Thursday, February 23, 2012

Why Sales Figures Matter

There's an interesting article in the NY Times today regarding Patricia O'Brien, the author of five previous books.  Her agent submitted her sixth, a novel, to 13 publishers and found no takers.  The reason?  O'Brien's last novel had sold only 4,000 copies.  Book sales information is available to publishers who subscribe to Nielsen BookScan, a service which tracks approximately 75% of retail sales of printed books.  It does not include ebooks.

At the suggestion of her agent, O'Brien adopted a pseudonym and her agent pitched the novel to more publishers.  It sold in three days to Doubleday, part of Random House.  O'Brien's agent said, "I realized the book was not being judged on its merits.  It was being judged on how many books she sold."

Other interesting quotes from the article:

Referring to BookScan, the reporter states that "many authors" consider the service a "modern publishing scourge."

"...publishers are being unusually cautious about which books they can invest in and how much they can pay in advances."

I can see that publishers would be wary of signing an author whose last book did not sell well.  On the other hand, should that be the reason for turning down a completely different book?  A different book which was apparently so compelling it was snapped up by a major publisher in three days?  To be fair, the reporter should have stressed just what kinds of costs publishers incur when signing an author.  And it is a business, after all, and one can only rely upon the indicators which are available to you about the commercial viability of the product when you make a decision to purchase it.

The upshot of the article is that authors will now struggle to stay published if they don't meet publishers' expectations about sales figures, regardless of the quality of their new submission.  I expect this issue will become more important to authors as publishers struggle to ward off the rise of Amazon.  I feel queasy just thinking about it.  You can read the article here.

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