What You Need to Know about Bookscan

Alison Kent pointed me to this excellent post about the influence of Bookscan on an author’s career…and how the sales tracking system actually works:

BookScan numbers are like an author’s credit rating.

All book publishers (and some savvy authors) subscribe to Nielsen BookScan. The very first thing an acquisitions editor does is check a published author’s Nielsen numbers, when considering a new submission.
Nielsen BookScan tells the naked truth about how many copies a book sells. It produces weekly tallies via electronic links to thousands of cash registers across the country. This is no guess or anecdotal report. It’s all ka-ching, straight from the till.
The numbers may as well be carved in stone.

13 thoughts on “What You Need to Know about Bookscan”

  1. Thank you so much for this information. I had thought that these numbers were guarded jealously by publishers who would never give them out. It’s about time there was more transparency in the publishing business.

  2. It’s too bad BookScan is so damned expensive, because a lot of authors don’t really know–like me–how many books they’ve actually sold.

  3. BookScan doesn’t give an accurate picture since the numbers don’t include a lot of the independent bookstores.

  4. As Lee knows, you’d be surprised by the number of books writers don’t sell. I wrote an article a year or so ago and got a bunch of numbers from Bookscan (they’ll give journalists access to numbers if you request them) and people you think sell a 100K books sell more like 10K. And people you think sell 10K sell more like 1K.

  5. I’m not a published author, but have some experience with the Nielsen company…
    In my opinion, Bookscan is exactly as accurate as Nielsen’s television ratings. Which were not really accurate at all. For years and years everyone went by the Nielsen TV ratings – considered the absolutely accurate report on who was watching what, and how many were watching.
    People couldn’t understand each year how shows got cancelled that everyone seemed to be watching, to be talking about. Shows that no one seemed to care about were renewed every year.
    And then it was finally exposed that the ratings were based on 5000 boxes. Not the 50,000 Nielsen had for years alluded to. 5000 boxes for 200 million viewers. Regardless of how much you spread it demographically, there’s no way that number can represent an accurate view. Things got worse when it was exposed that the 5000 boxes were not spread evenly throughout the country. There was a higher percentage in the Bible Belt.
    After pressure, Nielsen added home mailers – forms for people to fill out about what they were watching to go along with the infamous 5000 boxes. But in the end, Nielsen took a hit – a well deserved hit – and their omniscient rating system does not nearly carry the power it once did.
    Bookscan is the same thing. Everyone is using it and proclaiming it’s greatness simply because it’s easy. Look up the numbers. No hard work. Regardless of how accurate it truly is – Nielsen says it’s an accurate representation… just like they did about television.
    Bookscan will be the standard. Deals will be made and destroyed because of Bookscan. Authors’ careers will be ruined or jump-started because of it.
    But don’t believe it truly represents the total number of books being sold, and not sold.

  6. The difference, as I understand it, between Bookscan and TV ratings is that it’s counting transactions at the cash register. It is not, like the TV ratings, making broad assumptions based on a tiny percentage of actual information. The cash register doesn’t lie. And while Bookscan doesn’t cover every sales point, it covers most of them.

  7. Dave Z is correct in pointing out Bookscan’s limitations, which also include failure to account for sales by non-bookstore retailers (e.g., Wal-Mart, grocery stores, etc.).

  8. It was my understanding that Bookscan counts a very limited number of cash registers (comparatively speaking), and does not count one of the single largest sellers of books in the country – Wal-Mart.

  9. But by covering 75% of the marketplace, even minus Wal-Mart, they provide a pretty telling story in relation to sales — far more telling, certainly, than what the bestseller lists account for, which isn’t accurate in the least. The Clive Cussler lawsuit over Sahara last year showed significantly how much book sales are overstated vs. reality and in that regard to me it’s welcome. And that’s not because I’m selling millions of books, but because I think BookScan provides publishers with a better understanding of where the midlist actually is and perhaps how foolishly they’ve spent their money on books that maybe hit the NYT bestseller list but only actually sell 5K in HB.

  10. 75%???
    See, that’s where I get nervous. Is that what Nielsen is claiming? Because I don’t see how you could possibly cover 75% of book sales without Wal-Mart or Sam’s club/Costco. In fact, I think it’s impossible.
    I remember when it was widely thought that their TV ratings covered a third of the marketplace – 33%. That was before someone leaked the info about the 5000 boxes for over 100 million homes.
    If it’s truly 75% then I agree with Lee and Tod. But man, that figure is very hard for me to accept without concrete evidence.

  11. From what I’ve heard, Bookscan gives a fair representation of what they claim to cover. Of course, I’m not in a position — most of us aren’t in a position — to determine the accuracy of that claim. But I know a lot of smart people, people who should know more about this than I do, who believe the numbers.
    (Of course, part of the utility of Bookscan’s figures will depend on the type of book in discussion. They will underreport sales of bestsellers by a lot more than the expected margin of error, given the disproportionate number of sales those books make through outlets not covered by Bookscan.)
    The main use of Bookscan, I think, is that it gives SOME idea of what’s going on in terms of actual sales. One of the systemic problems with the publishing industry is that they don’t have enough hard, reliable figures for how many books are being sold. Which is a little scary to think about.
    In addition to Bookscan, though, the chains have all their own figures for what they’ve sold and those numbers are CRUCIAL when it comes to selling a new book. Those computers have killed more writers’ careers than cirrhosis.

  12. Of course, BookScan doesn’t have any way of tracking all the “lost” sales — every time someone couldn’t find the book, or was wrongly told the book was not available, or a retailer was told the book was on back order when, in fact, the publisher was hoarding copies in their warehouse for some reason …


Leave a Comment