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Wednesday, February 04, 2004

The numbers game 

Sara Nelson, who hasn't written for the Observer in a little while, reports that publishers are less than thrilled with BookScan, which tracks how many books actually sold instead of using the arcane, insane formula that most (read: NYT) bestseller lists use:

"We talk about the BookScan numbers in editorial meetings," said one prominent publisher who didn?t want his name used?and who then admitted that the numbers are not always factored in when projects go to auction. "On the one hand, we want to buy books that sell, and BookScan can give us an indication of how well a project might sell," this person continued. "On the other hand, when you want a project, you usually have to pay more than somebody else. The competition can get very heated?and you end up paying more than you probably ?should,? based on the numbers, because you don?t want somebody else to publish it." Besides, an editor hell-bent on acquiring a book can be perversely happy about being in the dark, numbers-wise. "O.K., sometimes I knew the agent had puffed up the author?s track record," said one former editor. "But I was grateful to be able to talk back to a skeptical marketing department that had doubts about selling the book I really wanted. Nobody had inarguable numbers."

In other words, it's just too damned logical and practical for the publishing world. And that scares them to no end because when they put their weight behind their project babies and they don't do well, that becomes just a little bit of a problem. Of course, what BookScan doesn't do is predict: just because something sells in one particular year, doesn't mean it will the next year or the year after that. So having the raw data at one's disposal is good, because it is--in theory, since so far, Wal-Mart isn't included--an accurate indicator of how a book is doing sales-wise. But it won't tell you if such a book will lead to other similar books selling well in the future. So in other words, logic is great and necessary, as is business sense; but a little passion and enthusiasm goes a hell of a long way, too.

Of course, the expression I like to use when I talk to authors and publishing types is that "so-and-so book/genre/author doesn't sell--until it does."


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