Back in June agent Andrew Zack wrote a series of posts on Bookscan and since then I’ve received a number of questions from authors asking my thoughts on Bookscan and my recommendations for how authors can track Bookscan numbers or their numbers in general.
For those not familiar with Bookscan, let me explain briefly that Bookscan is the book version of the Nielson TV rating system. It tracks and monitors sales of books in various outlets. However, like any mass tracking system it’s not perfect. Bookscan does not track every sale in every single outlet and certainly there are some major stores missing from the list, most notably Walmart.
Bookscan should not and typically is not taken into account if you are going back to contract with your current publisher (they have their own, more accurate, numbers to look at) or if you are a debut author. However, where Bookscan most predominantly comes into play is for authors looking to change houses or those who might have self-published and are now looking to find a publisher for that self-published title or the next book. Publishers are not going to be able to call up a competing house and say, “Hey, we’re looking to steal your author, care to share the numbers?” and because of that they have to go to the next most reliable source, Bookscan. This helps give them a feel for what kind of orders they can expect from bookstores. And yes, they do realize that Bookscan isn’t complete, but, especially for books that they don’t expect outlets like Walmart to take, it can help make a determination as to expectations.
So how does this impact you as an author and do you need to track your Bookscan numbers? Certainly it’s helpful to have as much information as you can about yourself and how you’re perceived, but Bookscan is really expensive and I do not think the cost is worth it for an individual author, especially since it’s not a complete accounting. The very best place to go to learn how well your book is doing and what kind of numbers you’re getting is your publisher. Call your editor, or have your agent call your editor, to find out what sales look like. However, if you still, even out of curiosity, really want to know how you look on Bookscan (and it can’t hurt unless you let it), organizations like RWA have considerably cheaper Bookscan subscription fees; keep in mind, however, that the RWA subscription only tracks the top 100 romances and therefore wouldn’t be helpful if you’re writing in any other genre.
Here are my thoughts: if you can get a less costly subscription to Bookscan that’s useful for you, like through RWA, do so. It’s worth it just to see how your book and others are tracking. It’s also helpful for you to be able to see trends and keep track of the market. However, the really important numbers are those that are coming through on your royalty statement. Those are the numbers that matter and, in the end, that stand out to everyone as the ones to watch. If you are tracking Bookscan I would say do so with the same attitude you track your ratings on Amazon or B&N.com. They are a sign of how well your book is doing, but not the whole picture.