Quibbles and Corrections

Dear Culturebox:

I’m not sure why booksellers don’t want the hard numbers, but their instincts are dead right. Soundscan has done nothing but harm to the creative end of rock & roll–not because it has made information available, but because it has made information available too quickly to people who, in turn, overvalue the importance of information gotten too quickly.

Put another way, Soundscan has killed off word of mouth. It used to be that a critic could get behind an album, or an influential DJ, or a cohort of college kids–and bingo, an interesting album becomes a hit album. Now it’s wham-bam: An album isn’t catching on in a week or two (as measured by Soundscan) and the plug gets pulled on promotion, the CD gets pulled from racks, etc.

Further, the industry itself starts pushing albums that will “open big”–albums with a catchy single (and maybe little else) and (did somebody say “synergy”?) soundtrack albums. Look at this week’s Pop Top 20 for the results of Soundscan. If you want a Lorrie Moore to sneak onto the bestseller list every once in a while, you better hope Bookscan never catches on.–Gerry Marzorati

Dear Gerry:

I think there’s a risk of such short-sighted thinking, but I don’t think it would prevail in the end. There just wouldn’t be enough blockbusters to keep the book market going as a blockbuster-only concern. If all publishers and booksellers pursued that strategy, in the end some of them would be forced to re-enter the quality books market, just to get themselves back in the game. I tend to think that’s what’s happening in Hollywood, actually, which is why the whole indie scene has become so hot.

In response to your Lorrie Moore point, I’d think Bookscan would have the opposite effect. By allowing publishers target their marketing dollars more effectively, Bookscan would help them sell the smaller books. The publisher could pinpoint exactly where Lorrie Moore sells, and dispatch her there on a book tour; could test whether her books were responsive to advertising and what kind (a test run on Moore might also work for Alice Munro, and so on). In short, with real numbers publishers would be able to maximize the audience for a serious book. –Culturebox

Dear Culturebox:

With the consumer trade book category exceeding $10 billion in 1997 in retail dollars the stakes are now too high not to begin to fine-tune the marketing mix. For every 100 books shipped in 1997, over 33% came back to the publisher for full credit and a one percent reduction in returns would save the industry over $12 million per year.

It’s important to note, though, that SoundScan’s launch in the music world in 1991 was not an easy task. Several of the same issues that you address in “Fuzzy Logic” existed in the music industry in the early ‘90’s.

Also, the scanning device that you mention has existed for over two decades and has been utilized by package goods manufactures to target market their products onto the shelves of retailers across the world. The system is the UPC or in the case of books a EAN/ISBN number that when a book is scanned by a retailer identifies the book, format, suggested price point, genre, etc. –Tom Fogarty, Soundscan executive in charge of Bookscan.