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.