Lies, Damned Lies, and Bookscan Numbers

Last week, Amazon.com unveiled its newest service for authors: sales data gleaned from Bookscan.

Full disclosure time: I served as one of their beta-testers. Yes, they implemented some of my suggestions. No, they didn’t implement all of them.

What do I think of this service overall?

I think it’s a nice start. I take it as almost axiomatic that information is a good thing. I admit that the information presented by Bookscan and, therefore, by Amazon is incomplete and could potentially be misleading. But we have to start somewhere.

Yes, I realize that Bookscan is not representative of all sales. Yes, I realize that many (many) authors will use this information irresponsibly or incompletely.

Yes, I realize that editors and agents will no doubt get some panicked phone calls, and I’m sorry for that, but… As much as I love the agents and editors I number among my friends, their inconvenience can’t be my primary concern.

Those of us who would like access to this information shouldn’t suffer because of those who can’t handle it or those who misuse it.

Look, authors generally live in an information-starved environment. Every six months or so, we get a royalty statement, a confusing math-salad that is supposed to give us some indication of how our careers are going, but more often than not only serves to befuddle and, sometimes, depress. Like salad, it’s good for us, but also often unappetizing.

How secure would you feel in your job if you only heard from your boss every six months at your performance review…and if he only spouted numbers at you?

“You should ask your editor more than every six months how you’re doing,” some people say. And they’re right, and yet…

There was a frightening survey conducted a few years ago that indicated that editors would rather lie to their authors about sales than admit that the authors’ books aren’t doing well. This lying was done not out of malice or sheer business evil, but rather out of a feeling that authors can’t handle the truth of raw numbers, that it would devastate them to know the truth about their sales.

Here’s a fact: For some authors, the first indication that their career is ending is…when it ends.

“But,” some say, “this new service is problematic because authors don’t understand numbers/business/publishing.”

This, too, is true to a degree. Many authors don’t understand these things and many don’t care to. (And shame on them — yes, you’re an artist, but you’re also a businessperson and the person who should care most about your business is YOU.) But for those authors who do care about numbers (i.e., the ones checking their Bookscan numbers on Amazon), it behooves everyone involved to make sure they do understand numbers and business and publishing. Is it more work? Is it frustrating? I’m sure it is. But the author/agent/publisher relationship is a business relationship, and it’s the sort of relationship where the more everyone knows, the better off everyone is. I know that when I know my publisher’s plans for my books, when I understand their expectations and assumptions, that I feel better about the book and about my role in its success. And it makes it a lot easier to write the next book when I feel like I have business partners who respect not just my work, but also my equality as a partner.

Given the admitted imperfection of the Bookscan data (some anecdotes indicate that Bookscan may only capture as little as 40-50% of actual sales), what is the point, then? Are such flagrantly incorrect data really good for anything?

Sure they are. I imagine a possible series of conversations that go something like this:

AUTHOR (panicked): I just looked at my Bookscan numbers and they suck! What do I do?
AGENT: Calm down. Let me explain this to you…
AUTHOR (still panicked): That’s what you said yesterday when I called!

That’s a bad situation. The author, IMHO, is acting irresponsibly. Ideally, I’d rather see this:

AUTHOR: Hey, I’ve been looking at my Bookscan numbers for a month now and they seem to be trending downwards. Is this normal? They seem awfully low, even if I assume they only represent half of my sales. Should I be concerned?
AGENT: I’m glad you’re asking about this. Tell you what — let me talk to your publisher and get their read on it.
AUTHOR: Cool. Thanks.

(a week passes)

AGENT: Hi, Author! I’m getting back to you about those numbers you were worried about last week.
AUTHOR: Oh, right. Thanks.
AGENT: I talked to your editor and she got some internal numbers for me. The trend you’re seeing is accurate, but they’re not worried — they think that when the paperback hits in a few months, you’re going to see a big bump. So let’s check back in then, and if we don’t see that bump, then we’ll talk about what to do next.

Or:

AGENT: I talked to your editor and I have some good news. Yes, your Bookscan numbers aren’t ideal, but apparently your school and library sales are out of this world. In fact, they’re talking about a second printing just to keep up with the demand from that segment. And best of all, those books are sold non-returnable, so those are good, final sales. You’ll see this for yourself on your royalty statement in a couple of months.

OR

AGENT: I talked to your editor and I have to be honest with you: It doesn’t look good. Their internal numbers are tracking roughly with the Bookscan numbers. The book just isn’t moving.
AUTHOR: Oh. Oh, wow. That’s bad, right?
AGENT: Yeah, I can’t lie to you — it’s not a good sign. Everyone there is sort of frustrated and mystified because they love the book and they love you, but it’s just not getting out there.
AUTHOR: What do I do now? Is that it? Is my career over?
AGENT: No, not at all. There’s still the paperback, which might take off. And you’ve got the new book you’re working on. But we may need to look into moving you to a new publisher.
AUTHOR: But I love everyone at this publisher.
AGENT: And they love you, but it might just be a bad fit. Look, the reviews were good, the early reader reaction was great. But it just didn’t move on the shelves. Maybe it’s the cover or maybe the sales and marketing folks just didn’t click with the book. Whatever it is, it might just be a disconnect somewhere between what you’re good at and what they’re good at.
AUTHOR: What do I do now?
AGENT: Try not to think too much about it. I know that’s tough, but try. Finish up the new book and I’ll take a look at it and figure out some possible moves for us.

In all of the scenarios above, the most important thing is that everyone is honest with each other. And, of course, the author acts responsibly and with maturity. Authors obsessively checking their numbers five times a day and showering their agents and editors with complaints and questions should be taken around behind the chemical sheds and shot. We’re grown-ups, people — act like it.

Again: Just because some people can’t handle information doesn’t mean everyone else should suffer without it.

This story may be apocryphal, but it’s nicely illustrative, so I’ll use it anyway: I am told that when The Da Vinci Code was published, Dan Brown had no idea how huge it had become. Obviously, he knew it was a bestseller and he knew that it was doing pretty damn well, but it wasn’t until months later that he got a phone call that went something like this:

AGENT: Hey, Dan! How’s it going?
DAN: Great.
AGENT: Terrific. Glad to hear it, bubbie. Hey, look, I need your bank account info so that we can wire your royalties to you.
DAN: No problem. By the by, how much money are we talking about?
AGENT: Six million dollars.
DAN: (passes out, drops phone)
AGENT: Dan? Dan?

At the time this story (allegedly) takes place, the FDIC only covered $100,000 per account. (It now covers up to $250,000.) So someone is about to wire millions of dollars into your account, an order of magnitude above what FDIC will cover, and you are completely unprepared. You’ve had no time to set up additional accounts. No time to think of the tax implications of all that money. No time to think of how to shelter it, how to reduce your tax burden, how to disburse it across multiple accounts for diversification purposes.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have some kind of inkling a few months ahead of time, so you could talk to your accountant, your financial advisor?

Is Amazon’s service perfect? God, no! But maybe its existence will goose the industry along a little further, open up some frank conversations at all levels, and generally get all of us on the same (unintentional and unavoidable pun alert!) page.

Isn’t that a laudable and worthwhile goal?

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