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Bookish Diversions: The Mighty and the Plucky
Major Merger Blocked, Book Sales, Library Data, Gambling, the Little House that Could, More
¶ Book block. The US Department of Justice successfully stopped the $2.2 billion merger of Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster. Had two companies tied the knot, the combo “would have accounted for nearly 30% of all consumer-book sales in the U.S.,” according to the Wall Street Journal, citing NPD BookScan data.
¶ Show me the data! Arguments in the PRH/S&S case produced a lot of talk about book sales. This tweet, as you can see by the number of shares and likes, left a dent.
Turns out it was wildly wrong. Most sales data in publishing comes from NPD BookScan, which gathers it from retailers. It’s somewhat incomplete, but it’s the best info available; I used it every day when I acquired books at Thomas Nelson. The problem, as Lincoln Michel points out, depends on what we’re counting as a “book,” as “published,” and as “sold.” It’s squishier than you might guess.
“Data is a funny thing. It can be sliced and diced to create different types of views,” says Kristen McLean, BookScan’s lead industry analyst, commenting on Michel’s post. “I think the real story is that roughly 66% of those books from the top 10 publishers sold less than 1,000 copies over 52 weeks,” she says. “And less than 2% sold more than 50,000 copies.” So it’s not as bad as announced but nowhere near as rosy as people might guess.
¶ What makes a book a success? Virginia Postrel, an author I’ve read and enjoyed for years, asks and answers that question at her Substack. Largely, it has to do with publisher expectations, communicated in the size of an advance. That advance—royalties paid in advance of actual earnings—is entirely speculative. “Publishing is very much a gambler’s game,” as McLean says. Publishers use BookScan data to inform those expectations and help determine the scope of the advance based on prior sales by the author or sales of comparable books. This is where, as Melanie Walsh points out, the incompleteness of BookScan data might prove relevant.
¶ Here’s hoping! McLean’s reference to gambling reminded me of this quote from publisher William Jovanovich. It’s from his book Now, Barabbas, which I read in 2007 or 2008.
Of publishers it may be said that like the English as a race they are incapable of philosophy. They deal in particulars and adhere easily to Sydney Smith’s dictum that one should take short views, hope for the best, and trust God.
¶ What about data from other outlets, say, library lending? Most libraries don’t track and compile this sort of data but some do. Walsh looks at the Seattle Public Library’s attempt to build their own database. They only started compiling data five years ago in 2017, but they’ve got data going back to 2005. How? They found it hiding in plain sight.
It turns out that while the SPL system itself was not collecting any data between 2005 and 2017, somebody else was, and that somebody was storing the data in an unlikely place within the library itself: in an art installation that hangs above the information desk on the fifth floor. This installation, “Making Visible the Invisible,” was created in 2005 by artist and professor George Legrady, and it features six LCD screens that display real-time data visualizations about the books being checked out and returned from the library. Somewhat miraculously, the SPL was able to mine this art installation to recover 10 years of missing, retroactive checkout data.
Walsh is using the data to study trends, such as how events like the pandemic affect borrowing habits.
¶ The little house that could. Publishing often “feels like you’re just digging a hole in the ground and chucking money into it,” says publisher Jacques Testard, who founded Fitzcarraldo Editions in 2014. Since then, according to this delightful profile in the New York Times, three of the company’s authors have won Nobels for literature and one has garnered the International Booker Prize, a prestigious award for translated literature (a dozen of their titles have been nominated for the International Booker). Fitzcarraldo’s success stems from Testard’s sense of what’s marketable, informed by his unique background—that and possibly his mix of gambling and loyalty. “Risk-taking and having a commitment to authors over time,” he says, “really does work.”
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