Recently, there was a great article in the Los Angeles Times about how the publishing industry counts book sales. It is definitely worth reading the full article. It discusses the changes that have been made in counting sales, as well as how they are often over-inflated. In fact, padding sales figures seems to be the norm.
The “secret” that sales figures are padded hasn’t really been a secret, but a lot of new authors may find it surprising. It has really come to the forefront since media mogul Philip Anschutz sued author Clive Cussler for supposedly supplying him with bogus sales figures as a way to get Anschutz to pay $10 million for the rights to two of Cussler’s books.
Even though, in 2001, Nielsen BookScan began “compiling information that measured about 70% of the U.S. book market,” the full story of book sales is not told since BookScan does not track “weekly sales from Wal-Mart, religious stores, gift shops, grocers, drugstores and other outlets.”
"We estimate that out of every 10 hardcover adult books, seven lose money, two break even and one is a hit," [Albert Greco, a Fordham University economist who analyzes business trends in the book world] said. "So, of course, this business is secretive about sales. Would you want to tell the world that 70% of your output is losing money?”
The article claims that while publishers may not make their sales figures available to the public, they do keep their authors updated. I have talked to many authors, though, especially ones with small presses, who haven’t a clue about their real sales figures. They just can’t get their publisher to tell them, and what figures they do get can be months, even a year, out of date.
Authors and book buyers not savvy about the publishing industry may also be surprised to know how few sales you have to have to be able to claim best-seller status. You may think you’d need tens of thousands of sales or perhaps millions, but that’s not always true. It can depend on different factors. A book might sell thirty thousand copies over its shelf life, but not be a best-seller, while a book that sells five thousand copies in its first two weeks is a best-seller. You can be a best-seller in Los Angeles, but not in New York. You can be a best-seller in Book Sense (independent stores) but not in Barnes & Noble. And you might not realize that there are different levels of New York Times best-sellers.
All in all, some “suggest the real problem with revealing sales numbers is that publishers put out too many books — and the vast majority sell poorly. Greco estimated that more than 200,000 titles were published last year, which averages out to 22 new books every hour. This is in addition to about 3.5 million already in print.”
Definitely an article worth reading.
2 weeks ago