

The question is, do sci-fi authors having last names starting near the beginning of the alphabet have a better chance of selling books than do authors with names near the end of the alphabet?

To make matters worse, I had lunch with a publisher, and out of the blue, he told of a story where an author used an "M" pen name so as to position his book in the middle of the stack. The publisher turned to me and laughed. "You're a W, so you may want to think about it."

Is there any truth to this?

Then there's the NPR top 100 SFF Book List (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/11/139085843/your-picks-top-100-science-fiction-fantasy-books) recently put out (a total popularity contest). I did a quick tally of all the representative last names (putting Ursula K La Guin under "G").

A 7
B 12
C 6
D 2
E 2
F 2
G 11
H 8
J 1
K 3
L 1
M 10
N 4
O 2
P 4
R 2
S 13
T 2
V 5
W 5
Z 2

This is slightly skewed toward the beginning of the alphabet, with S being the biggest outlier toward the end of the alphabet.

A-D make up 26% of the total.
A-H make up 48%.
J-N (middle) make up 18%.
S is the highest by itself at 13%.
T-Z make up 13%.

So, have a good laugh. And if I'm screwed, please tell me, and I'll just use the pen name "Melvyn Aardvark."

DeleyanLee
09-23-2011, 05:51 AM
I don't know if it's true (LeGuin should be under "L", BTW), but that tally's making me laugh 'cause there's more for my real last name (end of the alphabet) than for my pen surname (L). LOL!

But I can see that, from a shopping POV. You get in the book aisle and most people will start from the beginning of the alphabet. Occasionally you'll get a rebel who starts from the end. And after a while, you just stop looking--which puts you about the middle of the alphabet. And "S" is simply too large a section to completely ignore if you're just walking by.

Completely unscientific, but I can see why it happens. With on-line shopping, though, I don't know since I don't "browse" for books on-line (yet).

Alessandra Kelley
09-23-2011, 05:51 AM
I wonder how the plotting of last names compares to the actual percentages of those initial letters in the general population. To be honest, I'm not seeing a lot of statistical persuasion here.

As for placement, well, my husband's last name is Garfinkle, which usually puts his books right next to Neil Gaiman's, which I suppose can't hurt. :)

Shadow_Ferret
09-23-2011, 06:35 AM
I thought about this sort of thing when I was thinking of a pen name. Many businesses use this. That's why there are so many A businesses. Acme. Ace. And there are a ton of businesses called A&A This or AAA That.

Why then did I settle for a pen name that started with W? O.o

thothguard51
09-23-2011, 06:40 AM
The S stat does not surprise me as S is the most popular letter used in the Alphabet as well...

Shadow_Ferret
09-23-2011, 06:45 AM
I thought E was the most common? Or isn't that what you mean?

thothguard51
09-23-2011, 06:48 AM
Most common vowel...

Allen R. Brady
09-23-2011, 06:57 AM
I wonder how the plotting of last names compares to the actual percentages of those initial letters in the general population. To be honest, I'm not seeing a lot of statistical persuasion here.

Yep. This data is meaningless without knowing the distribution of names by letter in general. Offhand, I would expect to see a lot of names starting with A, B, J, M and S. Four of those are in the front half of the alphabet. The latter half is also saddled with letters like Q, X and Z, which don't correspond to many names.

RichardFlea
09-23-2011, 07:21 AM
Agree with the distribution of letters based on last names. Still, S is a bit of a curiosity or is 'Smith' the most popular western surname, but for the life of me I cannot think of any Smith authors.

I wonder what would happen if China started using the western alphabet. The 'W' section would explode!

Anne Lyle
09-23-2011, 10:25 AM
There are lies, damned lies, and statistics :)

Fortunately my (real) surname puts me right next to Scott Lynch - w00t!

bettielee
09-23-2011, 10:36 AM
I'll be next to Tolkien. :) Mighty fine comp'ny

Besides - it's not like they're all on one shelf. At my Borders (RIP) the C's were at the top of the 2nd shelf in the SF & F section.

I know Robert Jordan said he chose a pen name with a J for that reason.

Ian Isaro
09-23-2011, 11:54 AM
No "I"s at all?

What actually surprises me is the "B"s. I didn't think of it as that popular of a letter.

Anne Lyle
09-23-2011, 12:25 PM
It is for English surnames. Especially SFF writers: Bear (Elizabeth and Greg), Benford, Banks, Bishop, Brookes...that's just off the top of my head.

lauralam
09-23-2011, 02:49 PM
There are lies, damned lies, and statistics :)

Fortunately my (real) surname puts me right next to Scott Lynch - w00t!

I'd be sort of near you two, and right by Mercedes Lackey and her 348749 books.

Anne Lyle
09-23-2011, 03:07 PM
Oh gosh yes! And the awesome Ursula Le Guin, with Ellen Kushner just ahead of us - that's some fine company we're in :)

Mel-o-rama
09-23-2011, 06:11 PM
I found these stats for US last names (2000 census):

A 3.42%
B 8.09%
C 7.52%
D 3.6%
E 1.41%
F 3.24%
G 5.71%
H 8.06%
I 0.14%
J 5.02%
K 2.13%
L 4.11%
M 10.48%
N 1.65%
O 1.39%
P 4.83%
Q 0.07%
R 6.9%
S 8.63%
T 3.41%
U 0.05%
V 1.14%
W 8.14%
X 0%
Y 0.67%
Z 0.21%

Read more: http://wiki.answers.com/Q/What_is_the_percent_distribution_of_first_letters_ in_last_names_in_the_US#ixzz1YmfGT8QV

The SFF list does have slightly more ABC combined, less W, and interestingly more S.

What would be more useful would be to see a compilation of data on books actually sold. Will search...

JimmyB27
09-23-2011, 07:11 PM
Occasionally you'll get a rebel who starts from the end.
In my local Waterstones, the end of the SFF bookshelf nearest the door is the 'Z' end, so I usually start there.

Deirdre
09-24-2011, 12:07 AM
My actual last name is Saoirse-nonbreakingspace-Moen, but I decided to go with D. S. Moen for my writing name based on a comment by Patrick Nielsen Hayden about my name being difficult to spell.

That puts me just to the right of L. E. Modesitt, which is okay by me.

Ardent Kat
09-24-2011, 12:57 AM
Ah, crap. I hope my name is next to someone famous. I'm stranded in the boonies with my last name. (At least the apostrophe at the beginning of "O'Kelly" means I'll probably be at the start of the 'O's)

Rachel Udin
09-24-2011, 04:15 AM
I think I'd be the Only U on the entire shelf. But then, I've always been labeled an oddball.

(One of my ideas as a kid was to marry someone with a cool last name for the bookshelf positioning. Shallow, yes... but that definitely tells you something.)

MJNL
09-24-2011, 05:17 AM
I'd be next to Lovecraft on the bookshelf...surely that can't hurt me.

jjdebenedictis
09-24-2011, 05:26 AM
Okay, so as a geek, I am honour-bound to protest that we need a larger sample set for the statistics to mean any dog-darned thing at all.

That said, if you normalize the NPR list's numbers against the US census numbers for last names, you get the following:

A 2.05
B 1.48
C 0.80
D 0.56
E 1.42
F 0.62
G 1.93
H 0.99
I 0.00
J 0.20
K 1.41
L 0.24
M 0.95
N 2.42
O 1.44
P 0.83
Q 0.00
R 0.29
S 1.51
T 0.59
U 0.00
V 4.39
W 0.61
X 0.00
Y 0.00
Z 9.52

The uncertainty is probably about +/- 0.75, assuming I'm doing my statistical analysis right--which is not a safe assumption. :) (I'm using [2*sigma/sqrt(N)]*sqrt(N-n/N-1), for anyone who knows stats. Feel free to correct my math!)

If you put these values in a histogram, Z and V are really monstrous, but I doubt that means anything real. It's more likely the fact that the NPR list happens to have a few of those letters, whereas they're rare in the general population.

Given most of the authors are American, British or Canadian, I doubt the fact we're using US census data skews things by much.

Looking at the histogram, the main thing I see is that--with the exception of V and Z--things look really flat (within uncertainty.)

S00per-scientific conclusion: I see no evidence of alphabetical discrimination.

Right. So now let's do a study to see if my really long-ass surname is going to hurt my popularity. :tongue

jjdebenedictis
09-24-2011, 06:01 AM
GEEK-UPDATE!

~~~~~~~
In fact, I just put the data into a graphing program, excluded V and Z, as well as the letters that weren't represented on the NPR list (i.e. the letters that had zero names), and the slope was:
-0.02 +/- 0.07

In other words, the graph is flat within uncertainty! There's no alphabetical discrimination.

~~~~~~~
With the zero-letters included, but V and Z still excluded, the slope is:
-0.04 +/- 0.06

~~~~~~~
With everything, including V and Z, the slope is:
+0.06 +/- 0.06

~~~~~~~
With V and Z included, but the zero-letters excluded, the slope is:
+0.12 +/- 0.06

Note: This implies alphabetical discrimination with the END of the alphabet being more favourable. However, as I said, I suspect V and Z's results are an artifact of the small sample size.

~~~~~~~

Translation for those uncomfortable with this stuff: If the second number (after the +/- symbols) is bigger than the first number, that means the slope of the graph is zero within uncertainty, which mean there is NO alphabetical discrimination.

A positive slope means there IS alphabetical discrimination, with the front of the alphabet being favoured. A negative slope means there IS alphabetical discrimination, with the end of the alphabet being favoured. However, you always want to take into account the size of the uncertainty (the second number) also.

MJNL
09-24-2011, 06:07 AM
I'm fairly sure we writers are the number one group most obsessed with obscure and useless statistics. At least it's fun :) .

Rachel Udin
09-24-2011, 07:14 AM
I'm fairly sure we writers are the number one group most obsessed with obscure and useless statistics. At least it's fun :) .
Hear Hear! Like buttons are on the opposite side for women because women used to have dressers. (Maids who dressed them). Since it was in vogue during the industrialization period still, the buttons stayed on the same side.

My grandmother also gave me a manners book. So I have other useless facts. (Fantasy and Sci-fi tends to get me to pick up the most useless ones to today's day to day world.)

Still think I'm screwed with a U. Maybe I should pay 100 dollars US to change my last name.

blacbird
09-24-2011, 07:29 AM
The S stat does not surprise me as S is the most popular letter used in the Alphabet as well...

Not. "E" is by far the most commonly used letter of the alphabet in written English, followed by "T", "A", "I", "O" and "N", in that order, before you get to "S".

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_alphabet

This does not take into account, however, the frequency of letters at the beginnings of words, or names. My guess is that "J", while not a very commonly used letter in normal prose, is disproportionately common in names, given that "Johnson" is the second-most common surname in America, and "Jones" is high on the list as well. Along with "James", "Jackson", etc. And in first names, as well.

caw

Filigree
09-24-2011, 09:52 AM
So I should stick with Crane, instead of Risley, maybe.

bearilou
09-24-2011, 04:01 PM
GEEK-UPDATE!

~~~~~~~
In fact, I just put the data into a graphing program, excluded V and Z, as well as the letters that weren't represented on the NPR list (i.e. the letters that had zero names), and the slope was:
-0.02 +/- 0.07

In other words, the graph is flat within uncertainty! There's no alphabetical discrimination.

~~~~~~~
With the zero-letters included, but V and Z still excluded, the slope is:
-0.04 +/- 0.06

~~~~~~~
With everything, including V and Z, the slope is:
+0.06 +/- 0.06

~~~~~~~
With V and Z included, but the zero-letters excluded, the slope is:
+0.12 +/- 0.06

Note: This implies alphabetical discrimination with the END of the alphabet being more favourable. However, as I said, I suspect V and Z's results are an artifact of the small sample size.

~~~~~~~

Translation for those uncomfortable with this stuff: If the second number (after the +/- symbols) is bigger than the first number, that means the slope of the graph is zero within uncertainty, which mean there is NO alphabetical discrimination.

A positive slope means there IS alphabetical discrimination, with the front of the alphabet being favoured. A negative slope means there IS alphabetical discrimination, with the end of the alphabet being favoured. However, you always want to take into account the size of the uncertainty (the second number) also.

I love your geeky brain. :Hug2:

Soul
09-24-2011, 10:06 PM
*fails to get through the maths and explodes in a shower of glitter*

jjdebenedictis
09-25-2011, 12:14 AM
I love your geeky brain. :Hug2:

**curtsey** :D

eyeblink
09-25-2011, 03:54 AM
If she had books out (she's sold short stories and for a long time edited a magazine, namely Scheherazade and I know her to chat to) I'd be next to Elizabeth Counihan...first three letters of surname in common after all.

As I'd probably be shelved in the YA section, I'd be near Aidan Chambers, and I'd be very happy with that. Also, Frank Cottrell Boyce, though he writes for a younger agegroup than I'm aiming at.

Mel-o-rama
09-25-2011, 07:02 AM
GEEK-UPDATE!
~~~~~~~
With V and Z included, but the zero-letters excluded, the slope is:
+0.12 +/- 0.06

Note: This implies alphabetical discrimination with the END of the alphabet being more favourable. However, as I said, I suspect V and Z's results are an artifact of the small sample size.
~~~~~~~

I like this analysis. It means I have a chance!

But you're right. To get a definitive answer, we'd need a list of all authors who are published and have their books in the bookstores (good luck with that) and then either dollars or counts of books sold by last name - first letter (this one might be possible to get).

Either way, I have a long time to worry about it. Got to get that first book published!

Arclight
09-25-2011, 08:32 AM
I've been wondering for a long time whether pen names affect sales, so this is pretty interesting. I'd love to see a large survey of alphabet placement of authors' names versus sales.

There's probably two major factors that affect sales. One, I've heard that grocery stores (and probably other stores too) place more expensive items at eye level, since customers are much more likely to look at and buy items they don't have to look up or down to see. At a lot of bookstores I've been in, names at the very end of the alphabet are placed on the bottom shelves, where the books aren't so visible. Two, as other people have said, being placed next to a bestselling author is probably beneficial for beginning authors.

frimble3
09-25-2011, 10:26 AM
I doubt that this affected Roger Zelazny's sales much. If you write it, they will come. Remember the days when SF was always right at the very back of the store? Where the lightbulbs flickered? And still they came.

Shadow_Ferret
09-27-2011, 05:04 AM
Agree with the distribution of letters based on last names. Still, S is a bit of a curiosity or is 'Smith' the most popular western surname, but for the life of me I cannot think of any Smith authors.



Clark Ashton Smith

Anne Lyle
09-27-2011, 09:44 AM
Remember the days when SF was always right at the very back of the store? Where the lightbulbs flickered? And still they came.

It still is in the far back corner of my local Waterstones - although the lightbulbs don't flicker any more.

I have trouble explaining to my husband that it doesn't matter that my book will probably never appear on those promotional tables at the front of the store, because real fans of the genre walk straight past them anyway, since they're only ever promoting chicklit and celebrity bios :)

Bartholomew
09-27-2011, 10:10 AM
No "I"s at all?

What actually surprises me is the "B"s. I didn't think of it as that popular of a letter.

Harumph!

Ian Isaro
09-28-2011, 10:12 AM
For last names, I meant. First names have lots of generic/common names starting with B: Bob, Bill, Bert, etc (and others - I honestly like yours). As was mentioned, it's the English surnames that I was missing. I guess I don't think about those as readily.

Smiling Ted
09-30-2011, 08:46 AM
I'm spelling my pen-name with "."
They'll put my books right next to the gifties on the main tables at Barnes & Noble.

Alessandra Kelley
10-01-2011, 08:03 PM
Agree with the distribution of letters based on last names. Still, S is a bit of a curiosity or is 'Smith' the most popular western surname, but for the life of me I cannot think of any Smith authors.

I wonder what would happen if China started using the western alphabet. The 'W' section would explode!

Sherwood Smith

Alessandra Kelley
10-01-2011, 08:06 PM
Agree with the distribution of letters based on last names. Still, S is a bit of a curiosity or is 'Smith' the most popular western surname, but for the life of me I cannot think of any Smith authors.

I wonder what would happen if China started using the western alphabet. The 'W' section would explode!

Oh! Cordwainer Smith

Alessandra Kelley
10-01-2011, 08:08 PM
Agree with the distribution of letters based on last names. Still, S is a bit of a curiosity or is 'Smith' the most popular western surname, but for the life of me I cannot think of any Smith authors.

I wonder what would happen if China started using the western alphabet. The 'W' section would explode!

And E. E. "Doc" Smith and Dean wesley Smith.

Alessandra Kelley
10-01-2011, 08:11 PM
Agree with the distribution of letters based on last names. Still, S is a bit of a curiosity or is 'Smith' the most popular western surname, but for the life of me I cannot think of any Smith authors.

I wonder what would happen if China started using the western alphabet. The 'W' section would explode!

And Campbell Award-winner Kristine Smith.

thothguard51
10-04-2011, 05:49 AM
I'll be right before Piers Anthony...woot

Xelebes
10-04-2011, 07:50 AM
Mine will be right alongside the treatises of Ianni Xenakis.

Or Alice Sebold.

Phaeal
10-04-2011, 04:49 PM
I'm just looking for the books with the prettiest covers, which makes me discriminate against the spine-out books.

But, really. If you're going for a pen-name, make sure you're shelved near a popular author your books are similar to. I don't know that Elizabeth Aston is a pen-name, but it would be a perfect example of how to do it. The author writes Jane Austen-based fic, hence "Aston" gets her shelved right next to "Austen." And Elizabeth brings to mind Austen's most famous heroine, the second Miss Bennet.

sammyjwebb
10-04-2011, 06:02 PM
I'm fairly sure we writers are the number one group most obsessed with obscure and useless statistics. At least it's fun :) .

Baseball fans. They're horrid about it.

On the plus side I'd be near David Weber - can't hurt!

Buffysquirrel
10-04-2011, 06:14 PM
Eh, I never look at the books on the bottom shelf. My knees won't take it.