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