Reading Twitter's tea leaves: BookVibe on the US National Book Awards

Reading Twitter's tea leaves: BookVibe on the US National Book Awards

The National Book Awards (NBA), which will be announced on Wednesday, have never been less predictable. Recent changes to the selection process include a longlist that is then slimmed down to five finalists and a mix of judges that now includes booksellers, critics and librarians. These adjustments are intended to make the prize more relevant. A not wholly unintended consequence is that books some believe may never have made the longlist five years ago can now be within a shout of winning.

The Awards generate widespread discussion and sharp criticism at every turn. This year, some critics have been puzzled by the omission of a Pulitzer prize winner (Jane Smiley), a former US Poet Laureate (Mark Strand) and former National Book Award winner (Richard Powers) from the group of 20 finalists across four categories -- perhaps a sign that the judges were keen to avoid fame or past success influencing their decision?

Eyebrows were also raised at the lack of women authors amongst the non-fiction longlist, especially when strong contenders such as Leslie Jamison and Eula Biss missed out entirely.

Will this year see some true surprises when the winners are announced? At BookVibe we think it’s highly likely. Our technology allows us to sift through billions of recent tweets to identify just those concerning the five finalists in each category. We analyzed the pattern of tweets relating to each book and added data around who was tweeting to identify which titles were capturing the public imagination.

We know that the five judges are not bound to reflect public opinion but feel it is very plausible that their reactions to the books will be similar to the aggregated responses of readers who are active on Twitter. We used this approach successfully when predicting the winner of the UK’s Man Booker Prize last month where a late rush of tweets with strong positive sentiment from influential accounts convinced us that Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North would walk off with the prize.

Applying the same approach to the National Book Awards immediately highlighted some strong candidates. Interestingly, when we looked at the fiction category, the two books which jumped out from Twitter were the two that are least fancied by the bookies - Anthony Doerr’s All the Light we Cannot See and Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel.

Each had considerably more tweets than all the other finalists combined with Station Eleven sneaking ahead thanks to the huge number of recent tweets -- nearly150 unique tweets in the week leading up to our analysis. One of the joint favourites, Redeployment, performed very well in terms of the sentiment of the tweets about it but ultimately was not as widely acclaimed as Station Eleven.

If Station Eleven manages to unseat red-hot favourite Lila by Marilynne Robinson (winner of a Pulitzer Prize for an earlier book in the trilogy) and does win, as we predict, it will be a seismic result. Some say they think the NBA is not ready to embrace the post-apocalyptic vision at the heart of the story and NBA judges have shied away from science fiction for a very long time.

In the non-fiction category, we feel it’s almost too close to call, a two-horse race between Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh by John Williams and Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos.

Both have received more than their fair share of rave tweets since publication with Age of Ambition arguably generating stronger endorsements from amongst its readers. However, Tennessee Williams is picking up momentum where it matters -- in the crucial days before the result -- and has seen 10 times as many people view tweets recommending it compared to its main rival. In a race where small signals make a difference, that is enough for us to call the non-fiction award for Tennessee Williams.

The contenders in poetry, unfortunately, were not widely discussed on Twitter and while we’d love to see The Feel Trio by Fred Moten scoop the award we don’t have enough data to justify a firm prediction.

In the final category, Young Adult, we saw a raft of great tweets relating to the finalists (not surprising as this age group is amongst the most active on Twitter). Once again, a tight race came down to a straight fight between Noggin and Brown Girl Dreaming with the former edging ahead in our reckoning thanks to its strong record of generating ultra-positive tweets throughout the year.

An honorable mention should go to the second book in Revolution: The Sixties Trilogy, which reached a huge audience via a very small number of tweets since being announced as a finalist -- a sure sign that influential readers were attracted to it.

Will our predictions chime with reality? We’ll certainly be tuned in on Wednesday evening with our fingers firmly crossed!


FutureBook community member William Pearce is head of growth with BookVibe.com, a Parakweet company that uses "advanced natural language processing algorithms to accurately extract entities from the massive amounts of data flowing through Twitter and other social streams."

His How BookVibe used Twitter to predict the Man Booker Prize winner was published here at The FutureBook on October 27.

Main images from National Book Award site.