Tuesday, June 23, 2009

More Bookscan B.--er, Discussion

To say that I'm surprised by the number of comments my little "rant" about Bookscan yesterday has received would be something of an understatement.  Judging by the lack of information about some of the folks leaving comments, I halfway wonder how many work at Bookscan.  Feeling defensive, perhaps?

Clearly, though, some are acquiring editors and I have broken my rule about anonymous comments being rejected, because I can understand why an acquiring editor doesn't want to leave his or her name while expressing favor or criticism about Bookscan.

Let's look at a few of those comments:

Bookscan doesn't include Wal-Mart, because Wal-Mart won't agree to report, as I understand it.  Also, Bookscan, according to one comment, doesn't include grocery and drugstore chains.  I actually didn't know this.

Now, I'm not privy to much in the way of actual publishers' sales reports, but I'm fairly confident that Wal-mart, grocery, and drugstore chains constitute a huge part of the marketplace, especially in areas where B&N hasn't felt the need to build a superstore.  I also wonder about airport bookstores.  Do they report?  Because if they don't, why the heck does anyone care about Bookscan?  You would never buy stock in a company if the information about it was as incomplete as Bookscan's information is about books being sold.

"Bookscan numbers give insights, not precision into what happened in the PAST. Comparing POS numbers with Royalty statements is bad practice."--This is an interesting point, if it is accurate.  Seems to me that if it is accurate, then publishers could use Bookscan to determine exactly where books are in the supply chain.  But publishers can already get daily rate-of-movement data from B&N directly, and likely every other chain or large seller.  So why do they need Bookscan, again?

Also, I don't know that comparing the numbers is bad.  Remember that statements are issued 90-150 days after the close of the period they are reporting.  Agents know how to read them and factor in the reserves being held to tell if a book is really selling.  (Plus Random House already provides sales by month with nearly every statement, something other publishers could adopt if they want to improve communication with authors and agents).  If there is a discrepancy of one-hundred to one-thousand percent between the two, then either the statements are wrong or Bookscan is wrong, and my money is on Bookscan, because we know that Bookscan doesn't get reports from all selling sources, but that publishers certainly know what they shipped out and got back.

What Bookscan might offer is a route to a shorter reporting cycle, but publishers would have to require their customers to report to Bookscan, or at least the biggest ones such as Wal-Mart.  Because if publishers have POS information, they can calculate that those books aren't coming back as returns.  Using that data, they could more confidently start paying authors for actual copies sold, rather than keep large reserves for returns.  Of course, this means that publishers can't sit on authors' money for months and months, interest-free, which makes me think it's less likely to happen.

I'd like to see the Authors Guild get up in Bookscan's grill.  Bookscan is costing authors deals and reducing authors' advances.  Therefore, the AG should have a motivation to go to them and demand better reporting.  It should also be pursuing Wal-Mart to start participating in Bookscan.  If Bookscan is so important to the publishing industry, it should be important to the Guild to make sure that authors' interests aren't being negatively influenced by its existence.

My issue yesterday, though, was that an editor told me she was making acquisition decisions based on Bookscan, and I stand by my position that that's a very, very bad practice.  The Bookscan numbers simply aren't accurate enough.  If the editor wanted sales data, all she had to do was ask me for the royalty statements.  And that's something editors very rarely do, which has always surprised me.

Clive Cussler recently lost a lawsuit with the makers of a movie based on one of his books.  One of the contentions of the movie folks was that the sales figures quoted were inaccurate. Didn't anyone ask for proof?  Sure, agents might balk at sending actual statements and certainly publishers have other resources (like looking the author's titles up on the B&N system, to which most publishers have quite easy access), but why not just ask?  If the agent balks, presume that the numbers are bad and pass. If the agent provides them, and they are good, then it's a win/win.  Of course, one agent's opinion of what good sales numbers are and one editor's opinion of what good sales numbers are may vary as much as the agent's and editor's opinions on whether or not a novel is any good.  But at least the agent and the author and the editor know the numbers should be accurate (or as accurate as anything that's looking back at a period that ended 90-120 days earlier can be).

Don't get confused.  I think that it is perfectly acceptable to not take on an author who doesn't sell.  But you'd better have your figures right before you make that decision, or you might just pass up an author who could be making your publishing house some decent cash.  And I'm pretty sure that's what all the houses want right now.



Anonymous said...

Well, call my cynical, but is it possible editors don't look at royalty statements because they know that the royalty statements are filled with mistakes many of them favorable to the publisher. Mine certainly were.

Jana Oliver said...

Here’s some of those numbers you were seeking. They are courtesy of SOUTHERN REVIEW OF BOOKS (Vol 7. No. 7 July 2009) which is always an informative read. If you want to check out the entire article, it’s #7 at the following URL. http://www.anvilpub.net/southern_review_of_books.htm

They cite PubTrack™ Consumer (R.R. Bowker, LLC) for these statistics.

23% of books are purchased through online purchase/e-commerce
22% are sold through large chains (Barnes & Noble, Borders, Books-a-Million)
10% are sold through book clubs
7% through independents
6% through mass merchandisers (Wal-Mart, Target, Kmart)
4% through warehouse clubs (Sam’s, Costco, BJs)
2% through supermarket/grocery stores
1% each through discount stores, drug stores, religious bookstores and book fairs
22% through a variety of "Other outlets" which includes author hand-to-hand sales, churches and other organizations, craft fairs, speakers selling from the back of the auditorium, etc.

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