I’ve started this blog four separate times in the past week, and each time, I stopped about 1,000 words in. I have been planning to analyze some bestseller numbers that I found two weeks ago, numbers that truly had me shocked. In doing so, I wanted to check some other numbers as well, because an article about numbers is only as good as its data.
It didn’t seem to matter how many numbers I found, how much data I linked to, or how I did the math, something was confusing me. The harder I worked, the more confused I got.
It wasn’t until I was complaining about this at the weekly professional writers’ lunch that it all came clear to me: Most of the numbers I was working with were suspect in one way or another.
. . . .
Let me give some examples of confusing information that I explored these last two weeks:
- In an article titled “Real Data On Print Sales In the eBook Era — And the eBook Plateau” Publisher’s Lunch reported that ebooks have “cannibalized” sales in trade paperback editions, not in hardcover editions. The conclusion comes from a presentation that Jonathan Nowell at Nielsen Book gave at Digital Book World last week.
I like numbers, and there are some fascinating ones here, and even more fascinating ones in Nowell’s slide show presentation but they are completely untethered to anything. By that, I mean, I could find no information on how the study was done, how many data points Nowell worked off of, and what he based his conclusions on.
Granted, Nielsen Book is the company that does Bookscan, so in theory, they have raw data, but as I examined thePublisher’s Lunch article (which is on Publisher’s Marketplace, mentioned last week), I found a statement that set my teeth on edge:
[Nielsen Book’s] quiet PubTrack Digital service — the only source of real, granular ebook sales data, based on invoices for ebook sales from participating publishers — shows adult fiction still accounting for 65 percent of all ebook sales.
Um, what? I’d never heard of PubTrack Digital. Where did it get its numbers? How does it track things?
. . . .
But here’s where PubTrack Digital comes in.
The description for that service isn’t based on a physical product. It doesn’t seem to go by channel either. It uses information from 30 publishers (according to this site) to examine “the top e-book categories, authors, and titles based on unit sales and revenue.”
So, thirty self-reporting publishers send their numbers (unverified, I guess) to PubTrack Digital in order to receive information from the other twenty-nine.
. . . .
Both PubTrack Digital and Publisher’s Lunch also tell me that PubTrack Digital is the only source for aggregated ebook sales in the country.
. . . .
But the data is self-reporting, which makes it flawed from the get-go.
. . . .
Digital Book World . . . hired PubTrack Digital specifically for the conference last week.
. . . .
“Digital Book World asked this guy to examine the impact of ebook sales on hardcover sales, making the study flawed in the first place.”
Words straight out of my subconscious. Of course, the study is flawed. Because we have no way of knowing if ebook sales have any impact on paper sales at all. No way. None.
We don’t know if people who bought paper books in the past are buying more books due to ebook availability while still buying the same number of paper books—or if those people stopped buying paper books altogether, or, if faced with a choice of ebook or paper, choose ebook. We don’t know.
And because we don’t know, looking to see if ebooks have had an impact on hardcover sales by looking at ebook sales and looking at hardcover sales doesn’t answer the question. We don’t know if hardcover sales remained steady (as Nowell reported) because hardcover readers are hardcover readers and have sought out the hardcovers in various markets. We don’t know if the rise of ebook sales over the years is because ebooks are cannibalizing print sales or because more readers have ereaders (or tablets or phones) and therefore have 24-hour access to books and can order easily and quickly.
We don’t know if the reason trade paper sales have gone down (which Nowell reports) because most people don’t like the format or because the number of retail outlets carrying trade paper books has gone down (witness the loss of many chain bookstore locations, where most trade papers were sold) or because given a choice between trade paper and ebook, the average reader will choose ebook.
. . . .
So we can’t do a legitimate study of how ebooks impact the sales of paper books until we have done a study that tells uswhether or not ebooks impact sales of paper books. Looking at the sales figures of hardcovers, ebooks, and trade paper does not give us that answer, because that data doesn’t address the initial question.
. . . .
[D]uring my entire career, the “numbers” in traditional publishing have always been based on extrapolations from one piece of evidence.
For example: traditional publishers used to base all of their accounting on books shipped not books sold. Why? Because books shipped was the only number traditional publishers could be sure of. The books sold wouldn’t be known for six to nine months, maybe even for a year or two. That’s because of the returns system. A bookstore could return a book, depending on the account the bookstore had with the distributor or publisher, for as long as a year after purchase.
. . . .
In other words, all of traditional publishing from the introduction of the returns system in the 1930s to the early part of this century was based on educated guesses by the sales department in consultation with editorial.
Not based on actual numbers. Not based on real sales figures. Not based on any kind of fact-based system at all.
The traditional publishing industry is in transition because it’s gotten gobbled up by international conglomerates who need real numbers for their own internal reports. Digital book and online sales actually allow for real numbers. Since the American Booksellers Association has taught independent booksellers how to manage their inventory (at the ABA’s Winter Institute), those booksellers have lowered their returns to a maximum of 25%.
So the traditional publishing data is becoming solid, but it’s not there yet. And because so many people in traditional publishing—particularly those in its upper echelons—have been in the business as long as I have, they’re a lot more accepting of wishy-washy numbers and fake statistics. Reports that have lovely graphics and percentages that seem real are still the norm in this industry, rather than studies based on real methodology.
. . . .
I know of no traditionally published bestselling author who regularly audits their agents and publishers. Not a one.
I know of a handful who have audited when something went wrong. But a standard business audit? Never.
Yet all of those traditionally published bestselling authors are million-dollar businesses, just like the local businesses our accountant/writer friend worked for are. These local businesses, these small town businesses, as a matter of course, audited their sources of revenue every year.
But writers, who make millions, and often funnel those millions through a single point—an agent and/or an agency and/or their publisher—never audit that agent, that agency, or their publisher.
In fact, several years ago, when I ran into some glaring errors in my payments from a former agency, I threatened to audit that agency. It was still handling the books my once-agent had sold for me. It wouldn’t release those books or split payments. When I pointed out the errors and demanded an audit, the agency did the literary equivalent of flinging my books at me. The day after my threat, made in December, just before Christmas, that agency decided it no longer wanted 15% of my business, and sent letters to all of my publishers telling those publishers to send any monies owed directly to me. That agency—on its own volition—cleared me out of its entire company.
Within 24 hours of me stating that I wanted an audit, I was finally free of that agency.
This was—and is—one of the biggest, most famous agencies in New York, with several repeat #1 New York Times bestsellers. I found irregularities in royalty reports coming from overseas, irregularities that made it clear someone (probably a foreign rights affiliate agency) was pocketing my money—and, most likely—pocketing a lot more money from all those #1 bestsellers.
Because I personally know that those bestsellers don’t audit their revenue sources.
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