On using your Bookscan for good, not evil


So, you might’ve seen the news that authors can now see (as I understand it) a rolling, four-week window of their book’s sales, as reported by Bookscan. I have something of a love-hate relationship with Bookscan. It’s the only widely-available reportage we have, but it’s also got a reporting gap that is likely only widening as ebook sales increase and already aggressively underreports in certain categories (romance, young adult key among them). Sarah Weinman did a great rundown of some of the issues, which you should read if you haven’t already.

But if you’re sitting at your computer, Amazon author account in hand, wondering why exactly you’re huge in Raleigh, you might be wondering how you can make it work for you. A few ideas:


Don’t overanalyze.

I’ve seen authors dive into the numbers with an almost forensic glee. “200 total? But I sold 42 at my signing on Saturday…would that be this week’s numbers or next week’s reporting period? And then my aunt sent out an email, and that’s 14 in Region 4…carry the 2…” I often tell authors that with Bookscan, the one thing you can count on is that you sold at least that many. And if that’s all you’re able to take away, so be it. If you’re the kind of person who will be spurred on by this, or reality checked into making more reasonable business decisions as a result of having numbers, then this service will be great for you. If you’re a tea-leaf-reader personality, maybe not.


Use it to determine what promo efforts to put your money/time into.

Did your blog tour move the dial? Want proof that in-store co-op still works? Here’s some data to help you divine. Remember that often it’s a combination of efforts rather than one sole thing, but you can watch for trends, and draw gentle extrapolations. By the same token, if you spend a ton of cash or time on a promotion that results in no uptick over a month of sales, you can probably retool or retire that particular strategy. Count this one a solid advantage of having access.


Remember which pool you’re swimming in.

A Bookscan report of 500 copies a week can be a giant floptastic failure or a raging success, depending on the book you’re talking about. If you value your sanity, focus on your numbers and your numbers only—not your Twitter friend’s, your same-pub-day frenemy’s, etc. Your agent should be able to contextualize this for you (once—not every day or every week, please) with a sense of your print and ship numbers and help you craft reasonable expectations based upon those.


Kindness and discretion will never come back to haunt you.

Quite frankly? Any data gleaned from this service is no one’s business but yours, your publisher, and your agent. Don’t feel compelled to talk about the intricacies of your reports with others. Or even look at it, for that matter, just because everyone else is.


Don’t let the number defeat you.

There are a million different ways for a successful book to become successful. Some books take off right out of the gate then drop off. Other books sell a steady quantity over the life of the edition. Still others start slow and gain momentum as word of mouth or some other force kicks in. It can be really frustrating to see a number that’s not what you hoped (even if that number is empirically good!) but this is the very definition of things that are beyond your control. I really, really hate when an author pleads for these numbers, then upon seeing them throws up their hands and quits promoting entirely. Don’t drop out or give up. Just change your approach, adapt, evolve. Don’t let one subset of data be the boss of you.


Don’t let the number define you.

Your worth as a writer and, more importantly, as a human is not measurable at point of sale. While your future advances might be based in part on Bookscan, it cannot become the driving force behind your writer-self. If you’re someone whose writer-self and business-self are inseparable, consider whether the information to be had there is worth the emotional processing costs to you. Only you can be the judge of that, and it’s the one part of the whole sales thing you can control—your own actions.


5 Responses to “On using your Bookscan for good, not evil”

  1. Great post, Holly! Thanks for the info.

  2. Damn. You know writers a little too well. A lot of us do find our self esteem in sales numbers or reviews. It took me about 10 published books before I learned to take it all with a grain of salt.

    Writing novels should be about the art, not about Amazon’s book scan. But hey, I still get a kick out of knowing that the latest copy of The Tsar’s Dwarf was sold in Detroit, Michigan Tuesday at 2.22 pm … 🙂

  3. 3 Skye

    Great post! Personally, I’m going the time-tested Find Sand, Bury Head route.

  4. Thanks for this calm post amid the frenzy. It’s not many years since I was looking at my daughter’s PET cancer scans, so you’d think my anxiety would have a healthy perspective, but nope. I’ve been cranky since my first peek at my sales. Alas, madness and panic prevail.
    *sigh* amy

  5. 5 Frat Brat

    Thanks for this, Holly. As always, fabulous post, with great advice.

    I’m guessing this wouldn’t be such a big deal to so many authors if they all had access to their sales figures prior to receiving the semi-annual statement from their pub houses. After all, for the majority of us writing is a business: a vocation, as well as an avocation. And, as in any business, knowledge is power.

    Oh, no doubt about it, in many ways the success of our books can affect how we go about our craft! At the same time, I for one always welcome the opportunity to see the who/what/where/when of my own sales.

    Sure, there are some authors who don’t want to know anything beyond the fact that their book was accepted by their pub house, and made it onto the bookstore shelf. However, I know many authors who feel as I do: that, beyond writing our books, we go the extra financial step of promoting them too, using a portion of our advances as our marketing budgets. Knowing, say, that you’re selling better in the Midwest than the Southeast, or the number of book sales that are digital vs. print, or that an article about the book or author goosed sales in a specific region, or that a particular indie has done a tremendous job in hand-selling your latest book, would help us determine how and where to focus our promotional dollars more effectively.

    When it comes to an author’s career, ignorance is never bliss.

    As digital sales increase, I would assume that pub houses will have to be more forthcoming and timely with sales stats. We are, after all, in a business partnership. Otherwise, why wouldn’t an author not just self-publish via digital distribution, where this info is at the author’s fingertips (and the royalty amount is substantially larger)?

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