As the publishing industry gathers in New York for its annual trade show, BookExpo America, they’re discussing everything except the one piece of information authors crave: how many books they actually sell.
There is no equivalent of gold records in the book publishing industry. That’s because sales numbers are almost impossible to come by, and the numbers you can track down simply cannot be verified.
Publishers are loath to provide accurate sales figures, for two reasons. One is that they don’t want authors to know how many copies they sold, so that they don’t have to pay all the royalties due the authors. Second, they’re embarrassed by how few copies most books sell.
Publishers control sales data the way the former Soviet Union controlled data regarding the sale of wheat, with about as little honesty and transparency. So what’s an author to do?
First, they can go to BookScan, a service of the A.C. Nielsen survey company. Bookscan is the primary means by which publishers get sales data, which they use when considering whether to buy a new book from a previously published author. Amazon makes Bookscan data available to individual authors for their own books through its Author Central program. Sounds great, but BookScan isn’t perfect.
Bookscan measures sales for only about 75 percent of the book vendors in the United States, including Amazon and brick-and-mortar Barnes & Noble stores. So the numbers point toward the success level of a given book, but don’t provide precise sales data. On top of that, most small, independent book publishers don’t report their sales to BookScan, so if your book was sold out of a garage, whether it’s your garage or someone else’s, you won’t find those numbers on BookScan. And BookScan also doesn’t count sales of ebooks or books sold for the Kindle, Nook, or other devices.