More book sales data may not be good

If you think about it, isn’t it a little strange that we the public generally know very little about how much individual book sales are?

The film reported weekend box office receipts fell to $1.5 billion. Streaming services like Netflix may be opaque, but regular broadcast TV has Nielsen ratings. Spotify will report the number of streams, and if you go to YouTube or TikTok, the views will increase in real time.

Bestsellers list ranked order books, but they don’t provide actual sales figures. BookScan, a book sales tracking service operated by Nielsen, is a subscription product primarily accessed by publishers and excludes sales that occur outside of retailers in its network.

In a recent trial to determine whether Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster could merge, a lot of odd data about typical book sales began to surface on social media, including nuggets of 50% of sales of 58,000 commercially published books per year Less than a dozen copies.

A dozen, like 12 copies, is less than getting your close friends and family to buy your book.

“Body Scout” author Lincoln Mitchell wrote in his “Counter Craft” newsletter that the statistic is dubious and further evidence that the public has a hard time knowing how many copies a book has sold.

This brings BookScan’s chief industry analyst Kristen McLean to the newsletter review, offering some of the best aggregated data I’ve seen, including the top 10 publishers in a given year Two-thirds of books sold under 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 those are.

Writing recently at Public Books, Melanie Walsh went to find and discover other sources of data about which books were read and by whom. Walsh is co-leader of Post45 Data Collective, an organization that seeks to use open source data to make cultural industries, such as publishing, more transparent to the public.

An early project that involved collecting racial and ethnic data on authors published by the Big Five, including Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster, showed, for example, that in 2018, for example, only 11 of the novels published by the Big Five were % from non-white writers.

This kind of quantification of what we suspect is true — that non-white authors are disadvantaged in large publishing markets — can help publishers to be more reflective and thoughtful about what they put into the world, and it can help readers to think about what we consume something more thoughtful. Excellent.

However, I’m not quite sure that being transparent about the number of books actually sold or read to everyone must have changed a lot. In fact, while these numbers may not be known to the public, publishers have a good grasp of the exact sales of their books because they have to take them into account when paying royalties to authors. The person who decides what to publish knows exactly how much a book sells.

I think there’s a legitimate argument that there’s an untapped and underserved market out there, and of course I’d love to be able to look at book sales data for my friends and foes. Well, mostly my enemies.

But focusing on the number of books sold is more likely to narrow the scope than expand it.

Copying something that is already popular will be a safe bet.

I want publishing to be risky, fun, and as diverse as possible.

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

Twitter @biblioracle

Book Recommendations from Biblioracle

John Warner tells you what to read based on the five most recent books you’ve read

1. “Measures” Nicky Eric

2. “The Science of Murder: The Forensics of Agatha Christie” by Carla Valentine

3. “Freedom of Choice” Milton Friedman and Rose Friedman

4. “Cold Weather: NFL: Football Media’s Most Inaccurate Predictions – And The Fascinating Stories Behind Them” Fred Siegel

5. “Rat” by Art Spiegelman

—Pete B., South Bend, Indiana

As an obvious football fan, I wish Pete hadn’t read George Plimpton’s classic “Paper Lions” story about a middle-aged reporter working as a quarterback for the Detroit Lions at training camp.

1. “Wolf Hall” Hilary Mantel

2. “Marriage Portrait” by Maggio Farrell

3. “Ordinary People” by Sally Rooney

4. “Horse” by Geraldine Brooks

5. “Solo” by Javier Zamora

— Mindy T., Chicago

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

1. “People Like Us” Dana Mailer

2. “We are liars” by E. Lockhart

3. “I’m Beautiful Summer” by Jenny Han

4. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

5. “The Martian” Andy Weir

— Lisa P., Urbana

Three of them are young people, I don’t have much knowledge, but I do want to stick to something about young people, maybe with elements of danger and mystery, Donna Tate’s “The Secret History.”

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