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Sunday, June 29, 2008

Nielson BookScan

Owned by Dutch conglomerate VNU, Nielson surged into the book data business in January 2001, following the success of Nielson SoundScan, which tracked point-of-sale figures for music. The same method applies to Nielson BookScan, which relies on sales data from a number of book sellers, which in the US include Barnes & Noble, Borders,, Follett, Costco, and a growing number of independents. However, it does not include figures from outlets such as Wal-Mart, drug stores, and supermarkets, which in certain genres are large. (In New Zealand, the major chain, Whitcoulls, does not provide data.) Because of this, they say they cover 70% of sales. The figure, according to other sources, is more like 65%, and under-reporting is rife. Figures for inspirational books, or books of herbal remedies, for instance, which sell heavily at non-traditional venues such as churches or health food stores, are going to be skewed.

Despite skepticism, however, Nielson BookScan is widely used by both publishers and the media. Publishing is a business, and business is a numbers game, and hard data is something to be treasured. As one commentator (Morris Rosenthal, remarked, "BookScan data gives acquisitions editors a quick and painless (or brainless) way to estimate the market size for a particular title."

However, it is not without its flaws. As small press publisher Jacqueline Church Simonds (BeagleBay Books) observed to me just this morning, "We can get a category over-view that says [for instance], yes, books on Botox are doing well, so let’s do a Botox book. But by the time you hit the streets, the public may be (as the saying goes) so over Botox books that you might as well just set the pallets on fire in your warehouse. A tricksy biz is books…" she wryly went on.

According to an excellent commentary by Jim Milliot and Steven Zeitchik in the Publishers Weekly (12 January 2004,, the benefit to authors is doubtful: "Agents in particular have been ambivalent, saying editors too often wield the figures as a blunt instrument in negotiations." Australian Malcolm Knox is even more bitter. In an article called, "The ExFactor: BookScan and the death of the Australian novelist" (, he claims that the reliance on figures that Nielson BookScan facilitates will spell the end of the great novel. Good editors want to publish good books, but are increasingly overwhelmed by the marketing department, which can now quote devastating figures. He cites several great prizewinning Australian writers who "stand a chance of being read a hundred years from now," but who can't get their books published. "More awards than readers," sniffed a publisher about one. I believe Knox has a point: in 1851, given sales figures for his two previous books, Mardi and White-Jacket, Melville could never have published Moby-Dick (which itself did not do well). And the world would have been a much poorer place. Somewhere there is a writer laboring over a future War and Peace, who doesn't have a chance of getting it published because his last two books didn't break the 10,000-sales figure.

The greatest misuse of the figures, apparently, is in the field of the media. Daniel Gross, in Slate, June 2, 2006, claims that "in the hands of journalists and polemicists, BookScan data has become a blunt instrument ot humiliate, minimize accomplishments, and express joy for the misfortune of other writers." (Book Clubbed: Why writers never reveal how many books their buddies have sold, One of the culprits he names is Edward Wyatt of the New York Times, "a connoisseur of disappointing BookScan figures." Looking at the examples he gives of Wyatt's revelations, it is hard to feel sorry for Martha Stewart because her sales failed to justify her two-million-dollar-advance, but a pang is certainly experienced when Wyatt also reports poor sales for Salman Rushdie, and outright alarm when one learns that he "cited BookScan figures to show that the finalists for the fiction category of the National Book Award were a bunch of poorly selling obscurities."

Could the same happen in New Zealand? Unfortunately, it seems all too possible. See my next post.

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