The Rooster

Introduction to Nerdhalla

The Tournament of Books is less than two weeks away. As an appetizer, our official ToB Statistician runs six years of numbers on Round 1. Time to download your brackets and place bets.

If statistics are the way geeks contribute to the world of sports, then being a statistician for a book tournament must earn me a very special place in Nerdhalla.

Sports and statistics have had a long, if uneven, love affair. Books and statistics, well, other than ranked lists, traditionally have had less crossover. In the maverick spirit of the Tournament of Books, however, if E.S.P.N. can rig up some gerrymandered line graphs that tell you in which round Duke is going to underperform during this year’s N.C.A.A. Tournament, then I think the Rooster better have an answer as it devours its sixth year of play.

The fans demand it, and if they don’t, they could.

So I’ll be weighing in after each round of play during the Tournament of Books to break down what’s happened so far, who’s left in the field, and how the upcoming round has played out in the past. Where and when may upsets occur? Which books are legitimate contenders and who are the dangerous underdogs?

To begin answering those questions, let’s take a look at the overall field. (Download the pdf of this year’s brackets.)

First of all, let me introduce the variables I’ll be using to look for patterns and trends: I’ve broken down this year’s field and all prior years’ fields by seed, gender of the author, page count, publisher, and the position of the book in the author’s career—that is, is it their debut novel, the fourth work of fiction they’ve published, their third effort to break through?

This year’s field is fairly well balanced across each of these variables: We have close to gender parity (nine men to seven women), which is a step up from the 5:3 ratio over all previous years. There are three publishers that have two books in the field (Riverhead, Knopf, and Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), and a total of 13 different publishers represented. Most books (11 of the total 16) fall in the 200- to 400-page range, and the majority of books come from veteran authors—50 percent of the field comes from authors who have published five or more novels or books of short stories. There are also four debut novels, though, so the other end of the spectrum is well represented, too.

Now let’s take a look at how Round 1 of the Tournament has shaped up historically.

Seeding Round 1 Winning %   Author Gender Round 1 Winning %
No. 1 Seeds 75.00%   Male Overall 58.00%
No. 2 Seeds 45.00%   Female Overall 36.67%
No. 3 Seeds 55.00%   Male v. Female 63.33%
No. 4 Seeds 25.00%   Female v. Male 36.67%


Seeding is fairly straightforward: Three out of the four no. 1 seeds win their first round matchup each year, but the no. 2 seed seems to give no advantage; no. 2 and no. 3 seeded books are almost indistinguishable. Men have been dominant, particularly in male-versus-female matchups, taking almost two out of every three brackets.

(The disparity between overall male winning percentage and male-versus-female winning rate is due to the fact that there have been a number of male-versus-male brackets.)

The length of the book, which, for the sake of simplicity, is just measured by page count (for the hardcover version unless the book was published as a paperback original), is slightly more complex. It does, however, seem to have a distinct effect, perhaps because meatier books often enter the Tournament more hyped (e.g., 2666 or Against the Day).

Page Count Round 1 Winning %
Less Than 200 Pages 66.67%
200-300 Pages 41.67%
300-400 Pages 39.29%
400-500 Pages 70.00%
Greater Than 500 Pages 66.67%
Longer Books 50.00%
Shorter Books 50.00%


Longer books tend to do best in Round 1, even though it appears that the shortest books do just as well. In fact, the number of very short books has been relatively small (only six have been under 200 pages), so their high winning percentage is slightly less impressive. More tellingly, in the 13 Round 1 matchups where there has been a greater than 300-page disparity between books, the longer book wins about 62 percent of the time—although you’ll have to tuck that tidbit in your pocket for next year, since no first-round matchup this year has that large a spread between books. And this advantage for the longer books is wiped out once smaller page disparities are factored in.

Over all prior matchups, the results are exactly split—half the time the shorter of the two books wins, half the time the longer one wins.

Book’s Career Position Round 1 Winning %
Author’s First Book 40.00%
Author’s Second Book 46.67%
Author’s Third/Fourth Book 43.75%
Author’s Fifth+ Book 58.82%


Veteran or established authors do the best overall in the first round, winning nearly five of eight matchups, but second and third/fourth books don’t do too shabbily, but still win fewer than half their matches. The winning percentage for debut novels is actually a little deceiving because in three of the past five years there has been a Debut v. Debut face-off, driving the numbers up substantially—apart from these matchups, first books win only a third of the time. In other words, don’t put all your chips on the rookies.

The publishers represented in the table below are those which have a book in the field this year. Knopf, Random House, and F.S.G. have traditionally been the power conferences—the literary equivalents of the Big Ten, A.C.C., and Big 12 athletic conferences, sending multiple teams to the Big Dance year after year, with Random House having the most success of the bunch. Riverhead and Bloomsbury have been strong minor conferences—while the number of books they’ve sent to the Tournament over the years has been small, each has won its first-round match, a history which bodes well for The Book of Night Women, Miles From Nowhere, and Logicomix. McSweeney’s, Henry Holt, Spiegel & Grau, and Putnam are each making their Tournament of Books debut in 2010.

Publisher Round 1 Winning %
Bloomsbury 100.00%
F.S.G. 42.86%
Harper 60.00%
Henry Holt 0.00%
Knopf 54.55%
McSweeney’s 0.00%
Nan A. Talese 50.00%
Picador 50.00%
Putnam 0.00%
Random House 63.64%
Riverhead 100.00%
Simon & Schuster 50.00%
Spiegel & Grau 0.00%


So there you have it: a (no doubt highly unreliable) guide to what to expect in Round 1 of this year’s Tournament of Books. For my picks, if pedigree matters, keep the Random House-published Let the Great World Spin on your radar, even though it’s facing dark horse Riverhead’s Miles From Nowhere—that should be the best matchup of the round. If size matters (and it probably will), then you probably want to pay attention to The Lacuna, The Help, and Wolf Hall, which are this year’s heavyweights. On the other hand, three of the no. 1 seeds were written by women, who have traditionally not been very successful in Round 1, especially when facing male writers, so we may be in for a record number of first-round upsets.

I should point out that the Rooster masterminds are keeping me locked up in a soundproof room—I don’t get to see any results before you do, so we’ll just have to wait and see whether the numbers lie. (Looking ahead, though, I’m not going to be surprised if Victor LaValle’s Big Machine makes some noise—even though I can’t put the numbers behind it.) At any rate, join me again before Round 2 commences to watch me figure out how things didn’t go to plan.

Brackets for The Morning News 2010 Tournament of Books, presented by Field Notes