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Managing Your Book Sales Data: The Problem, the History, and Solutions

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by David Marlin, Co-Founder, MetaComet Systems —


David Marlin

An abundance of digital sales platforms has given independent publishers exciting new routes to market—but with them have come new challenges around sales reporting and royalties.

It is a headache familiar to many independent publishers handling their own digital distribution. You receive perhaps a dozen files of sales data each month—or as many as 50 if you sell into multiple sectors or specialties. Each has its own format, layout, and quirks, and many will indicate sales in multiple currencies. Some will have several sources of revenue beyond plain e-book transactions, like audio and subscription sales.

Aggregating these files into an appropriate state for sales analysis and royalty calculation can be laborious and frustrating. The rearrangement of columns and repeated copying and pasting may take hours, and it can be difficult to keep tabs on which files have been incorporated and which remain to be done. The need to convert currencies usually adds another round of manual labor. The list goes on. Even if ways can be found to automate some stages or shortcut others, it tests the tolerance of the most patient of publishers.

The proliferation of digital platforms has exacerbated the problem, with each new retailer or distributor reporting data in a way that suits them but not necessarily you. The globalization of the market, which sees publishers now selling into numerous territories worldwide, is clearly a positive development in general, but it has added new dimensions to sales reporting and royalty calculations.

For smaller independent publishers and self-published authors in particular, who lack the ability to handle the task in-house and the resources to outsource it to others, it can be a huge drag on time. It risks compromising the vital tasks of analyzing sales trends opportunities and supplying authors with accurate and timely royalty statements, and it takes people away from the work they came into publishing to do: producing and selling great content.

Trying to Ride the Digital Wave

This challenge can be traced right back to the first wave of e-books in the early 2000s. The emergence of e-readers like Rocket Book, Sony Reader, and Franklin eBookMan, and of specialist e-book platforms like Fictionwise and Peanut Press, triggered an avalanche of new sales files. These reports offered publishers the chance to improve their understanding of readers’ tastes and purchasing habits, but they also left teams grappling with new forms of sales and royalty data.

Many of these e-book readers and platforms have fallen by the wayside or have been absorbed by their competitors. But over two decades on from the dawn of digital distribution, the same challenges remain right across the publishing sector.

Slow progress has not been for want of effort. Soon after these new reports started arriving in publishers’ inboxes, my company, MetaComet, developed one of the first iterations of a solution. A presentation to the Book Industry Study Group in 2000 led me, BISG founder Sandy Paul, and colleagues to set up a new Digital Sales Reporting Committee. Our brief was to develop a standard mechanism for transmitting digital sales data between trading partners, and a pilot program was soon announced between Palm Digital and Random House. But the complexities of the issue and the absence of a strong financial imperative for businesses meant it failed to gain traction, and it stalled again when the concept was revisited in a new guise in 2011.

Striving for a Solution

With no solution that could be standardized across the industry, the problem persists. For publishers seeking better aggregation of sales reports, options now include moving to digital distributors and the adoption of extract, transform, load (ETL) tools, which can blend data from different sources into a single destination—though these can be expensive to acquire and hard to maintain.

Publishing-specific tools are available, too, and these have the advantage of catering to the unique aspects of our industry. At MetaComet, we have been studying and addressing the problem since the beginning, as it is so central to our core focus of royalty automation, and we continue to learn new and better ways to deal with the ever-changing structure of sales files. Our PublisherSales.Net tool, currently in beta, incorporates these learnings to automate workflows as much as possible. Other companies also offer solutions that have varying degrees of capabilities.

While accepting that neither standards nor a single tool is likely to become a universally accepted solution, it is important to recognize that a harmonization of data can deliver significant business benefits in publishing—not least a much clearer visibility of sales sources and patterns, and a smoother administration of royalty payments. Aggregation paves the way for smart sales and marketing decisions and happy, motivated authors. The goal is to cut the laborious processes and make it work in your favor so you can build new revenue sources.

David Marlin is the co-founder of MetaComet® Systems (MetaComet.com), which specializes in royalty automation. Their sales aggregation tool, PublisherSales.Net, is now in beta.

For more tips and insight on book sales, check out our IBPA Independent article,
Metadata Impacts Book Sales

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