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The Bookscan Debate

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.




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Jun. 25th, 2009 02:26 pm (UTC)
I saw this linked from Ellen Datlow's blog. I thought the comments were very interesting from those who defended Bookscan. I struggled to get my poor non numeric brain around their argument that while Bookscan isn't 100% accurate it's mostly close enough and an important tool. And anyway, it's not the fault of Bookscan, it's the fault of retailers who aren't signed up with it.

Well, maybe that's true. But does Bookscan state, clearly, that the information they provide is lacking in a number of areas. I'm not sure they do provide this caveat.
Jun. 25th, 2009 03:19 pm (UTC)
yeah, i thought it was interesting to see people defending it--but, i suppose it must have some kind of use, even if the numbers and information cannot be trusted reliably.
Jun. 25th, 2009 03:31 pm (UTC)
They do do provide this caveat, quite publicly, along with noting which sales channels they track. (See their website, and download their market-report pdf). Bookscan has never made claims apart from that it represents 65% to 70% of the "book market." A lot of this is just misinformation on how Bookscan actually works, I fear :p
Jun. 25th, 2009 03:32 pm (UTC)
I have no clue why that attributed to anonymous, as I was logged in :p
Jun. 26th, 2009 12:36 am (UTC)

anyhow, i know it's got the caveat of that; but still, what's the attraction to something that is, by its own admission, incomplete?
Jun. 26th, 2009 11:34 am (UTC)
It can be incredibly useful to track regional results, or track trends, or use other books as comparatives, or even check the viability of an author, into the chains. (Which is what Bookscan tracks, rather well, and if your business is targeting chains . . . ) You can particularly see: if a signing had an impact; if a review had an impact; if, in the bestselling category, what genres are selling best; if copies sold more into Amazon, or the chains, or . . . (all of which can impact future promotional efforts).

Remember, chain buyers, and the sales force don't have access to your royalty statements. (And so they have to go on something else, or else use their own inhouse sales reports, for the chains). Let's use a semi-current example: For instance, when Wildside Press did a book a few years ago, THE NEIL GAIMAN READER, the first question of the sales force, and the chain buyers, is how did similar books of this nature do? Well, the only way to find out is to research those books, and then check Bookscan, and report back. The chains don't know how that book will do. They can only on similar projects, and that research is on the publisher's part, as the chain buyer takes one, mebbe three minutes, to look over your presentation, and make a decision.

It's just one more tool, among many.
Jun. 26th, 2009 11:38 am (UTC)
And, something else: a lot of genre publishers only sell into the book trade market. And Bookscan tracks that demographic quite well. So, for publishers, Bookscan is quite complete in its coverage, and very useful. Mind you, it's less worthy for tracking a bestselling title, but those kind of commercial properties go all over the place, here in the States, into grocery stores, Costco's, Sam's Club, CVS, Walgreens, venues that don't track sales like that, or even report back to Bookscan.

In the past publishers, and chain buyers, had to rely on industry claims, without anything to back it up. Lies were pretty standard. Now we have Bookscan, which is better than nothing :p
Jun. 26th, 2009 03:04 pm (UTC)
i don't mind the point about seeing spikes, but i imagine it would be a fairly limited spike watch. once you left the chains, after all, the info just wouldn't be there--so potentially it reports only one market and does it incompletely. which, y'know, might be better than ntohing, as you say.

either way, thanks for the info.
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