I've been reading lately about a new Canadian drive for aggregated book sales information, including from independent bookstores. (One article can be found at:
What do you think about this? Do you think it will help Canadian authors with Canadian sales? Will it make a difference.
For which I thank her, because I've been thinking of saying a little bit about a similar ongoing system down in the US -- BookScan.
As far as I can tell, and I don't have a BookScan membership because access to the information is costly enough that you'd want to be an institution to have it, BookScan uses POS (Point of Sale) data to determine what's sold, in what quantity, over a period of time. POS, for those who don't know, means "at the cash register" in any practical way. The web-site says it tracks and will keep all information on file forever. Which means, if your books don't sell, that information will always be on file and accessible.
Is it useful? I think it is -- but I think it's more useful as a tool to publishers than it is to booksellers. In the case of booksellers, the big chains and the independents all have access to their own sales figures; they know what's moving in their stores, or they can if they want to. They have that information from their own POS databases, and can extract it, and reorder based on it; they can also do their returns based on that information, and the POS databases can be set up to remind you to return things after a period of inactivity, because it's fairly easy to tell which books have failed to sell even a single copy in any given period of time (let's be generous and say 6 months). The stores don't need the BookScan numbers to give them a sense of their own stock; the people who need the information have access to it.
It's for this reason -- and I did read the web-site -- that the information would be offered to booksellers for free. Well, that and because without the cooperation of the booksellers, there's no information <wry g>. Publishers, however, would have to pay a subscription fee in order to access this service.
(And someone remind me that it would be useful for SFWA or similar organizations to also have access to this information, hmmm?)
In the Publisher's case, the information is useful because the publisher can see what the numbers that are leaving the store -- and therefore the bookshelves -- are the minute the sales start to happen, for any given title or author they want to track.
Because you can track the sales, you can see whether or not there's a bump if you do any significant advertising, etc. You can see what's going out in large enough numbers that it's likely to be re-ordered, or to need to be re-printed, on national levels; you can see what your sell-through is likely to be, given a margin of error; you can see if there are any trends -- which books will sell like gangbusters for a week, and then never sell again; which will continue to sell steadily. (I don't know if BookScan offers information on the total numbers the stores received initially; they could easily do so if they wanted to, or if they were set up to access that information, because it's part of the database system. This is of less interest to the Publisher who published the book(s) in question, because the publishers know what they shipped. Well, in theory, they know what they shipped.). (And yes! I remembered to close a bracket! Ahem. Sorry.)
BookScan has all of the big book chains, plus Amazon.com, on tap; I don't believe it has retailers like Costco or Walmart on-line, which would make sense, because the data-base information would be so vastly different it would be harder to extract that data, and Walmart is probably less likely to care about having access to that information in other venues. It doesn't -- that I could discover -- track the jobbers, or the IDs, on which mass market sales -- which seem to be in decline in general -- depended so heavily in the past. So it doesn't give the entire picture. But it gives some picture, and in an industry where information travels very, very sluggishly, that incomplete information is still of high value.
This information is useful to publishers in a completely different way, as well -- they can use it to assess the worth or value of an author who is currently being published by an entirely different house. Previous to this, there was no information between houses, or not in any formal or quantified way; moving from one house to another was often a way to move up, and often the only way to do so. With the information in BookScan at their fingertips, editors can sit across the table from authors (or, more likely, their agents), and point at hard numbers when it gets down to the dollars talk. They're no longer standing on somewhat infirm ground.
Let me digress a bit. In the old days, bestseller lists were not, in fact, comprised entirely of bestsellers. They were composed of the "top sellers" in a large sampling of stores -- but the stores were free to choose that information, and to write it up and send it in. In many cases, the tallies were entirely subjective, and in many, they weren't representative of what was actually selling -- they were representative of what the booksellers wanted to be selling. Given that the bestseller lists carry some weight, this meant that those books would often get that extra push.
With something like BookScan, this can't happen.
So, back to publishers. They have information about the sales of authors that they would never have had before, and they're using it. That's the other use of the data base, and one that's less advertised, imho but is probably well worth the money.
I don't have access to that information myself, and certainly not just by using the internet, so I have mixed feelings about it. I think it's useful information for authors to have for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that if BookScan says you sold -- and that's sold, not shipped -- 5,000 copies, and you're being told you sold 3,000 copies, there are going to be issues. I'm not sure what kind of confidentiality agreement is signed when one subscribes to the service, so I'm not sure if a writer's organization could do so -- but if they could, it would be useful for their writers.
However… in regards to Canadian books and Canadian publishers? I don't think it will make that much difference; the program will track what's selling, yes, but it won't give precedence to anything other than those numbers. You can see what's selling. You can see what isn't selling. You can see it as it unfolds -- but you don't have much power to influence what is selling and what isn't. When you sit across from your buyers (i.e. chain buyers, not readers), they're still going to have their own information about what sold and what didn't, and countering it with BookScan or similar numbers can be done, but probably has to be done with tact or it won't win you many friends.
I don't see how the Canadian content will actually matter at all. I don't see how it can; the only difference would be that the Canadian books would be on Canadian bookstore shelves in quantities unlikely to be seen across the border because they're in Canada, and they're being offered for sale in Canada. The database program won't differentiate between books published in or by Canadians and books distributed in Canada that are published by larger companies in either the US or the UK.
I do think the information will be useful to Canadian publishers in an echo of the same way they are to their US counterparts, except there's less money to go around with to begin. And I think they'll be about as useful in bookstores. Which is to say, there will be odd occasions when something sold dreadfully poorly for your store and really really well everywhere else, and you might want to keep an eye on that.
But at the moment? Canada has one chain. So the competitive aspects of keeping that type of watch are less pressing.
Open to questions, here.