Off On a Tangent

Random musings from Sarah Weinman, editor of Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives (Penguin, August 27)

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Authors Get BookScan - Sort Of

Already the veritable avalanche of nerdgasmic comments are piling up on Twitter and elsewhere now that Amazon is making available four weeks of free Nielsen BookScan data to authors signed up through the company’s Author Central program. And yes, this is a big deal - authors empowered! Data is gold! - but like any new and shiny announcements, there are a whole host of caveats and issues that must be discussed.

Four weeks of free data. That’s it. Granted, that’s a lot more than what was customarily available to authors before. In fact, it was frustratingly difficult for anyone outside of a publishing house to get data until Publishers Marketplace started selling annual Bookscan subscriptions to agents at $2000/yr a few weeks ago. But unless they ask nicely (i.e. pay) authors won’t even have instant access to what media people normally obtain by request: year-to-date and release-to-date data.

Knowledge isn’t power without context. So let’s say an author looks up his or her opening-week BookScan data and has a heart attack because the number is a lot lower than anticipated. Well, Nielsen may say they have 75% of reported data (and indeed, there are quite a lot of outlets listed!) but Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club are not included, and those can be very gaping holes for some commercially-minded writers. E-book sales aren’t included, though that data may be more easily obtainable, especially since Amazon still remains the dominant digital market leader. BookScan only accounts for U.S. sales.

And if there was some “Factor X” situation - a catastrophe at the printer, books not shipped out in time, surprise under-ordering from a major retailer like B&N or Borders - that will be reflected in the numbers. And of course, not all BookScan numbers are created equal, even if they may be exactly the same for two authors. But if one sold 1,000 copies (per BookScan) in week one off a print run of 2K, that’s phenomenal. Off a print run of 30K, not so much.

The same hypothetical can work if an author examines data by region, since books will sell more if they are available, and if availability is curttailed in any way, shape or form - either by print run or shipping issues - that will affect the BookScan numbers.

Publicists and editors should start taking more pain medication now. As @russmarshalek said, “BookScan available to authors is like basically giving the bull a pair of tap shoes and presenting your finest china.” And if there’s no time to reflect and to put the numbers in proper context (either on their own or with the help of trusted advocates like agents, editors, etc.) then the emails and phone calls wondering what’s up (to put it mildly) will rise as high as a monster surf wave. But it’s hardly in Amazon’s best interests to offer educational tutorials on how best to wield the magic BookScan wand, not when there’s authors to corral and money to be made.

Amazon’s best interests are always Amazon’s. No one else’s, no matter how it may seem. Giving authors a limited slice of BookScan data is a good step. But it’s a step that to my mind is fraught with complications and misinformation that Amazon is all too happy to see perpetuated, even if they aren’t the ones directly doing the perpetuating. Remember, too, that BookScan as a whole is extremely expensive for publishers to access, to the tune of tens of thousands a year. If authors are getting a limited slice for free, there are deals between BookScan and Amazon that made this happen, likely for no small chunk of change. (I’ve got comments in to both parties, we’ll see if either or both report back with more information.)

Let’s see how things develop. But when avalanche-inducing data shows up, as this clearly is, it’s bloody difficult to stop momentum.

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