Last updated on May 9th, 2018
by David Alan
A few years ago, a writer asked me about the potential salability of his Kansas City Chiefs trivia book. I politely told him that publishers likely wouldn’t be interested, and that he’d have a much better chance selling a Green Bay Packers book.
I knew this because the publishing company I worked for, Publications International, subscribed to BookScan. A service of the Nielsen Company since 2001, BookScan provides subscribers with retail sales of published books. By searching “Chiefs” on BookScan, I found that the very few Chiefs books that had been published this century had sold poorly. However, football-crazed Wisconsinites had gobbled up Packers books like free cheese samples. Many Packers books had sold tens of thousands of copies.
That writer didn’t care much for my response. He was passionate about the Chiefs, and that’s what he wanted to write about. You may feel the same way about your topic of choice—and that’s fine. The literary world needs passionate originators. However, book publishers care tremendously about BookScan figures. Though few publishers are imitators, most want to publish books on topics that are proven sellers, as long as there’s a fresh angle. For example, my partner and I pitched and sold JFK Day by Day to Running Press. The Kennedy name sells books, and in our proposal, we offered the BookScan numbers to support that claim.
If you are serious about authoring books for a living, and you have deep pockets, you might want to consider subscribing to BookScan. For an individual, the subscription rate is (are you sitting down?) $2,000 a year. I’m not saying that the fee is worth it for everyone, but BookScan is a powerful tool.
Here’s an example: Triumph Books had a smash hit with a book on the boy band One Direction in 2012. A writer who noticed the book’s early sales figures on BookScan could have quickly pitched a One Direction book to another publisher—or proposed a book on another boy band to Triumph. BookScan subscribers can determine how a book sold in the previous week, in its lifespan, and all points in between. They can generate a bestseller list for many genres—music, sports, children’s fiction, etc.—with sales numbers for each book on the list. They can even discover how a book sold in a particular region or state.
BookScan’s sales data is not quite complete. It reflects the majority of each book’s sales (including Amazon sales), but not units sold through small outlets, such as a mom-and-pop bookstore, a book club, or an individual’s website.
Without BookScan, the best way for a writer to estimate a book’s sales is to look at the number of reviews it has on Amazon. Usually, any book with dozens of reviews has sold successfully, although some authors find ways to generate fake reviews.
One last thing: If you have a notion about going in on BookScan with a bunch of buddies and sharing a password, forget about it. BookScan works only on the subscriber’s computer. Nielsen quotes “$400 for each additional subscriber at the same agency.” Of course, you could perpetually bug a subscriber to look up BookScan figures for you. Just don’t ask me, because I no longer work for Publications International. If only I had an extra $2,000…
David Alan has authored, cowritten, and edited books for 30 publishers, including Random House, HarperCollins, St. Martin’s Press, Barnes & Noble, Scholastic, and Total/Sports Illustrated.