PUBLISHED DECEMBER 2015
by Lynn Rosen, IBPA Independent contributing editor
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For many publishers of print books, bookstore sales are important, and Nielsen BookScan is the tracking service that reports on such sales—which titles are selling in which trade channels in various geographic areas and how much inventory of a title is currently in Ingram warehouses.
Authors of books sold mostly in print and mostly through storefront and major online retailers may also find the Nielsen reports useful; they can use BookScan to get sales reports that are far more current than the annual or twice-yearly royalty statements, and they can compare the BookScan sales figures with the sales figures on royalty reports covering the same periods.
BookScan claims it tracks 85 percent of all retail sales of print books sold as new in the United States. It’s worth noting, however, that the figures it reports on come from retailers who voluntarily export sales data from point-of-sale systems compatible with BookScan (Booklog, Anthology, WordStock, SQ1 and iMerchants, Basil, Books in Store, and Computac), and Thom Chambliss notes, “A lot of the smaller stores have older, incompatible systems, and they say it is too much work for them to report.” Chambliss is executive director of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association, which serves 125 stores in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Alaska, and Montana.
More significantly, BookScan does not track any sales made by wholesalers, distributors, or publishers. Bulk sales on a wholesale basis to buyers such as educators, hospitals, and nonprofits are not counted, and neither are storefront sales outside many publishing trade channels (think books sold in home improvement, garden, sports, apparel, and independent toy stores, for example). BookScan totals also don’t include direct-to-consumer sales, sales to catalog and online retailers, and sales to conference and book-fair bookstores.
BookScan does not record most library sales either. Some libraries now occasionally purchase books on Amazon.com, and those sales will be captured by BookScan; but, like other sales made by online retailers, these do not identify the end user.
Because of the number of outlets BookScan doesn’t track, some academic and scholarly publishers do not subscribe to it, and some authors are openly critical of the reports. Last summer John Scalzi, a science fiction author whose most recent books have been published by Tor, said BookScan reported only half the hardcover sales of one of his titles, which was at that time already on shelves in more than 1,100 libraries. His concern is that low sales reports from BookScan will understate a title’s popularity and discourage booksellers from stocking the title or scheduling author events.
Companies that do report to BookScan include Amazon.com, Follett Stores, AAFES (the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, which retails on military bases), Babies “R” Us and Toys “R” Us, Barnes & Noble, Hastings, the H.E.B., Kroger, SuperValu, Wegmans and Stop & Shop supermarket chains, Books-A-Million, Hudson Group (which has stores in airports in 27 states), Home Shopping Network and QVC, Mardel Christian Bookstores and Cokesbury.com, K-Mart, Buy.com, Musictoday.com, the Meijer hypermarket chain, Costco, BJ’s Wholesale Club, Sam’s Club, Walmart, Starbucks, Target, Deseret Book Company, Barbara’s Bookstores, Powell’s, Third Place Books, and many other independent bookstores.
Putting the Data to Good Use
Publishers who find BookScan valuable even while acknowledging the number of sales it does not report include Christopher Robbins, now president of both Familius and American West Books. A few years ago, when he was CEO at Gibbs Smith (which specializes in design, cooking, art, children’s, Western regional, crafts, and gardening books), Brianna Buckley, the Nielsen client services executive who works with IBPA, suggested that BookScan represented approximately 75 percent of the market, Robbins remembers.
Gibbs Smith did its own analysis and came away believing that, on average, BookScan reflected about 45 to 55 percent of its business. “This difference occurs because Gibbs Smith has a significant specialty business, and a big percentage of the sales are not tracked through BookScan,” Robbins explained. Today, he continues to subscribe to BookScan, using weekly reviews of its data “to measure marketing and distribution successes.”
Although Roy Carlisle, acquisitions director for a scholarly publishing program, says BookScan may capture as little as 10 percent of a title’s sales, he calls himself “an unreserved fan.” He and the program’s marketing manager at The Independent Institute in Oakland, CA, use the weekly reports, which show as many as 13 weeks at a time, to watch sales trends. “I am grateful that BookScan does its reports by title and weekly sales,” Carlisle declares. “It is important to us to know if there are any sales in the trade that are consistent so that we can adjust marketing and promotion to include those pertinent nonacademic niche markets.”
Carlisle also uses BookScan to research sales of other publishers’ titles when his press submits its new titles to its distributor, Independent Publishers Group. “For IPG’s Title Submission Form, BookScan is very valuable,” Carlisle says. “The combination of BookScan and Amazon databases helps us know what sales might be possible with our titles.”
Peter Goodman is another publisher who uses BookScan when preparing sales information for a distributor. Consortium, which distributes for his Berkeley, CA–based Stone Bridge Press, requires sales figures about comparable titles with information about new titles.
Stone Bridge also uses BookScan reports to get approximate sales of authors’ previously published books when evaluating proposals, to check Ingram inventories and bookstore sales of its titles, and, like many other publishers, to “satisfy our curiosity about how rival works are doing compared to ours.”
Like many other publishers, Goodman finds that a huge percentage of Stone Bridge’s sales are not tracked by BookScan. “I’ve heard that BookScan numbers represent about two-thirds of the total, but that’s not true for us. We find its numbers of value for relative comparisons rather than as absolutes.”
That’s one reason Stone Bridge does not use BookScan sales figures to determine when to reprint a title, although it’s one of the benefits Nielsen cites for BookScan subscribers. But a sudden and sustained sales increase as shown by the weekly sales reports does alert publishers to watch warehouse inventory carefully, especially for books that are printed offshore or that have long production schedules for other reasons.
Carlisle points out that absolute sales figures from BookScan are not as important to some of his colleagues as BookScan’s channel reports. Combined with the reports from IPG, which show every single sale by title and quantity, they let staff see exactly which customers are buying which titles.
It’s important to understand that BookScan does not report on every title ever published. It didn’t exist prior to 2001, so titles that went out of print before then may not be listed at all, and sales figures will be incomplete for books launched before then. Other titles, including some sold by retailers since 2001, are sometimes not listed either. Buckley provided no specifics about why they’re not listed, e-mailing from BookScan to say only that there are “several possible reasons.”
BookScan listings for my own titles can serve to demonstrate why publishers and authors are sometimes confused by these sales reports. My company-town history, published by University of Washington Press, is now shown with Lightning Source as its publisher. And BookScan lists none of the later editions of the job-search guides I self-published through Barrett Street Productions starting in 1990, while listing the publisher of earlier editions as Partners, which was the wholesaler responsible for most sales of the later editions, and while neglecting to note that all editions have been out of print since at least 2003.
Benefits in Brief
BookScan is an important tool for publishers that sell through trade retail channels and that use it wisely. It cannot suffice as the only means of tracking print book sales, but at a minimum, it can:
- alert you to geographic areas and channels where a title is selling, and where more promotion is necessary or could increase sales
- signal the need to contact booksellers about upcoming appearances by authors in places where indie stores have apparently made no recent sales
- let you reduce the potential for returns by fulfilling only part of the next order for certain warehouses if BookScan figures indicate that wholesaler inventory is high
- help you revise schedules for reprints or revised editions if the combination of BookScan warehouse inventory reports and information about returns from your distributor and/or wholesalers indicates a significant change in the pace of a title’s sales
Linda Carlson (lindacarlson.com) writes for the Independent from Seattle, where she also studies BookScan reports for clients.