Thursday, 19 May 2011

How to speak publisher - B is for BookScan

Nielsen BookScan - words that can bring dread to the heart of an author. Or glee. BookScan is a data provider for the publishing industry. It collects sales figures for books from point-of-sale - so the number of books which are actually bought by people, rather than the number shipped to bookshops. It works across the industry, with sales figures from 31,500 bookshops tracked. Although some sales are not included (discount book clubs and supermarkets are key omissions), it has the best data available.  Before BookScan, each publisher knew only its own sales. Bestseller lists and charts were compiled by sampling booksellers. Now the data are accurate and nearly universal. Publishers can see not only their own sales but their rivals' sales. It's all open. Unless you're an author...

Because, of course, Nielsen don't do this out of the goodness of their corporate hearts. They sell the information. Publishers pay to be able to see the figures, and figures are not available without payment. So you or I can't see the sales of our books or any competing books, but publishers can. If you propose a new book, the publisher can check how well similar books sell. If you approach a new publisher, they can see how well your last book sold. Which is fine if it sold really well, but if it didn't - perhaps because it was badly marketed, or a similar book by a more famous author came out a week earlier - they may not want to take a chance on your next book.

You used to be able pay to see sales figures for a single book, though today I can't find a link on the Nielsen site to do this - if anyone knows if you can still do it, please say in the comments. This may be OK, if irritating, if you've published one or two titles. But if you've published lots it's prohibitively expensive (it was about £10 per ISBN, I think). Personally, I think authors should have free access to their own sales figures. After all, it is data others are using to make decisions about us - whether to take our next book. Nielsen think this is commercial data - but for authors it is also personal data. Is it covered by data protection? Unlikely - it's probably classified as data about books, not data about authors. Do we have a right to see the data held about us, as we would if it were a credit rating? I think we should. (I've emailed Nielsen, but they haven't replied yet.) Perhaps it is something the Society of Authors could take up? If we had access to the data too, we could say in our next proposal 'my title xxx sold 80,000 copies'. Or we could shut up about it and choose a smaller publisher happier to accept more modest sales.


  1. Send those vampires in to extract the blood from the figures perhaps? :-)

  2. Yes,it would be a good challenge for the Soc of Authors to take up!

  3. fyi -

    I'm looking into that.

  4. Crotchety - I'd forgotten about that on Amazon, I must admit. But it's only USA, sadly.

    Catdownunder, sending some vampires over to Nielsen for a bit of professional sucking is a good idea!

    Thanks, Kath - I think I'll suggest it to the Society.

  5. Hi, As a publisher (and occasional author) I agree it's a bit absurd that Nielsen isn't more easily available to authors. Personally I am always willing to look up authors on Nielsen and let them know the truth (good or bad) if they ask me, so there is a friendly contact at your publishers that's always an option (I know they aren't all helpful though...)

    Just to depress potential authors further on the use of Bookscan I know at least one publishing company whose entire output in terms of subject area and specific concepts is driven by Nielsen - they basically just look at sales of previous books and presume your book will sell at a similar level. Which rather begs the question of what they think their actual role is as publishers.

    But even at relatively sensible publishers, ideas can be torpedoed by sales people reading out bad Nielsen figures for similar titles or for the authors' previous title. Which is a bit silly when you think of the career of someone like Lynne Truss (several not very successful titles before Eat, Shoots and Leaves).

  6. Thank you for that depressing insider view! You are right, of course, that it is totally counterproductive. So many writers have published many moderately successful books before their breakthrough title. To be honest, I'm sure LT's publisher could never have anticipated the sales of Eats, Shoots and Leaves with or without BookScan figures! Such surprised bestsellers become less likely the more publishers tried to play to established market trends.