Thursday, October 04, 2007

In Which I Connect Things

One of the great perks of the New Job is that I now have access to Bookscan. (The old place didn't sell into the trade, so we didn't have or need it.) I'm now able to see just how badly some books really sold -- sadly, usually the ones I really like.

I'm also able to connect previously disassociated bits of data I already knew to more solid numbers. But, since Bookscan information is proprietary, and gossip is also secret, I can only talk elliptically.

For example, if the rumor I heard about how much a certain publisher paid a certain bestselling fantasy writer for a recent four-book series is correct, and there aren't vast sales uncaptured by the numbers I can see, those books lost a huge pile of money and the most recent paperback had an effective royalty rate in the hundreds...


Anonymous said...

Is there some good reason why BookScan doesn't make their top-level aggregated data available to the great unwashed. I mean, it would be interesting to know what the real bestsellers are. I can understand why they want to keep to themselves (and charge for) the detailed breakdown, but they could let us know, say, the top 20 sellers in fiction and non-fiction for the month. It's not like it would cost them anything.

Ran said...

Two questions:

1) By four-book series, is that a series complete at four books, or a series which has seen four books published so far?

2) Is the series actually complete, or still ungoing?

If the answer is complete at four, and still ongoing to the second, I think that would be Stephen R. Donaldson's third Thomas Covenant series. He's recently commented that from sales, he has a higher total _number_ of readers in the U.K. than he does in the U.S.

Which is a bloody shame, because this is a series I've enjoyed and the fianceƩ and I are eagerly awaiting the next books (four days left to publication.) Donaldson has been fairly frank about the difficult relationship he's had with publishers, past and present, and in fact the one thing that makes me uncertain that it could be his series that's in question is that I'm not sure that the U.S. publisher (given what he's said of their attitudes) _would_ have paid a lot of money. And as the first book has been the only one published, and the paperback just recently came out, it's hard to know whether it will remain a loss (though, alas, it probably will if they did pay a lot).

My other thought is maybe it's Naomi Novik, but I'm not sure she's even made the bestseller list in the U.S.

Last .... recently there has been hype that sales of Patrick Rothfuss's first novel, The Name of the Wind, "are far outweighing both Jordan and GRRM for the same period of their respective series' debut novels, indicating that he is indeed the Next Big Thing." (quoted from Adam Whitehead, aka Werthead, who runs the Wertzone blog and was eventually at a Gollancz-sponsored party in the U.K.; the relevant post about the party can be found here -- although, fair warning, naked hatted avatars are present!)

Could you comment (elliptically, of course) on this? It's hard to unpack what this really means, when numbers are proprietary and the data can doubtless be massaged. I suspect the sticking point is that Internet-driven marketing (which didn't exist with the publication of Jordan's and Martin's initial books) leads to much quicker adoption by readers, meaning strong early sales, but that it doesn't actually mean your audience will necessarily grow continuously as you reach bestsellerdom.

Anonymous said...

I see the Drudge Report regularly leaking BookScan numbers on a regular basis for political books, so I don't see why others can't do the same thing.

I think it's ridiculous that the actual sales numbers of books are such a big secret. Even authors don't know how well they're doing.

Andrew Wheeler said...

Johan: I think Bookscan likes the mystique of secrecy.

I bet if some news outlet wanted to pay them for a bestseller list, they'd be happy to do it -- but it's not like publicity among the masses is going to help them at all, so there's no point to giving it away for free.

Andrew Wheeler said...

Roddy: I don't think Drudge has a Bookscan account himself; revealing those numbers is grounds for having access revoked. I expect that they're leaked to him by the editors/marketers/publicists of the books in question, which gives everyone plausible deniability.

The numbers are secret because they're valuable -- pretty much anyone can get the numbers, but it's not free. And I can certainly understand a company not wanting to give away something valuable for free.

Andrew Wheeler said...

Elio: I'm not going to keep dropping hints, but I did mean an already-completed series; I don't think it's fair to consider something a failure while it still has time to succeed.

Donaldson has spent most of the past twenty years writing books his core audience wasn't as interested in -- it's an artistic choice, yes, but it has career ramifications as well. (Along the same lines, there are some editors who have remained strictly on genre lists rather than trying to move up the food chain in title or type of books...also with career ramifications.)

On your other point, The Name of the Wind has sold quite nicely for a first novel in hardcover -- it's not quite a bestseller, but it's been extremely respectable.

The Eye of the World was published nearly twenty years ago -- it was a completely different world then, so there's no real comparison. And it's my impression that the "Wheel of Time" series started solidly and started picking up momentum immediately.

A Game of Thrones on the other hand -- while still long enough ago that it's also not very comparable -- was a disappointment in hardcover, and didn't really start selling well (except for the bookclub edition, he said with a wink) until it hit paperback. My personal theory, which was not uncommon at the time, was that the very iconic, "big-book," mainstream bestseller cover of Game in hardcover hurt it severely, and that the more genre-focused cover of the paperback attracted eyeballs, who then saw the great quotes and so went on to buy it.

But saying that Rothfuss's debut novel sold better out of the gate than big debut novels in 1989 and 1996 is in large part saying that sales are more front-loaded today than they used to be, rather than being a direct comparison of the authors. Also, sales across publishing have shifted to hardcover from paperback since then -- it will be interesting to see if Rothfuss's book does well in paper, because that's what will show if his audience is growing.

Ran said...

After a little digging, I think I've figured it out. 4 book series aren't very common. If I understand it right, the series doesn't seem to have earned back even a 10th of the advance? Well, lucky for the author in question, I'd suppose.

I did have the sense that the market was more front-loaded, though I put that down mainly to marketing. I hadn't realized hardcover sales are so much stronger now, so it makes sense to see how the paperback sales go in the case of Rothfuss and other early sellers.

Is it a good thing for the trade, do you think, if more emphasis is being placed on grabbing quick, early sales in hardcover over trying to foster a slow but steady approach? I know a number of mid-listers have complained of things like keeping some of their books in print, which they feel cripples the growth of the audience . Rather than having a deep library that readers might have a hope of coming across on bookstore shelves, some of them seem to feel as if they can only catch them by a constant stream of new books.

I'd suppose bookstores are a primary driver of this sort of behavior. There's only so much shelf space, and doubtless they'd prefer to sell shiny new hardcovers than a load of 3+ year old paperbacks...v

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