Saturday, December 11, 2010

Amazon torpedoes publishers' insanity of hiding sales data from authors

It's puzzling, actually. People ask how me how Columbine is selling, and I don't think they believe me when I say I don't really know. Publishers tell authors almost nothing. It's so dumb it's hard to believe.

Yesterday, that changed. No, my publisher didn't come through with a huge trove of Columbine data. Amazon did.

I was astounded by the email from Amazon Friday morning. They struck a deal with Nielsen, where they will let authors see the last four weeks of detailed Bookscan sales data. For free.

Until today, it would have cost me several thousand dollars to buy this info from Nielsen.

These are a few of the actual charts they sent me, with sales right up to the previous day. (Click for full-size.)

I hope I don't get anyone in trouble by sharing my data publicly. They did not ask us not to. If they do, I'll stop.

Every author can get your info free by signing up for Amazon's Author Central, which you are crazy not to be doing anyway.*

Amazon is not just giving away Amazon sales info, this is everything Nielsen collects, which includes most of their main competitors—about 75% of all print book sales, right from the cash register, so it's immediate and authentic. It includes  Barnes & Noble, Borders, Target, Amazon.com and some indies.
The main holdouts from BookScan are Walmart/Sam's, plus some indies, bulk sales, etc. Ebooks are also excluded, but I get my Kindle numbers from novelrank.com.
Putting all these sources together, and making some estimates from the holes, Columbine appears to be selling about 650-750 copies per week, which is considerably higher than I thought. (And if brick/mortar sales mirror my Amazon paperback chart, I dropped steadily after release in March, until around Labor Day, when I leveled off and have remained in a consistent range.)

Publishing is in the dark ages on market data. (And in involving their own artists.) Books are the only major pop culture market that doesn't report real data to the public (popular bestseller lists are kinda-true, but offer no numbers whatsoever), and the only one where no organization captures close to 100% of sales. (75% is a good start, but still sad, compared to peer industries.)

With music, Soundscan reports the number of CDs sold a day or two after the week ends. I can see overnight TV ratings the morning after, and movie box office results every Sunday morning, which include estimates for the weekend that has not even finished yet.


With books, all that is hidden. Even from the author. We get a ridiculous royalty statement twice a year. It covers the six-month period that began about nine months earlier, and it's only on books shipped to stores, not actually sold. And it has a big margin against returns removed, and that amount is not even specified. So I have to guess even at how many went to stores, with no indication of how many actually sold.

They never actually tell us how many sold in a period. A year and a half after my book's release, I finally have a rough idea of how many it sold in hardcover the first six months, and only wild guesses about the paperback, launched nine months ago.

I can also call to pester my editor's assistant once in awhile, and a few times, I've gotten rough estimates. And I work for a really good publisher. The people at Twelve did an amazing job promoting my book, and they like me and they are helpful.

But they are part of a big corporation, Hachette Book Group (part of Hachette Livre)—second-largest publisher in the world after Random House/Bertelsman—with 19th century policies. Here's the odd part: Hachette is arguably the most forward-thinking and innovative of all the majors.

But that's a low bar. The book industry does a lot of great things—like producing some incredible books—but collectively, it has failed dismally in figuring out how to sell them. It forgot to notice pop culture changed 40-50 years ago. It's like they are just hearing about this whole Beatles thing.

I've been heartened to see movement the past few years. Many smart publishing people are starting to figure it out. But they are struggling against an old beast that feels like the British Empire. This policy on sales data was one of the most idiotic.

I invest a huge chunk of my time promoting the book. In the last few months, I have created a Columbine Student Guide and Columbine Teacher's Guide, overhauled the Columbine Online research site, relaunched the Columbine Shooting video with description and keywords that landed it in the top ten for key searches, skyped with several college and high school classes and book clubs, published op-eds and essay on school shooters and depression, created a Teen Depression resource page, and done countless print, radio and TV interviews. I also booked several dates for live events with schools this coming spring.

Many of those I did for multiple purposes, not just to sell books. But I do hope they help get the word out. And I'm still scraping by, so I can only devote work time to this stuff if there is some work payoff.

I assume that there is. But I have almost no way of knowing. And which efforts are making the most impact? Barely a clue. My best gauge is following my Amazon rank.

This is not just an issue for me, or my publisher, it's the entire industry. (They're a business, right? They're trying to make money? Just checking.)

As for where the book is selling, that information is even more elusive. The only info I've ever had on that score is from the early weeks in hardcover, when it was on several regional bestseller lists.

I assumed it was doing particularly well in LA, Denver, Chicago, and Minneapolis-St. Paul for some reason—as it did best on their lists. (It actually went to #3 on the New York Times' list, but that covers the whole country.)

And when I moved to Manhattan this summer, I was surprised to find it still on the bestseller tables at most of the indie stores I dropped into (including The Strand, and Posman's.) It seems to be doing better here than in Denver. 

Yesterday, I got an amazing geographical breakdown, too. I can roll over any metro region on the chart above to see how many copies I sold there in the last four weeks. For example: 38 in Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN—yup, still doing really well there, for some reason.

I'm selling much better in southern California than northern. (Possibly because I've toured about five universities down there. Or maybe I was asked to those places because I was a hit there—still hard to untangle cause from effect.)

I'm hot in New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia, but weak in Miami and much of the south. (And the real puzzler: Albany-Schenectady-Troy, NY is my #1 market. Hmmmm. I believe I did an hour-long NPR show there, but I did that in quite a few cities.

It will be interesting to watch this over time—especially when I'm back out visiting places. And it will be extremely useful on my next book, when I can see them play out real-time during the launch.

I find it puzzling that publishing is so backward on this. I read an essay 3-4 years ago by an industry person making a very strong case for why publishers should share the info with authors realtime during the launch, and how authors could use it to mutual advantage.

The author said that someone in accounting or production was already keeping a spreadsheet with the info on a huge number of books anyway. All they had to do was give the author access. The author predicted the publishers would all ignore the suggestion. Correct.

Increasingly, authors are being asked carry a lot of the marketing of our own books. But publishers don't give us any information to work with. We cast about in the dark, wondering if it's having an impact, or we're wasting our time. (Or more importantly, wondering which things that we're doing are effective, vs the time-wasters.)

It seems like a no-brainer for publishers. And yet . . . nothing.

I'm not sure how Amazon worked this deal, or why, but I'm so glad they did. This is a great start.


I predict that many authors will ignore it—or not know what to do with it—but that the proactive authors who are already engaged in trying to get their books to an audience will make lots and lots of hay.

That will lead to more info released to authors, and five years from now, publishers will scratch their heads about why they hid the value data for so long from the very people who could have helped them make money with it.

Thank you, Amazon. I'll try.

___


* Note for authors: If you're not using Amazon Author Central, sign up today. It's free promotion, at exactly the place you need it: the Amazon pages for every one of your books. It lets you post any/all of these for your readers: pictures, bio, video, blog, tour dates, etc. Some of you are probably reading this on my Amazon blog, which feeds automatically from my regular blog. Also a no-brainer.

It's also easy to set up the Events feature at Amazon to pull from BookTour.com. You enter your tour dates one time and it goes both places, and booktour also sends a weekly email alert to thousands of readers in the appropriate zip code who have requested the alerts. (Readers get one per week, with all authors in their area who have events listed on the site.)

This is also a free feature every author should be using for live events. I found setting up events in facebook to be a huge pain in the ass, but booktour is much easier, and far more targeted—especially with Amazon hitting people who have looked at your particular book.

And you can also sign your book up at novelrank for free. It only starts tracking from the day you first enter it.
___

Tuesday update: 
I'm going to post a spreadsheet for authors today: to simplify regional sales per capita.

17 comments:

  1. Thanks for the remarkable argument for improving the author/publisher relationship. From a Canadian bookseller, who handsells your book to this day.

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  2. This is a great post, and one with which I wholeheartedly agree. Although my book sales are not nearly as impressive, it still was great to finally see how many I'm selling and where. As someone who is almost solely responsible for marketing, it's a phenomenal help. And a bit of an encouragement!

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  3. What you call "torpedoing publishers insanity" I call "a living nightmare." I'm the first to admit that sharing more/better data with authors is a good idea. But the problem is that you're a fairly rational, intelligent person. Not all authors are. Bookscan numbers are numbers out of context. The average author sees them and freaks, has no idea what it means. I've known authors who refused to sign a contract for a new book because someone showed them terrible Bookscan numbers and they assumed they weren't making any money (and then they got a royalty statement that showed all the sales to schools and libraries and indies that don't show up on Bookscan and changed their tune pretty quick).

    Capturing 75% of book sales is the hype of Bookscan's marketing department. (You talk about how publishing is in the Dark Ages; I don't deny that but you think Nielsen isn't? A company that has done little to change the way it collects television viewing data in the last 30 year? Has only RECENTLY begun to take into account recorded shows as part of an audience.) There is much that goes unaccounted for on Bookscan. (Such as returns.) When news of this Amazon deal broke, the internet practically exploded with talk of how inaccurate Bookscan is. Check out this from an author/agent: http://mandyhubbard.livejournal.com/246421.html There are several other examples of people torpedoing Bookscan's accuracy.

    But back to the fact that you're a fairly reasonable and intelligent person. A large portion of the authors with access to this will not approach the information in the same way you will. I've worked with authors who've asked me how their book was doing the day AFTER it was released. THE DAY AFTER. This, sadly, is the rule and not the exception. I then spend hours explaining why it takes months to get solid sales data because publishing is still in the Dark Ages (I don't disagree with that assessment) and takes back massive amounts of returns.

    The Bookscan numbers are highly inaccurate and, when taken out of context (as a vast majority of authors are wont to do), are only going to cause more headaches. I'm an editor and this is going to take time away from my work (you know...editing) so that I can talk people down from ledges who've seen their numbers and are jumping to the wrong conclusions.

    I'm glad that fairly reasonable, intelligent authors like you will be able to use this data for good. Ultimately, it's a headache for publishing not because we're hoarding mysterious numbers but because a large number of the authors we work with will read the wrong information into what they see.

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  4. Hey, great discussion. Anon-1, thanks for still selling it.

    Heidi, that's exactly how I feel. I'm glad you feel good about it, too.

    Anon-2, thanks very much for that. I've got lots to say, but got to get one thing done first. I'll be back. I have some questions for you, too. I hope you'll return. Thanks.

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  5. Dave,
    First, that's a great write-up! If it wasn't for the lack of transparency, I suppose I would have never had a need to create NovelRank. It's a step in the right direction, but there is definitely room to grow. I actually just finished up a review of the service in comparison with NovelRank, which was published today:
    http://bit.ly/dHxr7r

    Thanks for the in-depth write-up!

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  6. I'm currently debating whether or not to pull my book from Amazon because of its treatment of Wikileaks. Certainly, I have no problem boycotting Amazon by not purchasing from the site. And I am encouraging others to do likewise.

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  7. Mario, you created Novelrank. How cool. Thanks for doing that. It's been a great help to me--the best source of info I'd had until now. And it still fills in some gaps, including more timely info, and especially Kindles.

    I highly recommend it to writers.

    If I could suggest one thing: on prior months, a graph showing daily or even weekly counts would help. This is especially true when I check at the start of the month, and I can't see what the trendline is. Thanks.

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  8. Hi anon-editor. Thanks for that perspective, and for staying very calm and reasonable in your frustration.

    I want to understand your perspective, but having a bit of trouble really understanding it. Is it "a living nightmare" that has actually come to pass since the numbers were released, or anticipation of such a nightmare?

    I get that a lot of writers are not great with numbers. I think it's a safe bet that most people who landed a book contract are pretty smart. But not necessarily in math. Most of my writer friends freely admit to difficulty with that part of their brain. ONE calls herself inumerate. I was a math major as undergrad, so it's not hard for me, but I get that we vary a lot, and I'm the outlier in my field.

    But here's where I think you're probably going to be wrong about the nightmare. I think WITHHOLDING info from writers makes us much nuttier. It definitely frustrates us. And the vacuum of information is a big source of the problem.

    Yes, introducing new info creates new problems in the short run, but it solves the much bigger problem of writers freaking out that our book is coming out, our career is hanging in the balance, and the publisher tells us little to nothing about how it's going.

    I think your comment displayed the longterm mindset that is causing some of the freakouts you described. Ie, keeping us in the dark as much as possible is more cause than solution.

    For me, this example was telling: ". . . authors who've asked me how their book was doing the day AFTER it was released. THE DAY AFTER." What's wrong with that? My editor--Jon Karp, now publisher of Simon & Schuster, so no slouch--called me that very day (Day 2 of release) and talked to me about how it was doing, based on sales the previous few days at one of the big chains (I'm not sure if I'm supposed to say which). He gave me a lot of specifics on how it was doing compared to other big books, day by day.

    (And yes, most writers also figure out that "release day" is imaginary, when we see our books shipping from Amazon a week or two before that, and on store shelves before as well. (And I was getting emails from readers who had bought it at B&N physical stores a week before "release.")

    Any author who has watched the bestseller lists for even a short time--or observed any pop culture--knows that most book sales peak the first week or two (at least big books). So the first few days are pivotal in telling how the book will sell. Why wouldn't a smart author want to know?

    Authors also live in a world where a movie comes out Friday and we see the weekend grosses on the news Sunday around noon. And we know that those grosses are key to the movie's long-term box office success.

    It seems a very reasonable inquiry to me. I don't think you are seeing this from our perspective at all. We invest years of our lives into a book and our depends on how well it does.

    I am also very interested in learning more about how BookScan numbers are flawed. I read the site you linked and it didn't report any inaccuracies about them at all.

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  9. Hi anon-editor. Thanks for that perspective, and for staying very calm and reasonable in your frustration.

    I want to understand your perspective, but having a bit of trouble really understanding it. Is it "a living nightmare" that has actually come to pass since the numbers were released, or anticipation of such a nightmare?

    I get that a lot of writers are not great with numbers. I think it's a safe bet that most people who landed a book contract are pretty smart. But not necessarily in math. Most of my writer friends freely admit to difficulty with that part of their brain. ONE calls herself inumerate. I was a math major as undergrad, so it's not hard for me, but I get that we vary a lot, and I'm the outlier in my field.

    But here's where I think you're probably going to be wrong about the nightmare. I think WITHHOLDING info from writers makes us much nuttier. It definitely frustrates us. And the vacuum of information is a big source of the problem.

    Yes, introducing new info creates new problems in the short run, but it solves the much bigger problem of writers freaking out that our book is coming out, our career is hanging in the balance, and the publisher tells us little to nothing about how it's going.

    I think your comment displayed the longterm mindset that is causing some of the freakouts you described. Ie, keeping us in the dark as much as possible is more cause than solution.

    For me, this example was telling: ". . . authors who've asked me how their book was doing the day AFTER it was released. THE DAY AFTER." What's wrong with that? My editor--Jon Karp, now publisher of Simon & Schuster, so no slouch--called me that very day (Day 2 of release) and talked to me about how it was doing, based on sales the previous few days at one of the big chains (I'm not sure if I'm supposed to say which). He gave me a lot of specifics on how it was doing compared to other big books, day by day.

    (And yes, most writers also figure out that "release day" is imaginary, when we see our books shipping from Amazon a week or two before that, and on store shelves before as well. (And I was getting emails from readers who had bought it at B&N physical stores a week before "release.")

    ReplyDelete
  10. Hi anon-editor. Thanks for that perspective, and for staying very calm and reasonable in your frustration.

    I want to understand your perspective, but having a bit of trouble really understanding it. Is it "a living nightmare" that has actually come to pass since the numbers were released, or anticipation of such a nightmare?

    I get that a lot of writers are not great with numbers. I think it's a safe bet that most people who landed a book contract are pretty smart. But not necessarily in math. Most of my writer friends freely admit to difficulty with that part of their brain. ONE calls herself inumerate. I was a math major as undergrad, so it's not hard for me, but I get that we vary a lot, and I'm the outlier in my field.

    But here's where I think you're probably going to be wrong about the nightmare. I think WITHHOLDING info from writers makes us much nuttier. It definitely frustrates us. And the vacuum of information is a big source of the problem.

    Yes, introducing new info creates new problems in the short run, but it solves the much bigger problem of writers freaking out that our book is coming out, our career is hanging in the balance, and the publisher tells us little to nothing about how it's going.

    I think your comment displayed the longterm mindset that is causing some of the freakouts you described. Ie, keeping us in the dark as much as possible is more cause than solution.

    ReplyDelete
  11. (Continuing . . .)
    For me, this example was telling: ". . . authors who've asked me how their book was doing the day AFTER it was released. THE DAY AFTER." What's wrong with that? My editor--Jon Karp, now publisher of Simon & Schuster, so no slouch--called me that very day (Day 2 of release) and talked to me about how it was doing, based on sales the previous few days at one of the big chains (I'm not sure if I'm supposed to say which). He gave me a lot of specifics on how it was doing compared to other big books, day by day.

    (And yes, most writers also figure out that "release day" is imaginary, when we see our books shipping from Amazon a week or two before that, and on store shelves before as well. (And I was getting emails from readers who had bought it at B&N physical stores a week before "release.")

    Any author who has watched the bestseller lists for even a short time--or observed any pop culture--knows that most book sales peak the first week or two (at least big books). So the first few days are pivotal in telling how the book will sell. Why wouldn't a smart author want to know?

    Authors also live in a world where a movie comes out Friday and we see the weekend grosses on the news Sunday around noon. And we know that those grosses are key to the movie's long-term box office success.

    It seems a very reasonable inquiry to me. I don't think you are seeing this from our perspective at all. We invest years of our lives into a book and our depends on how well it does.

    I am also very interested in learning more about how BookScan numbers are flawed. I read the site you linked and it didn't report any inaccuracies about them at all.

    ReplyDelete
  12. As a marketeer in publishing I have no clue what the bookscan figures for our books are, simply because we don't use bookscan on a regular basis. We use sales figures to bookshops, wholesalers and libraries as our sales data, in both internal and external company reporting. And in fact, for an entire year our company didn't have access to the system because of the ridiculous amount nielsen charge for subscription, so during that time it would have been impossible for us to pass this data on to authors. Similarly to Anon 2, I have also heard that bookscan is innaccurate and told not to bother with it by various managers, although I have never seen any evidence to back this up.

    I also wanted to pick up on the point you make about publishers asking authors to do a lot of the marketing for their own books - this is because authors have a much better knowledge of the market for their individual book, are often very well connected within the field and are much better at 'sounding off' about it. Author marketing is more about publicity and raising the profile of the book and author than a sales exercise, and it is therefore difficult to measure the impact this has on sales in the same way that it is difficult to measure the impact of a good review, say.

    Please also remember that Amazon are very, very harsh to publishers - by not joining the Booksellers Association they have free range to do what they wish, so please don't think that they are the 'good guys' for making this info available (see http://againstamazon.tumblr.com/ for comments on what it's like to work with Amazon - I'll just leave it at 'not very pleasant').

    Lastly, I want to say thank you for an engaging blog post from the author point-of-view - I do agree that publishing is behind the times and needs to change, but we are getting there (albeit very slowly).

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  13. Thanks Anon-marketer (hey, it might be simpler to add a name to comments, even if it's made up, just to simply replies.)

    I'm glad you said all that, because I was thinking much of the second half in the background.

    I didn't mean it as a negative that authors were being asked to be involved in the marketing. Your paragraph on that is right on the money, as far as I'm concerned.

    I was pleasantly surprised by a comment along those lines when I was working on either jacket copy or some prelaunch copy with my editor's assistant, Colin. He liked my suggestions and remarked that Jon was always telling him that the authors are often the best person to capture the essence of what their book is about, and what it conveys.

    The author also has lots of blindspots. I can't be objective about my own work, and I can/do get lost in the trees and it's easier for an outsider often to see the forest. So an author should rarely be the ONLY person doing any of the marketing tasks, but is an invaluable member of the team.

    I think Jon is really smart about this kind of stuff, and wrote an influential piece for PW about it, and restructured S&S around that idea: of small teams, close to the author and the book.

    Cary Goldstein, the brilliant publicist who teamed with him at Twelve had a similar approach: He was definitely driving that train, but he came to me for help a lot. Like he'd ask me to give him 5-10 bullet points about why the book did this or how it did that. He knew how to launch my book, but I could provide lots of the raw material to help him. So he used that. Smart guy.

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  14. Anon-marketer, I didn't want to go to far afield in the post, but I actually considered adding a disclaimer to my post about some of Amazon's previous sins. I know they have been brutal to a lot of others in the business, and I think what they did and apparently tried to do on ebooks really may have screwed authors and publishers.

    And Amazon has also been a nightmare to get any changes to what's on their site. (I helped my Brokeback website members self-publish a response to the film, so I saw that first-hand. Not pretty.)

    Even the Author Central where Amazon gives authors this new data was a struggle for me to get onto. It took literary months to get them to approve me, with several people from Hachette Book Group trying to get their attention.

    I'm not suggesting Amazon universally heroic. But so far it does seem to me that they are the 'good guys' in this particular case.

    (Though I still have not learned why or how this deal came about. They could have ulterior motives that I won't like. Does anyone know? It may have been reported. I can't say that I've spent my days and nights researching the backstory.)

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  15. It's highly unlikely that an author would ever be the only person doing the marketing for their book. At the very least publishers will always send advance information to booksellers and reps, promote the book at events/conferences, include the book in catalogues and on websites, pursue reviews, etc. A lot of this is done behind the scenes, so may not be so apparent. I have often been accused of not marketing a book when I have spent considerable effort doing so. We simply wouldn't be doing our jobs or fulfilling our side of the contract if we let authors do ALL the marketing themselves.

    An author once told me that writing a book was like having a child, you dedicate a significant portion of your life to it before sending it off into the world - and we absolutely understand that. However a book that is very important to the author is not always our top priority. Ulitimately publishers are businesses and must dedicate the majority of their time to the books that are going to make them the most money. Unfortunately myself and my colleagues each market 50-300 books per year individually and therefore rely on authors to do a lot of the marketing themselves for the 'smaller' titles.

    In regards to your second post just now, I certainly don't know why amazon have made this info available. They do seem to be side-stepping publishers a lot, which is extremely worrying. And my gosh, I certainly feel your pain re. changing info on their site. I can't tell you the hours I've spent changing information that has then been reverted back to the incorrect version again a week later.

    Anyway, apologies - I've strayed! Regarding the original post, I certainly wouldn't deny any authors access to sales information if they asked me for it, but it wouldn't be the information on bookscan.

    - anon-marketeer

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  16. Dave:
    You're welcome. :) See the chart option labeled 'timeframe' for the new option, "Last 30 days". Just added it.

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  17. Mario, I love you for that. I just used it. Nice.

    I've been wishing for that a long time. Who knew I could just ask.

    FYI for authors, Novelrank is here:

    http://www.novelrank.com/

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