Lately, I've been seeing a little bit about Bookscan being talked about. Bookscan is, or so it sells itself, a tool that monitors the sales of books in the marketplace. What's interesting about it, however, is the complaints:
"Our rule of thumb is that Bookscan captures about 70% of retail sales, give or take. In this case, Bookscan shows sales of just over 7,200 copies for the ___________________ book, so it seems that the accepted formula may be a bit low here. 14,000 copies is a strong performance for this title, and it’s great that this one has earned out for the publisher."
A bit low?! Bookscan is reporting half of what the author's own royalty statements show and, in the case of the author's second book, Bookscan is reporting approximately ten percent of what the statements show.
Are publishers really so dense that they haven't compared Bookscan's figures with their own sales figures? Surely if they have, then they would have stopped paying Bookscan for its clearly and outrageously wrong data and put it out of business for lack of subscribers. Because, you see, Bookscan is pretty much only of use to publishers and to, say, news organizations writing about publishing. Sure, it's supposed to be the Nielsen Ratings of books, but Nielsen Ratings for TV and radio have a purpose: they tell advertisers where it's worth spending money on what shows. But books have no ads, so what is the purpose of Bookscan? To prove that the NEW YORK TIMES best-seller list is wrong? That the number one book this week is not RELENTLESS, by Dean Koontz? That the number two book isn't THE PHYSICK BOOK OF DELIVERANCE DANE? (Really? That's the number two book?) Do we need some ultimate decider beyond the NYT or Barnes & Noble or Amazon? I don't think so.
I am one-hundred-percent sure that if Bookscan were reporting higher numbers than publishers, publishers would pull their subscriptions and put them out of business. Why? Because agents and authors would be hammering publishers and demanding to know why the publishers are reporting lower numbers and where the hell are our royalties?! But because Bookscan reports lower numbers, publishers happily use its data to crush authors and insist that they can't pay what the author or agent believes a book is worth because Bookscan says the author isn't selling as many copies as the author says he or she is. Even presented with actual royalty figures, publishers seem to still favor Bookscan, which I think puts a burden on publishers to ensure that Bookscan gets it right.