Sunday, December 12, 2010

Why NYT list and BookScan data are worthless

NYT to report e-book sales! You can pay to get your own BookScan data! Hooray! Indie authors and e-books are now legit! We won!

Dude, put down the coffee cup and slowly back away. In prehistoric times, pterodactyls ruled the sky and I'd get on the phone to Ingram's warehouse and see how many copies of my books had shipped. It sort of seemed important, although I never knew what to do with the data. And what agent, editor, or author wouldn't want to say, "I'm a bestseller" and "moving tons of units"?

But if you are an indie author hoping to get some attention, or an underground success planning to go blinking to the surface world, you might want to temper expectations. Or better yet, not waste a second of your time or energy.

Firstly, the NYT bestseller list will only report major publisher data--many indies and small presses will not be reported. You need different ISBNs for each format, and you need it all to be aggregated by some central processing unit. Who will control that? The Times? The publishing industry? BookScan? And who is going to be volunteering the numbers? Amazon, which probably has 80 percent if not 90 percent of the e-book market? Yeah, right.

If you want to go to all that trouble just to appear on someone else's lists, be my guest. Disintegration doesn't have an ISBN at either Amazon or B&N. It was a bestseller, hitting #30 in the Kindle store, which definitely put it in the top 50 of e-books worldwide. For only a time, but my daughter says, "Once you are a bestselling author, you are a bestseller forever." Hardly anyone will know it was a bestseller, even the people who bought it. It doesn't even have an ISBN. Amazon and I are the ONLY ones who know how many it sold. And neither of us are telling.

And the people reading the NYT are not the indie author's audience--they are reading a newspaper, for Jiminy Cricket's sake. They might as well etch it into a clay tablet and send it out via a fleet of carrier pigeons for all the good it will do. Look, the people who were most excited about that announcement, as evidenced by TweetStream, that cool-a-meter of our times, were the entrenched industry types at every level who have so much invested in the continuation of their careers. It's understandable, but it doesn't mean you as an indie author should fight against the currents of time to join them.

The NYT list has been bought and sold for decades--that data is based on advance store orders, which means major publisher push and co-op money paid to big booksellers. Haven't you ever wondered why books show up as bestsellers before they are even released?

This is all a shell game, high-stakes ego moves, a valuable tool or a cudgel depending on your needs as a publisher or bookseller. Sure, some people wander into bookstores and blindly grab the first book they see, and booksellers stack bestsellers in the front of the store, and everybody goes through the motions. I'm surprised there isn't a Patterson store yet, wall to wall offerings by The James Gang.

Bestsellers are made, not born, often even years in advance of their publication. Janet Evanovich doesn't sign a multi-million-dollar, multi-book contract to gather dust, spine out, on the E shelf in "Mystery." How many "surprise bestsellers" have you read about? How did Stephen King just happen to get a copy of Justin Cronin's "The Passage" months before publication? Why did the publisher decide to print 10,000 advance review copies of The da Vinci Code?

Besides, what does the term "bestselling author" mean anymore? I've seen indie authors on the Internet shouting, with multiple exclamation points, "I just hit #19 in the category of Greek History: Ancient Pottery Shards!!!!" There's even a guidebook out there on how to trick up your keywords to rank high in obscure categories so you can be a "bestseller."

BookScan? Measuring point of purchase hard-copy sales at a limited number of outlets? What is that good for these days? Where's Walmart, the airports, Christian bookstores, specialty shops, hand sellers, the drug store that sells local books? Yes, there is a "geographic tracking," but what do you care? Say you're selling lousy in Buffalo. Are you going to hop in your car and drive up there and do a book signing? Can't your e-book squeeze through the frozen ethernet of the Great North?

The bestseller list already exists--there are only two. Kindle and B&N. The Kindle bestseller list IS the e-book bestseller list. No one in NY will admit it and you won't read it in PW. That's not sexy, and major publishing is at an uneasy detente with Amazon at the moment. Amazon has never revealed their data on anything significant, only in the loosest of terms that makes it look good (i.e. "We sold out millions in seconds....")

As an indie author, it is against your best interest to even use ISBNs. They are not required by either Amazon or B&N. The only outlets that require them right now are Sony and Apple iBookstore, and those markets are hardly worth investing the $10 an ISBN will cost you at Smashwords. Oh, yeah, everyone wants their own ISBN for each format and their store, and it has to be different from the ISBN of the print version(s). Seventeen flaming hoops, lots of cost and inconvenience, and all you gain is the ability of corporations to easily track you? Yeah, I'm jumping on that one.

The NYT list is just one last attempt to make NY valid in the new era, and it might have been interesting a couple of years ago, and maybe there's a long shot of a Hollywood sale--but I suspect more movie producers own Kindles than read the NYT. It gets attention because of "tradition," but what is tradition worth right now? More importantly, what is tradition worth to YOU? The most successful indie authors I've seen don't even know what tradition is, nor do they care.

This is data for the publishing industry. I've said repeatedly, if you are an indie author, you are not in the publishing industry. You are in the YOU industry. You don't need to view the publishing industry as competition, not yet, but you might want to consider whether you invest resources in their industry or in your industry.

Just typing all this up kept me from working on my current project, but maybe you will buy my books, or learn something, or tweet me, but in a way, this was energy wasted on tradition. Picking up the hammer to knock down a wall is tedious when you can simply walk away from it, go around it...or fly over it.

If all you ever wanted was to call up Mom and your sixth-grade English teacher and say "See, I told you I'd make the list," then I say go for it. For everyone else, you are better off writing that next book and getting on the list of your reader. That's the list that matters.



Cherri Galbiati said...

Scott, Your words did not go unheard. I appreciate you saying what I've been shouting about for the longest time! As writers, our main concern should always be to the reader--not the NY numbers game.

Margaret said...

I wouldn't even want to be on the NYT bestseller list. We all know that's manipulated by the Big Six and I wouldn't read most of those books anyway.

But the bookscan data is kind of fun. Sure they only pick up 75% of actual print book sales, but it's like putting up a fat picture on your fridge. It keeps the goal in mind. I'd like to see that whole map filled in blue someday as they update to include ebook sales. That might happen before the end of the year.

Back to work for me.

author Christa Polkinhorn said...


author Scott Nicholson said...

Margaret, where are you getting that 75 percent figure? I guess it depends on the type of book. For example, if you aren't selling in any discount stores, it might be a larger piece of the picture. One of the bestselling writers in English, L. Ron Hubbard, will barely be a blip on the Bookscan radar but sells tons. A lot of Christian and business writers, likewise.

But I agree, it's fun as a game, but if you gamble your business on it, I wouldn't be putting money on it!

Thanks for your comments, Cherri and Christa.


Michelle D said...

A very informative rant. Thank you for taking the time to write it! As a new indie author, I am still learning a lot about this biz. I've always wondered why every other book I pick up in the store says, "New York Times Bestseller". How can they all be? I'm not going to give that as much weight any more.

author Scott Nicholson said...

Heh, Michelle, I hope I wasn't ranting--just pointing out how tradition is a millstone around you neck while you are swimming in choppy, shark-infested waters of a modern writing career.


Neal Hock said...

Very valid points throughout, Scott. But yet again, it's too little, too late from the the publishing industry.


Moses Siregar III said...

"Amazon and I are the ONLY ones who know how many it sold. And neither of us are telling."

You told! :P

Mat said...

Scott, this post was very timely for me as I'm getting ready to e-publish my first book. I was going to buy an ISBN, but have now changed my mind. List shmist.