Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Bookscan: More Holes than Swiss Cheese

To those authors who don't understand what exactly goes into getting a book sold, either by an agent or by the publisher to stores, I imagine the Bookscan discussion is a bit esoteric. But the truth is, whether or not your book is well written, it may die a quick death because of things like Bookscan and other publishing and bookselling practices or behaviors which have little to do with what's between the covers.

This morning I received an email from Brianna Buckley, Sales Coordinator, Nielsen BookScan, who offered the following information:

Yes, I read blog posts as I come across them, but don’t comment on them. J I will, however, respond directly to the poster if I’m able to correct misquoted facts or answer a question.

“…Bookscan, according to one comment, doesn't include grocery and drugstore chains. I actually didn't know this”

“…I also wonder about airport bookstores.”

Yes, we track food & drug stores, they are tracked in the “Non-Traditional” store stratum, which was added as new in 2008.

We also track Borders airport locations, as well as the Hudson Group’s airport, train and bus terminal locations.

A list of the major participants in our US Consumer Market Panel may be found here:

Go ahead and take a look at that list. I'll wait. (Humming theme from JEOPARDY....).

Done? Okay. Notice anything interesting about that list? Like how many places are missing?! Where is Safeway/Vons, probably the largest grocery chain on the West Coast? Where is CVS, one of the largest (and getting larger) national drugstore chains? Where is Duane Reade, the largest pharmacy chain in New York City? These folks count for a lot of books. Where is is worth having, but not Overstock? I'd love to hear from you on these stores, Ms. Buckley.

I heard from one commentator directly last night that Wal-Mart will never report. They are so big, they don't have to do anything they don't want to and apparently they don't want to assist their many publishing vendors and the authors of the millions of books they sell every year by participating. Kind of arrogant, isn't it? Again, I'd love to see the Authors Guild get involved on the Wal-Mart reporting issue and also on the Bookscan issue in general. Authors' careers and being made and more often broken by Bookscan data. Why doesn't the Authors Guild seem to care? Or maybe Bookscan could just pay them to participate. Surely Wal-Mart is interested in money. Make them an offer they can't refuse and then charge publishers and other subscribers an extra fee for Wal-Mart data. You know you'll get it.

And while many of the comments yesterday praised the potential uses of Bookscan, the majority agreed that editors know the Bookscan numbers are "a crock." So why do they ever bring them up? It raises an important question, which is: Why do editors have access to Bookscan and should they? Don't get me wrong, I think that the Sales department should be using Bookscan and possibly marketing and advertising. Presumably those departments know how to interpret the numbers correctly. But editors were mostly English majors, not statistics or accounting majors. Their brains are about words, not numbers. And most seem to be using Bookscan like a big, dead stick with which to beat authors and agents over the head. Is it just an excuse to reject something they didn't like for other reasons but preferred to blame Bookscan figures, as one editor suggested? Or do editors really not understand the limits of Bookscan?

More than one commentator said that Bookscan really only tracks hardcover sales well. In my recent experience, we were dealing with trade-paperbacks. So if Bookscan really only tracks hardcovers well, why would an editor bother to look up an author's prior books if those books weren't hardcovers? Given the back-and-forth I had with the editor, I presume that she really was using the Bookscan data as a reason to reject and not an excuse because she didn't like the book for other reasons. Which leads me to believe that this editor hasn't been fully briefed on exactly what types of sales Bookscan tracks and that Bookscan is a terrible tool for acquiring editors to use in reaching acquisition decisions. Ask the agent for the statements, instead. They may be months out-of date, since publishers issue statements 90-120 days after the period those statements cover ends, but at least they are full reports (or as full as the publisher will provide—don't get me started...), which Bookscan is not. If the agent doesn't have them or won't provide them, then the editor can just presume the worst and say, "no thanks." They reject plenty of books for far less.

If Bookscan is such a great tool, as some said yesterday, perhaps the problem is at publishing houses. Perhaps publishers need to restrict the information from Bookscan to those who can properly interpret it, and keep it out of the acquisition process, since clearly it does not provide anything close to a complete picture even for that which it tracks best: hardcovers.



Masonian said...

I read through the earlier posts about Bookscan (and the lively discussion) and realized many editors out there are dealing with such incredible pressures to "perform or die" that when it comes to trying to construct an accurate picture of an authors/proposals potential they invariably can be stymed by "techno-saturation".
We all know what that is.
Data and technology presumptively exist as labor saving "devices". However, there is only so much data, or technology, that one can juggle, sift, interpret, before the mind turns to mush.
Human nature is to narrow the choice down to one and stick to that.
How many social networking sites are there? How many of us can only handle one? (Bye, bye Myspace, hello Facebook)
Or blogs: how many of us hover like flies around a narrow set of blogs for a week or two before migrating over to another shiny glint in the proverbial grass?
I feel for editors, I really do. They are forced to work in a pretty dire environment (currently) and with the glut of technology and data available--who can blame some of them for shutting out anything other than their precious Bookscan numbers?
It's there, it's easy, it's no-hassles.
What do you think?

Allison Brennan said...

re: Walmart. To me it doesn't matter if walmart reports to bookscan because walmart DOES give sales figures to my publisher, and ultimately that's what matters. As I said in commenting on the post from Monday, what matters to *me* as an author is that I have all the information about my sales that can be had, and so far my publisher has been really good about getting me the information my agent and I need to make career decisions.

Allison Brennan said...

In addition to the stores you noted were missing, where's NewsGroup? They service my local grocery store chain in California, and took over much of Anderson's business when they went under. And I highly doubt "Independents" include EVERY independent out there. I know a local new & used bookstore that does a vibrant business does not report to anyone their sales. Perhaps the indies affiliated with IndieBound are those included?

I appreciate the bookscan people responding with additional information, because I do think that having the information is valuable as long as we all know what's included and what's NOT included. As a mass market author, the 2/3+ of my sales are in Walmart, Sams Club, Target, and grocery/drug stores.

Again, the numbers reported don't impact my decision making much because I get all those other numbers. But I can see if someone doesn't see them how it's easy to assume that the one set is the only info out there.

R. Chazz Chute said...

This information is cetainly frustrating and scary to authors. As a former editor, publicist and sales rep, I concur that the industry is full of people who don't understand numbers. Many people, even people who are high in the hierarchy, don't even know what a book costs. These gaps in understanding have often led to very questionable acquisitions.

For all the doom, gloom and generalized anxiety, the industry has always seemed to be on the edge. Despite the current environment, I don't think its that much more unhealthy than it was 20 years ago. (I too lost a job when a publisher I worked for went out of business. He was focused on publishing "important books" with no regard for what might sell outside of Toronto's posh Rosedale.) Publishing is a noble. iffy proposition. That's not new. Strap on a pair and get used to it.

More data--data with as many caveats and gaps as Bookscan has--seems to have led to more confusion than clarity. The technology has changed but the people haven't. Since so many publishers' track records aren't any better than they were before Bookscan, obviously the technology hasn't helped. They're still stuck in the 90/10 rule, a circumstance that any other industry would consider untenable.

It sounds like some editors need better training with those numbers since I can't imagine denying them access to what the sales reps can plainly see. (As an editor, that would be grounds for stomping outrage.) Or, they can get back to what they always did before so much confusing data entered the mix--develop an instinct and go with their heart and mind and gut.

There is enormous pressure on editors in the current environment. I sympathize, but it appears Bookscan in its present form is neither accurate enough nor user-friendly enough (depending on whom you believe) to help them ease that pressure.

As for turning somebody down, since when is it insufficient to say "Thanks for the pitch, but I don't love it enough. I'm sure someone else will..."? Falling back on technology (flawed technology!) to say no strikes me as pretty namby-pamby for New York editors with a tough-minded rep to maintain.

And yes, Wal-Mart is arrogant and no they won't change. With the inertia of their corporate culture, I don't think enough money could be raised to get them to change that circumstance, either.

Thanks for your illumination. It is invaluable.

R Chazz Chute

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