Fuzzy Logic

It is said that publishing is not a business but an art. Movie executives are famous for knowing their box-office grosses, dollar for dollar, the day after the movie opens. Not book executives. “I’ll call an editor and ask how a client’s book is selling, and he’ll say ‘Oh, gee, I don’t know! Let me check with inventory,” an agent told me recently. “But of course, all inventory can tell you–when inventory finally gets back to the editor, three days later–is how many books have been ordered, not how many have been sold.” Not until much later (as much as a year later), after bookstores have returned all their unsold copies, can publishers compile firm sales figures. And even then, the numbers are not particularly helpful. Did a book sell better in Topeka or San Diego? In the spring or in the summer?

There are ways to answer those questions, but the book industry doesn’t seem all that interested in the answers. Bookscan, for instance, is a system made and marketed by Soundscan, the company that brings you the music industry’s greatest-hits charts. Soundscan gets its numbers from a scanning device installed at checkout counters at more than 85 percent of all music outlets in America. Bookscan is trying to put a similar gizmo into bookstores. So far, it hasn’t caught on. Unlike Soundscan, which swept swiftly through the music business after it was introduced, when Bookscan was unveiled last year, it was dismissed by the American Association of Publishers, whose official line on it was that it was too expensive. (Publishers would have to pay Bookscan for the data.)

Was that the real reason it was rejected? Publishers could have come back to Bookscan and said, we like your product but want you to bring your price down. You’d think they’d be eager to learn whether local or national advertising works better, or whether book tours do anything other than stroke authorial egos. Culturebox doesn’t know how much Bookscan was charging, but wonders whether publishers really factored in the savings they’d accrue from better-targeted marketing.

Culturebox asked around and came up with a few other theories of why publishing is one of the last industries to seek the comfort of hard numbers:

1. Editors don’t want to know exactly how well their books are selling. It might force them to stop buying the kinds of books they love publishing–the serious books with limited sales. A corollary to this theory is that publishers don’t want the world to see how small the unit sales are for even world-famous authors (they usually linger under 50,000)–it might make the whole industry seem a lot less glamorous.

2. Hard sales data might eliminate a cash hoard publishers have secured for themselves. It turns out that most contracts between authors and publishers allow publishers to withhold as much of 40 percent of royalties against possible returns during the first year of publication (and as much as 60 percent for paperbacks). Precise point-of-sale data would obviate that clause, and force publishers to fork over all royalties right away.

3. The big chains have been quietly going into the business of compiling book sales data themselves–an obvious thing to do, given their dominance of the retail market–and don’t want to give up what amounts to a competitive advantage. This may explain why, so far, Bookscan has not cut deals with any of the big chains (though they are talking to them). Also, if publishers are getting the numbers for free from the chains, why pay for them?

Whatever the reason, publishers are making it clear that what they want more than anything is to keep their sales figures secret. A Soundscan executive told Culturebox this week that one change it had made to Bookscan in response to publishers’ concerns was to turn it into a “closed system.” In other words, the data will not be published and no one but the publisher of a book will be able to learn its hard sales figures. (Soundscan, by contrast, is an “open system.”) Expect industrywide numbers to remain fuzzy in the foreseeable future.

Judith Shulevitz