Scanners

If memory serves, that was the title of a movie about people whose heads exploded…. yes indeed, according to google. Exploding heads. Maybe that’s why the name BookScan makes me laugh. Pam sent me this link to “Book Clubbed” an article by Daniel Gross on a company which keeps track of book sales. And so what, you ask. We are nation of people who love statistics. We invented baseball, after all. What’s the big deal about sales figures for books? It’s simple: there aren’t any. It’s almost impossible to get reliable sales figures on books because the industry is very secretive about that end of things. The article explores this topic in some depth, by means of BookScan:

BookScan, a Nielsen service started in January 2001, tallies retail sales from chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders, from Amazon.com, and from stores like Costco (but not Wal-Mart). James King, vice president for sales and service at BookScan, suggests that the database captures about 70 percent of sales for a typical hardcover book. As such, BookScan has emerged as a powerful tool for the editors and agents whose employers pay several thousand dollars a year to subscribe.

And before you ask: I don’t have access to BookScan. Which is good, because I can think of no better way to feed the howling dogs of anxiety. You think I’m overstating, but Gross agrees:

… in the hands of journalists and polemicists, BookScan data has becomes a blunt instrument to humiliate, minimize accomplishments, and express joy at the misfortune of other writers.[…] Edward Wyatt of the New York Times has been a connoisseur of disappointing BookScan figures. Last December, he gleefully noted that Martha Stewart’s The Martha Rules, which had garnered a $2 million advance, sold a not-very-good 37,000 copies, and he cited even smaller figures for Salman Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown (“just 26,000 copies”) and Myla Goldberg’s Wickett’s Remedy (“only 9,000”). In November 2004, he cited BookScan figures to show that the finalists for the fiction category of the National Book Award were a bunch of poorly selling obscurities.

Here’s my dilemma. I have to admit that if I did have access to BookScan, I would find it next to impossible to resist looking for other people’s bad news. Oh, I am awful. But I am not alone. From one of my favorite poems “The book of my enemy has been remaindered” by Clive James:

The book of my enemy has been remaindered
And I rejoice.
It has gone with bowed head like a defeated legion
Beneath the yoke.
What avail him now his awards and prizes,
The praise expended upon his meticulous technique,
His individual new voice?
Knocked into the middle of next week
His brainchild now consorts with the bad buys
The sinker, clinkers, dogs and dregs,
The Edsels of the world of moveable type,
The bummers that no amount of hype could shift,
The unbudgeable turkeys.

You can read the whole poem here. Have mercy on us writerly types, for we are deeply flawed, but we tell a good story.

13 Replies to “Scanners”

  1. I think most people judge their accomplishments by other’s failures, I always looked at the sale figures of my competitors. My husbands ex-wife wants me to be fat, I want my children to be smarter than her’s, maybe I’m mean but I think thats just the way we can value our own work, by it being more successful than our peers.

  2. I have to agree with Carolyn. I am tickled that my h2b’s family likes me better than his ex-wife!

  3. Oddly enough I thought of that movie today. I woke up with this wicked sinus headache and felt like it would be a mercy if my head just blew up Scanners style.

  4. Hi,
    I’ve been reading your weblog for a bit – haven’t read any of your books yet, but I’m going to, as soon as I get me to a bookstore. You’ve won me over with your writing.

    But I have to say, I don’t think you’re reading Sharon Lee’s comment quite right. Or maybe I mean… quite as I would. I don’t entirely agree with her either, and I do agree with you that serious analytical work does no harm.

    But what about when something other than serious analytical work calls itself that? I’m thinking about the lit crit that deals with science fiction (or romance, or mystery…) as though it’s second-rate literary fiction. I think this is the type of work Sharon Lee is talking about, and I know I’ve seen some of that, though it’s not my field. It makes me think of anthropological work a hundred odd years ago, with its assumption of the Savage. The assumption of the superiority of the known standard.

    I would hate to see academics step out of genre analysis entirely. But it’d be nice if we did it right, considering the context and scope and discourse of each genre instead of applying standards a priori.

    It’s prescriptivism rearing its ugly head, in a way. Literary fiction is (by analogy) the prestige dialect, and if every other work is evaluated in terms of that, without an acknowledgement that there are several dialects out there that all should be studied in their own terms… then we miss out on a lot. And I could see why that makes Sharon Lee grumpy.

  5. “For some reason a discussion that took place in the summer just came to my attention”

    I suspect the reason is that we’ve just switched to the New Blogger format, and now I can go back and add tags to all the posts. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on people’s point of view) when I update the posts, they turn up on people’s feeds.

    I’m glad you think we’re harmless! ;-)

  6. “I’m thinking about the lit crit that deals with science fiction (or romance, or mystery…) as though it’s second-rate literary fiction”

    Yes, I think you’re right, Shweta, this was one of the big worries that people had about what we were doing. I think we managed to lay their fears to rest by explaining that we’re romance readers – this is a genre we regularly read and enjoy.

    “it’d be nice if we did it right, considering the context and scope and discourse of each genre instead of applying standards a priori.”

    Again, I agree that there are particular conventions/expectations that exist in romance and, in the same way that it would be silly to expect a sonnet to look like free verse, it would be wrong to denigrate a category romance for being short. That said, I think that one can find interesting themes, analysis of contemporary issues etc in romance, just as one can in more ‘literary’ fiction and some romances are very well written by any standard. I tend to read for emotion/meaning, so I’m not the best judge of literary quality. For one thing I suspect that quite a lot depends on taste (e.g. whether one likes a particular writing style), but one can find use of metaphor, complex characterisation, etc in romance.

  7. I’d prefer someone or a group of someones didn’t choose to make my work a basis for some illegal activity. Other than that, I’m with you. Here’s the ISBN (if and when I get one), enjoy.

    I plan to study using ordinary books as a way for people to enhance their leadership capabilities (or something similar). I’ll wager most authors haven’t considered that use when they wrote them. I would hope it wouldn’t be offensive to them.

  8. Shweta, Laura, everybody:

    I suppose I should have linked to many earlier posts in which I get very irritable about the lit-criterati’s knee-jerk narrowmindedness.

    To clarify: I am myself a PhD and was a tenured professor for twelve years. I make a distinction between academics who take up the study of a body of work (such as Laura is) and the lit-crit crowd. The litcritters like to think of themselves as academic in nature and generally superior, but that’s a construction I reject.

    Literary fiction is a genre like every other, with a targeted readership, a set of expectations and conventions, and a history that shouldn’t be any more privileged than any other.

    But mostly people don’t agree with me on this. The dominant paradigm is very, very dominant.

  9. Laura,

    I think what you’re doing is what I wish the rest of academia was doing. I think we really need serious consideration of fiction from the people who read it (and I’m writing a dissertation on comics, so I’d be in trouble if I didn’t think that). I was really only responding to Sharon Lee’s comment, noting that there is a mentality that she’s arguing against. I’ve run up against it often and often, so while I do not agree with her conclusions, I think I see where she’s coming from.

    Rosina, I agree with your position on literary fiction entirely. You’ve said something I’ve been trying to say for years, and thank you for that.

  10. Not that anyone’s making unwarranted generalizations about lit critters, right?

    Just kidding (sort of).

    Robin, PhD English from one of the Lit Crit capitals of the world, and long ago TA of an undergraduate Science Fiction course at the University of Michigan that kicked off a real love for the genre, and opened the door to my appreciation for great genre fiction, including Romance.

  11. Robin:

    To my mind, an academic theorizes, analyzes, discusses. There is an element of subjectivity in academic literary criticism, but it’s not supposed to be prescriptive. Just in the same way that an academic linguist studies human language from every possible angle, but stays clear of making pronouncements on what’s right or wrong, or anything that veers into the aesthetic.

    There’s a contingent of litcritters out there who aren’t trained the way you were, and who are primarily prescriptivist in their approach.

    Of course these boundaries get muddied at times. Harold Bloom walks both sides of the fence: sometimes he’s pure academic and other times he’s a litcrit snob. When he’s on the litcrit snobbery side of things, he uses his academic credentials to bolster his opinions, and that (in my opinion) stinks.

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