Why Bother with Bookscan?

by Michelle Gagnonbook

So here’s something I didn’t find out about until after my first book was published: Nielsen, the same company that ranks TV shows, is responsible for maintaining records of book sales. And, as with the TV ratings, there’s a vast disparity between what those numbers say and what the reality might be (does anyone honestly believe that many people are watching the “Ghost Whisperer?”) Among all the industry people I’ve spoken with, it’s generally acknowledged that Bookscan tends to be wildly inaccurate.

Case in point: I know for a fact that, when compared with my royalty statements, Bookscan only counts about a third of my sales (and that’s a year after the fact). Despite their claim to “provide weekly point-of-sales data with the highest possible degree of accuracy,” there are a number of sales venues they simply don’t factor in. Amazon, for example. Or Walmart. Or airports, drugstores, supermarkets; in other words, pretty much anywhere paperbacks are sold. I’ve heard that the numbers come closer with hardcovers, but with mass market paperbacks they’re way off the mark.

So why, then, do these numbers matter? For the sad truth is that they do. During my agent search, one agent looked up my Bookscan numbers right in front of me. And few people seem to know exactly how far off they are. From various editors I’ve heard that they double, triple, or even quadruple the Bookscan numbers to approximate actual sales.

In this day and age, why isn’t a better system in place? My publisher produces “velocity reports” the first six weeks of a book’s release–they know by the end of each week exactly how many copies have sold. So where do those numbers come from, and why aren’t those reported to Bookscan?

Big box stores like Barnes and Noble and Borders also know exactly how many books they’ve sold, almost on a minute to minute basis. If they stock eight copies of a book and sell five, they’ll only buy five copies of that author’s next release (or even fewer; sad but true. Which is why, as Joe noted yesterday, so many authors adopt pseudonyms these days in an effort to beat the system). So now that all of this information is computerized, why is the one “central clearinghouse” so wrong? A friend who works as an editor in Germany claims that they can get an accurate tally at the end of each and every day. Granted, Germany is a much smaller market than the U.S., but still. There has to be a better way.

Mind you, most authors don’t have access to their Bookscan numbers- publishers and distributors pay a fee for that information. I’m a big believer in transparency, and one of the most maddening aspects of being a writer is that getting a sense of where you stand is a constant uphill battle. This is why some authors become compulsive about checking their Amazon ranking, or trying to get feedback from their publisher regarding how sales are progressing. I’m not sure why that information is in short supply, but the Bookscan monopoly can’t be helping.

Coming up on Sunday, June 14, our guest blogger will be New York Times bestselling author and ITW co-president Steve Berry discussing the impact of Dan Brown’s new thriller THE LOST SYMBOL on the publishing industry.

And watch for future Sunday guest blogs from Robert Liparulo, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, Julie Kramer, Grant Blackwood, and more.


10 thoughts on “Why Bother with Bookscan?

  1. Interesting post! IMHO the whole book business runs on a series of band-aids substituting for real IT systems. That’s one of the reasons why AMZN has kicked everyone’s butt.

  2. They don’t count Amazon? Really? WTF? Your post explains a lot though, like how the numbers for my first novel were way, way, way off. Did make for a nice surprise when I got the real numbers, tho. So there’s that.

  3. I was told early on by someone in the know that publishers “don’t pay attention to Amazon sales.” This may explain why Amazon is making inroads, while some publishers are wondering what went wrong. Speaking of Amazon, titlez, the one system by which authors could track their Amazon numbers over time, has been down for quite a while now. Anyone know if it’s ever coming back?

  4. Do writers need more things to worry about? Bookscan and amazon rankings/reviews should be ignored (except, on occasion, to measure results of a particular marketing campaign)

    But day to day, why fret about these numbers? They should not affect what you should already be doing, viz., writing the best book you can; huddling with your agent on career direction; writing the best book you can; and, finally, writing the best book you can.

  5. That’s the best thing about publishing electronically myself. I can see up-to-the-minute sales information about how my books are doing on the Kindle, and I can correlate that with the hourly rankings list, which tells me a lot about how many Kindle books other authors are selling. I can even see spikes when my name gets mentioned in blogs or Amazon discussion forums.

  6. I’ve seen the Bookscan list- and Walmart (which is responsible for something like 70% of all fiction sales) isn’t on it. Neither are most airport vendors, supermarkets, and drugstores; and other stores are simply “sampled.”

    Ask anyone in the industry, they’ll tell you that Bookscan tends to be just dead wrong. Of course, Bookscan doesn’t admit that on their own website.

    And, though I’d love to think that my publisher would pony up for unsold books, I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that they know exactly how many have been sold and pay me accordingly. Royalty statements don’t lie.

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