Who’s Buying Your Book and What are You Going to Do About It?

While stuck on the bus (again) this morning on my way in to work, I was thinking about publishing, and royalties, and authors, and all the things I think about each day as a literary agent. When I finally got to my office, half an hour late for my 9:30 meeting and after over 2 hours of commuting fun, I found this article by Laura Munson who I’ve blogged about before Rejection inspiration when I shared her amazing journey to published, and now bestselling, author. She brings up in a sometimes crass but humorous way questions that many authors have about obtaining sales figures after their book is published. As she puts it: “Any businessperson should be able to see sales reports to judge how to proceed in peddling what she’s peddling, shouldn’t she?” Since publishers still (for now) only report earnings on average twice a year, and usually several months after the statement period closes, and they don’t include any sort of breakdown on where books are selling, how are authors supposed to help tap into new markets or take advantage of popular markets? It seems a basic almost obvious question, and one that doesn’t have a great answer in the publishing model.

In the past, if you had several thousand dollars a year to spend on Bookscan, a database that tracks actual book sales that has been around almost 10 years, or had an agent or editor with access and willing to share numbers, you could access real sales information by location, but it still didn’t track all accounts, only the major retailers (B&N, Amazon, Target etc.). Independent bookstores, for examples, and libraries, don’t report sales to Bookscan. Presumably publishers do have access to more accurate and specific sales data, but they don’t generally share it with authors or agents. I recall hearing that Random House has a “policy” not to share numbers with authors in between royalty statements. It’s really tough to get answers about where a particular title is selling, and that can be confusing and frustrating for an author, especially a first time author, who is trying to figure out where to focus their marketing and publicity efforts.

The Amazon service which Munson describes, which is pretty cool for authors, especially since it’s free (I wonder what kind of deal Amazon and Bookscan worked out to be able to do this!), offers authors data derived from Bookscan (you can have increased access for a fee). It includes sales figures, updated each week, as well as geographic data, which, as Amazon describes on their website, “can help you plan and measure the effects of your next book tour”. It still doesn’t give you information on which retailers are selling in which quantities, but it’s more than authors ever knew before.

In this highly competitive and difficult market, any advantage you have in learning more about how and where your books are selling is a good thing. It makes me wonder what authors are doing with this information since this program began, and how many are taking advantage of it. If you are a published author, or if you aren’t but can imagine being one someday, what are you doing or what would you do with this sales feedback? Munson talks about considering events in places where her book isn’t selling. Can you think of cool ways to take advantage of this previously proprietary sales data?

Mary W. Quigley is a journalist who writes about women and work issues. Her most recent book is Going Back to Work: A Survival Guide (St. Martin’s Press, 2004). She is also the co-author of And What Do You Do? When Women Chose to Stay Home. Wildcat Canyon press, 2000). She started teaching as an adjunct in 1979 after she received her master’s in journalism from NYU. She teaches research, reporting and writing courses on both the graduate and undergraduate levels.

3 Responses to Who’s Buying Your Book and What are You Going to Do About It?

  1. Roxanne says:

    I’m wondering if measuring ‘related’ metrics might be a way to get at least some data.

    Book sales probably has a relation to traffic to ones website or blog. Measuring that traffic would
    be a way to gain some insight to whom is interested in your books.

    Google analytics does pretty good at giving you a geographical picture of web traffic, with its maps containing little orange blobs of various sizes over towns and cities where people are hitting your site.
    You might be able to use that data to plan visits, marketing and so on.

  2. In the first month, I watch the geographic map and I send postcards to independent booksellers in regions where my book didn’t sell the week before. It’s not a big thing, but I do invariably see sales crop up there after the postcards go out.

  3. Debra says:

    I didn’t know about the AMazon service till I read this blog, so thank you. I have three published books with Llewellyn publishing and they don’t tell their authors any thing about sales. Our bi annual statements say nothing except how much money they brought in and how much we get. Our foreign sales aren’t even listed. I wanted to know how my sales in the UK were doing and the owner said she has chosen not to tell me. I called the UK distributed and he won’t tell me figures. I’d like to request my rights back if the books aren’t doing well there. The bottom line: when did it ever become ok for authors to be kept in the dark about every aspect of their book (s) and when did it become the acceptable answer, not just by the publisher, distributed, book stores but even the unions, “well, that’s industry standards”. I naively thought my publisher
    Was a partner! Imagine if we worked side by side, as a team to promote the books? Only people who
    Steal from you and take advantage of you want to keep you in the dark. Isn’t that
    The bottom line. They seduce you, convince you that you need them, that they will
    Make you special, then they put a noose on you and squeeze and if
    You dare complain they act as if you are the naughty, insolent child
    Who just doesn’t understand the way life works! Well I’m sick of it. How do we reverse
    This industry standard now?!! I shouldn’t have to sneak around groveling for information
    About books that took me years to write and reflect a life’s worth of dedicated work, when I’m only getting a measly 10 percent as it is!

    Debra Lynne Katz

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