By Michael Levin
As the publishing industry gathers in New York for its annual trade show, BookExpo America, they’re discussing everything except the one piece of information authors crave: how many books they actually sell.
There is no equivalent of gold records in the book publishing industry. That’s because sales numbers are almost impossible to come by, and the numbers you can track down simply cannot be verified.
Publishers are loath to provide accurate sales figures, for two reasons. One is that they don’t want authors to know how many copies they sold, so that they don’t have to pay all the royalties due the authors. Second, they’re embarrassed by how few copies most books sell.
Publishers control sales data the way the former Soviet Union controlled data regarding the sale of wheat, with about as little honesty and transparency. So what’s an author to do?
First, they can go to BookScan, a service of the A.C. Nielsen survey company. BookScan is the primary means by which publishers get sales data, which they use when considering whether to buy a new book from a previously published author. Amazon makes BookScan data available to individual authors for their own books through its Author Central program. Sounds great, but BookScan isn’t perfect.
BookScan measures sales for only about 75 percent of the book vendors in the United States, including Amazon and brick-and-mortar Barnes & Noble stores. So the numbers point toward the success level of a given book, but don’t provide precise sales data. On top of that, most small, independent book publishers don’t report their sales to BookScan, so if your book was sold out of a garage, whether it’s your garage or someone else’s, you won’t find those numbers on BookScan. And BookScan also doesn’t count sales of ebooks or books sold for the Kindle, Nook, or other devices.
Amazon knows how many books it sells, but it won’t tell anyone, not even authors. Amazon does offer a sales ranking, updated hourly, of each book it sells, but those are relative and not absolute figures. In other words, the book ranked 100th on the list may outsell the 101st book by a factor of 10, but you’d never know it.
Every book published in the United States that’s offered for sale through bookstores or Amazon must carry an ISBN number and bar code. You’d think you could track sales in real time by punching in those numbers, the same way you can track delivery of a FedEx package. Wrong again. Sales data is in the hands of the publishers and booksellers, and they certainly aren’t turning over critical information like that to anyone.
You can always call your publisher and ask how many copies were sold, but that presumes you can get through their automated phone answering system. Unfortunately, you can’t.
An author is welcome to demand an audit from a publisher, but good luck. It’s expensive and time-consuming, it brands the author as a hothead, and even audited numbers aren’t necessarily worth the paper they’re printed on. If the publishers control the data, how do you know that this time they’re telling you the truth?
Another area in which publishers dupe authors is in sales of rights to other entities – foreign publishers, translation rights, or book club sales. Major publishers may or may not sprinkle a little Book Of The Month Club money in your account, but you have no way of knowing how much you really deserve. Same thing is true if they sell copies in bulk sales. Their attitude is that their business is none of your business.
In short, there’s really no way to know how many copies you’ve sold.
From a publisher’s standpoint, a perfect world would be one where there are no authors at all – no one whose hand needs holding, no one whose royalties need to be paid, no one who calls demanding more action on the marketing of their books. Since writers remain a necessary evil to publishers, their strategy has been to commoditize writing and thus drive down the cost of getting a book written. If a publisher has to build up an author as a brand, the publisher is actually increasing the amount of money that author needs to be paid for his or her next book. But if writing becomes fungible, there will always be a plethora of scriveners suffering from low self-esteem willing and happy to write any book on any subject for a few thousand dollars. Or even for no advance at all.
You can only cheat authors for so long before they decide to fight back. Fighting back doesn’t mean creating a tent city called “Occupy BookExpo.” It means that authors are increasingly abandoning New York and instead publishing their books themselves, via Kindle Direct, Lulu, Smashwords, print-on-demand companies, and other means. It’s never been easier to target niche markets via Google AdWords, Pinterest, and Facebook. The stigma of self-publishing is rapidly disappearing. Authors now go directly to their readerships without the intervention or dis-ingenuity of the New York publishers.
Business professors call this phenomenon “disintermediation,” the elimination of the middleman. Publishers have no regard for authors, as demonstrated by their mushroom strategy when it comes to providing accurate sales data, and by the decline in the fees they pay authors to write books.
You have to wonder what they’re talking about at BookExpo America. If they’re smart, the publishers are talking about what industries they can find jobs in now that the traditional New York publishing model is on its last legs. But since they aren’t smart, they’re having the usual panel discussions on how to rearrange deck chairs and keep the Titanic band playing on.
At the height of the economic collapse in 2008, Simon & Schuster editor Michael Korda said that the publishing industry had weathered difficult storms before, and it wouldn’t be long before everyone – publishers and agents – would be back to having lunch again.
Wrong. If I were an editor attending BookExpo America, I wouldn’t be making lunch reservations. Instead, I’d leave early and head to a Starbucks where I can work on my resume.
New York Times best-selling author Michael Levin runs BusinessGhost.com and blogs at The Death of Publishing. He has written with Baseball Hall of Famer Dave Winfield, football broadcasting legend Pat Summerall, FBI undercover agent Joaquin Garcia, and E-Myth creator Michael Gerber. He has written for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, CBS News, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, and many other top outlets. Michael has published with Simon & Schuster (five books), Random House (three books), St. Martin’s Press, Beacon Press, Penguin (five books), Putnam/Berkley (two novels), Wiley, BenBella, and many other houses.