More book sales data may not be better

If you think about it, isn’t it a bit odd that we the public generally know very little about how many copies of individual books are sold?

The movies are reporting weekend box office receipts to the nearest dollar. Streaming services like Netflix can be opaque, but regularly broadcast TV has Nielsen ratings. Spotify reports the number of streams, and if you go to YouTube or TikTok, the number of views increases in real time.

Bestseller lists rank order books, but they don’t come with actual sales numbers. BookScan, the book sales tracking service operated by Nielsen, is a subscription product primarily available to publishers, which does not count sales made outside of retailers in its network.

During the recent lawsuit determining whether or not Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster could merge, a lot of strange data began circulating on social media about how many copies of typical books were sold, including a nugget that 50% of 58,000 commercially published books per year sell. less than a dozen copies.

A dozen, like 12, like fewer copies than if you could get every one of your close friends and family members to buy your book.

Writing in his ‘Counter Craft’ newsletter, Lincoln Michel, author of ‘The Body Scout’, showed how dubious this statistic is, proving how difficult it is for the public to know how many copies a book has sold. ‘is sold.

This brought Kristen McLean, the senior industry analyst for BookScan, into the newsletter comments to provide some of the best aggregate data I’ve ever seen, including that two-thirds of books published over the past ‘a given year by the top 10 publishers sell less than 1,000 copies.

Only 163 books, or 0.4% of the total, sold 100,000 copies or more. We can guess, but we don’t know which books it is.

Writing recently at Public Books, Melanie Walsh searches and finds other sources of data on what books are read and by whom. Walsh co-leads the Post45 Data Collective, a group that tries to use open source data to make cultural industries, like publishing, more transparent to the public.

A first project involved collecting data on the race and ethnicity of authors published by the Big Five publishing houses (including Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster), which revealed that, for example, only 11% of the fiction published by the Big Five in 2018 came from non-white authors.

This kind of quantification of something we suspect to be true — that non-white authors are at a disadvantage in the larger publishing market — can help publishers be more thoughtful and thoughtful about what they’re putting out into the world. , and can help readers be more thoughtful about what we consume as well.

However, I’m less certain that making the actual number of books sold or read transparent to everyone will necessarily make a big difference. In truth, while the public may not know these numbers, publishers have a pretty good idea of ​​exactly how many copies their books have sold because they literally have to account for it by paying royalties to authors. The people who decide what gets published know exactly how many copies of a given book have sold.

I think there’s a strong argument that there are untapped and underserved markets, and of course I wish I could see the sales numbers for my friends and foes’ books. OK, especially my haters.

But focusing on the number of books sold is more likely to reduce than expand the range of what is published.

Replicating what is already popular will become the safe bet.

I want publishing to be risky, interesting and as diverse as one can imagine.

John Warner is the author of “Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities”.

Twitter @biblioracle

Biblioracle book recommendations

John Warner tells you what to read based on the last five books you read

1. “Measurement” by Nikki Erlick

2. “The Science of Murder: Agatha Christie’s Forensics” by Carla Valentin

3. “Free to choose” by Milton Friedman and Rose Friedman

4. “The Freezing Cold Takes: NFL: The Football Media’s Most Inaccurate Predictions – And The Fascinating Stories Behind It” by Fred Segal

5. “Maus” by Art Spiegelmann

— Pete B., South Bend, Indiana

As an apparent football fan, I hope Pete hasn’t read the classic George Plimpton story of a middle-aged reporter in training camp as a quarterback for the Detroit Lions , “PaperLion”.

1. “Wolf Hall” by Hilary Mantel

2. “The Wedding Portrait” by Maggie O’Farrell

3. “Normal People” by Sally Rooney

4. “Horse” by Geraldine Brooks

5. “Solito” by Javier Zamora

— Mindy T., Chicago

I think there’s a good chance Mindy has read this book and I’ll need a mulligan, but it feels like the right mix of big story scope and intimate character work, “The Overstory” by Richard Powers.

1. “People love us” by Dana Mele

2. “We were liars” by E. Lockhart

3. “The Summer I Got Pretty” by Jenny Han

4. “To kill a mockingbird” by Harper Lee

5. “The Martian” by Andy Weir

—Lisa P., Urbana

Three of them are young adults, an area where I don’t have a ton of knowledge, but I want to stick with something about young people, maybe with an element of danger and mystery,” The Secret History” by Donna Tartt.

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