Apocalypse Soon

Booksellers’ biggest nightmare has already come true. 

How many copies do you think Ravelstein, Saul Bellow’s most recent novel, sold? A million? A thousand? Aside from the author, his agent, and publisher, nobody really knows. But if Bellow should write another novel, everyone in the industry will know how many volumes hit cash registers—nationwide, in Illinois, and even in Chicago alone.

BookScan, a sales-tracking system, currently can find the exact number of copies sold at about 50 percent of U.S. bookstores (this doesn’t include online bookstores). Some publishers have already paid the $75,000 subscription fee for these incomplete numbers. Once BookScan expands—its sister system, SoundScan, tracks sales at 86 percent of music stores—the company plans to issue comprehensive best-seller lists, much like the Billboard charts for music.

Instead of celebrating the wealth of new information BookScan will generate, publishers are already hyperventilating with fear. Geoff Shandler complained in the Industry Standard that when SoundScan debuted, “the charts got worse. That is, just about everything became Britney, Faith, Puffy—in short, junk.” The Dallas Morning News chimed in: “You think it’s bad now? The charts don’t even track huge genres such as romance and sci-fi. Imagine a world where third-rate versions of Anne Rice shove everyone else off the lists.” The New York Times quoted more publishing folk in full swivet over BookScan: ” ‘Sounds satanic,’ said Jennifer Rudolph Walsh, co-head of the New York literary department at the William Morris agency. ‘Something like that could actually be the death of some kinds of literary darlings.’ “

So, will the arrival of this new system really allow literary hothouse flowers to strangle under the kudzu of diet books and romance novels? Will scenes like the one in which Barnes and Noble chief executive Leonard Riggio verbally pantsed Cynthia Ozick by publicly revealing the low sales figures of her novel become an everyday occurrence for authors?

It’s unlikely. Dennis Loy Johnson posits on his Web site that people have figured out ways to manipulate BookScan. More importantly: A pretty close approximation of the BookScan list has existed for several years, and it’s barely changed the publishing landscape. I’m talking about USA Today’s best-seller list. Unlike the more prestigious lists, which prune out the lowbrow riffraff, USAT ranks the 150 top-selling books on a single list—be they romance, fine literature, sci-fi, scholarly biography, or self-help. The chart reflects actual sales figures at around 3,000 independent, chain, discount, and online booksellers. No statistical projecting, no fudging, no telling stores which books to report on (as the New York Times list does—click here for more on these shenanigans). If you want to know what life will be like A.B., just take a peek at USA Today.

Predictably, the top three books this week are a thriller (The Last Precinct, by Patricia Cornwell), a spirituality title (The Prayer of Jabez, by Bruce Wilkinson), and a romance (Reflections and Dreams, by Nora Roberts). But No. 4 is David McCullough’s biography of John Adams. This general cloud of crap—with the occasional literary sun break therein—is no surprise to anyone in publishing, and the BookScan numbers won’t be either. The only change will be in the fine print: At long last, publishers will be able to get fast, accurate, geographically based sales information. But the NYT best-seller list will still be the one that publishers love to hate.