Analog, my favorite science-fiction magazine in that dim bygone era of my teenage years, had a clever way to get feedback from readers and convey it to authors. It was called "The Analytical Laboratory", or "An Lab" for short. Each month anyone who felt like it could mail in a postcard ranking the stories in that issue, numerically, from 1 to N. Somebody at the 'zine averaged the votes and, a few months later, the results would appear. The writer of the most popular story received a cash bonus --- as I recollect, it was one cent per word, on top of the three cent per word standard payment at that time. The second place finisher got a smaller award, half a cent per word.

I thought that the An Lab was a cute concept, so I religiously sent in my ballot. Probably a few hundred others did too, out of the 60,000 or so total Analog audience. Possessing an analytic-obsessive personality myself, I also enjoyed checking the results against my preferences and studying them in other ways. (Some might say that I should have found better things to do with my youthful energy!) It was clear from the printed An Lab scores that not all readers ranked all stories, for instance, since the total of the average point scores did not add up to 1 + 2 + ... + N. I also observed a pronounced bias toward longer fiction. Segments of serialized novels won, for instance, more often than short stories or novelettes.

And then there was a stranger phenomenon that my analysis unveiled: the shorter the title, the higher a story tended to rank. This correlation was strong, far beyond random chance, particularly when title length was defined by number of syllables rather than number of letters or words. (I didn't know about chi-square then, so I didn't compute it for my hypothesis --- sorry!) Why should the most popular stories have the shortest titles? Did authors and editors reserve the punchiest names for the most striking works? Did readers prefer not to write out lengthy titles on their ballots, or did they fail to remember them? I don't know ....

TopicPersonalHistory - 2002-03-07

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