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Posts tagged ‘Bookscan’

Publishing’s Bellwether

Welcome to the farm, today, where I’m leaning on my oak crook and feeling the gentle breeze in my hair and watching the lambs cavort. I’m also keeping a weather-eye on the sky, and listening to the animals as they move from place to place. Amanda’s dealing with real life, and I’m lost in a memory… 

A bellwether, in shepherding terms, is the leader of the flock. It would either be a sheep or a goat, depending on the sort of herd (and some weight given to the native intelligence of the animal individually) and it wore a bell on a collar. The bellwether was the critter always out in front, and the rest of the herd would slowly drift in his wake, nibbling and straying, but driven by their instincts to stay with the bell, with the herd. The shepherd (or goatherd. Anyone read Heidi, rather than watching the saccharine movie? Did you know there are sequels?) would follow along after the bell, keeping an eye out for strays or lambs that didn’t know enough to follow the bellwether.

In business terms, the bellwether is the indicator of a trend. In publishing, it currently seems to be ebooks. I posted Dorothy Grant’s post about the implications of the recent Author Earnings report on my facebook timeline, and got a comment: “her article is not correct in its specifics. The graphs are about Kindle ebook sales, not books in general.” My immediate answer, which then led to this post, was ‘That’s because there is NO way to get accurate data on books in general, so the bellwether is ebooks, which are trackable.’

See, here’s the thing. Print books are, in theory, externally trackable through the Nielsen BookScan data, which is notoriously unreliable. In theory, publishers ought to know what their sales numbers are, but there are two problems with that data. First, they aren’t going to release proprietary and sensitive information to the public. Secondly, publishers themselves often rely on BookScan, and as Dorie Clark writing for the Harvard Business Review put it “Shockingly” slow and outmoded: “Publishing through a traditional house? Most of us get weekly Nielsen BookScan reports—courtesy of Amazon—and sales figures every six months from our publisher.” Studies compiling data from both BookScan and the Association of American Publishers have ‘holes’ in their data. “The AAP and Nielsen data, while providing useful information that can point to important trends, does have some holes. As mentioned, AAP data doesn’t cover the entire industry, while Nielsen BookScan data doesn’t cover e-books. And lack of reliable e-book data is the most important omission.”

And here is where the most recent Author Earnings Report comes in. “Here at AE, over the last seven quarters we have steadily built up a comprehensive database of quarterly cross-sectional snapshots of the Kindle store, each of which captures between 45% and 60% of Amazon’s daily ebook sales. And while Amazon’s Kindle store alone doesn’t comprise the entire US ebook market, it does account for 67% of all traditionally-published ebook sales…”

While that might not seem enough, as the report points out, it is better than the claims being made on less data by PubTrack.

“The confusion is worsened by Nielsen’s misleading claims about their new PubTrack data products, which sell statistics about the US ebook market. PubTrack collects ebook unit-sales data from “a panel of over thirty US publishers,” according to Nielsen, who then sells that data back to the publishing industry at large. The fact that those Nielsen ebook sales numbers come from only 30 publishers, however, doesn’t stop Nielsen from claiming that their PubTrack numbers represent “85% of the nation’s eBook sales” and drawing broad and unsubstantiated conclusions from them.”

So if we go back to the bellwether metaphor, and the shepherd trying to keep track of his flock, we suddenly see that print data is like a sheep wrapped up in an invisibility cloak, trying to avoid his annual haircut.

Shrek the sheep, who hid to avoid being fleeced...

Shrek the sheep, who hid to avoid being fleeced…

I ran across an article very recently, and as I was assembling the material for this post about sheep, goats, and books, I knew I had to include the concept of scapegoats. In the publishing industry, the scapegoats are the books and authors that pay for other books and authors to be published. Oh, they aren’t given any choice, not any more than the goat which was symbolically bound with the sins of the people, and then sent into the wilderness to die alone.

Instead, the popular, best-selling books, are bound with the production and promotion costs of the prestigious and award winning books. “Washington Post critic Ron Charles reviews the kinds of books that get nominated for literary awards. These are not the blockbusters, the books written by the likes of Stephen King and Nora Roberts that make millions. Charles knows that. Even so, he was dismayed when he saw a story about the sales figures for the novels long-listed for the Man Booker. The list included The Green Road by Irish author Anne Enright, who’s won the award before. “When I saw that Anne Enright — [who] I think of as giant in literary fiction, beloved around the world — could only sell 9,000 copies in the U.K. I was shocked, that’s really low,” he says.”

The numbers for the potential Man Booker Prize winners? Tyler’s book has sold 20,102 copies in total across all editions through Nielsen BookScan. As well as being the biggest selling book of the Man Booker Dozen, it is also the book which has seen the most copies sold since the longlist was announced in July – selling 7,680 copies since then. Most of this is down to the release of the paperback last week, which sold 7,115 copies.

Anne Enright’s The Green Road (Jonathan Cape) has sold 2,355 extra copies since being longlisted, for a total of 8,938.

Hanya Yanigahara’s A Little Life (Picador), which was published three weeks after the longlist announcement, has sold a strong 7,542 copies since 13th August. Yanigahara’s book is currently the favourite to win the prize at William Hill, with odds of 2/1 at William Hill, while Paddy Power is offering odds of 9/5.

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James (Oneworld Publications) has sold 6,694 copies across all editions in total, more than double (3,471 extra) what it had sold before the announcement.

Andrew O’Hagan’s The Illuminations (Faber & Faber), has sold 457 copies since the longlist was announced, for a total of 3,273 copies.

Lila by Marilynne Robinson (Virago) has also sold strongly with 12,184 copies total for the hardback, but only 625 copies are from after it was included on the longlist.

Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island (Jonathan Cape) has sold an additional 589 copies, going from 922 before the announcement to 1,511.

The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota (Picador) had sold 413 copies before the announcement and is now on 1,302, an increase of 889 copies and Anna Smaill’s The Chimes (Sceptre) has risen almost as much – from 411 to 1,008.” 

So the books that pay off for the publisher obviously subsidize the books that are published solely on ‘literary merit’ and the scapegoat trots off blithely into the desert to take his chances with the fickle public. With the rise of Indie Publishing, the scapegoat is no longer a necessary thing. No one can force an independent to bear the burdens of his less fortunate fellow authors, who write for awards rather than to sell books and make money.

The flock is hearing that bell jingle, and they are changing their path to follow him toward the good green pastures. “It’s a world where authors with plenty of Big 5 sales experience choose to say, ‘You know what, I’m not playing this game any more.’ Where authors make a positive choice to walk away from the terms offered by good, regular publishers. This new era of publishing is one where authors have a meaningful choice.”

I spent a couple of years as an apprentice shepherdess when I was a teenager. I grew up with a small flock of goats, and I can assure you that not all sheep are dumb, the flock instinct much-mocked is a vital survival tool for them. Goats, kept with sheep, quickly become the trouble-makers, the leaders of the flock, which is why one is usually the bellwether. The goats, in the publishing world, are the early-adopter Indie authors, getting through the fences any way they can to reach the less-worn down grass. The goats know where the noms are, and the sheep will follow them around the gatekeepers. In publishing, we follow that bell to the market.

And finally, don’t stop listening for the bellwether. Today, it’s ebooks and Amazon. But take your attention off the market indicators, and you might lose track of the flock and get too far from the market, getting lost in the process. Amazon might not always provide the greenest pasture, so pay attention to the industry blogs, keep up with the data, and don’t be afraid to move closer to the leading edge. Maybe you can be the bellwether for a while.


And so it begins

Some of you may remember how, approximately two years ago, several of us here started raising concerns about agents and literary agencies branching into publishing. We raised the question of conflict of interest (after all, how can an agent represent an author’s best interest in finding the optimal publishing contract when another arm of the agency is also a publisher?). Then there was the debacle — actually, it was pretty damned good theater — of Sarah’s detailing how she was ending the relationship with her agent at the time over these same concerns (there were other concerns as well, but the agency adding publishing to their duties was the tipping point.) Since then, more and more agencies have added what has sometimes been called agent-assisted publishing arms. The justification for such activities has been not to go into direct competition with traditional publishers but to give their clients an alternate way to bring out their backlist instead of doing it themselves.

Now, if I were a trusting soul, I’d buy that and never worry about conflict of interest. But I’m not a trusting soul and I’ve been waiting for the next phase of this agent/publisher mishmash to occur. Color me not surprised when one of the first pieces of publishing news I see this morning is the announcement that Skyhorse Publishing and International Transactions literary agency have inked an agreement to form a new imprint. Yep, you read that right —  a publisher and a literary agency are forming a publishing partnership.

You may remember Skyhorse Publishing. I blogged about the company back in April when it was announced that Skyhorse and Start would be taking over Night Shade Books. Back then, my concern was how the NSB authors would be treated in the takeover, especially considering the stories making the rounds about a take it or leave it offer from Skyhorse/Start that didn’t seem to come close to being good for said authors. For once SFWA stepped in and finally authors were given better terms and the buzz around Skyhorse died down.

International Transactions has been around much longer than Skyhorse. From their website: “Since 1975, Peter and Sandra Riva have specialized in international idea brokerage catering to multi-national, multi-lingual, licensing and rights’ representation of authors and publishers as well as producing award-winning television and other media. ” So, not your standard run-of-the-mill literary agency.

Or is it?

My concern still comes down to the potential for conflict of interest. According to Publishers Weekly, the new imprint, Yucca, will “feature both new and established authors who have ‘intent, literary strength, and fresh, new visions.'” Yucca will also be overseen by the head of International Transactions, Peter Riva. Yucca becomes the 12th imprint for Skyhorse and will have 20 books (digital and print) at its debut.

Now, I’ll admit up front that there are few — as in almost no — details about how the new imprint will operate or how it will get its new titles. So far, all I’ve seen about this new venture is the link to Publishers Weekly above and a brief note in Shelf Awareness Pro.  From today’s newsletter: Tony Lyons, Skyhorse president and publisher, said, “As authors, agents, and publishers find new paradigms for publication, we want to be flexible and find new partners with new ideas.”

Flexibility is good. Especially right now in publishing. But I am not so sure that a literary agency — even one that may go beyond what most literary agencies do — and a publisher forming an imprint is a good thing. I’ll reserve judgment until we know more about how they will select their books and what their contracts look like. But, cynic that I am, I still find myself wondering how an agent or agency can best serve a writer when their boss is now the editor for a new literary imprint. So, for all who are considering submitting to Yucca when it opens to submissions — if it does. Again, we know nothing right now about their submission process, contracts, etc. — do your homework first. That’s especially true if you are also considering going to International Transactions to be your agent/representative. I’m not saying they are trying to pull anything. After all, I give the same advice no matter who the publisher or agent might be.

What I will also be looking for is any indication that this is the new “trend” in publishing. So, there will probably be more to come on this topic later.

In other news, sales of print books reported through Bookscan’s retail and club channel fell 2.5% last year. Now, before folks get too excited about this and say that isn’t too bad, note that the sales figures included, for the first time, Walmart sales. So the decline is going to be higher than 2.5%. In fact, looking at the decline in sales for the previous years, that decline is probably a great deal higher. That’s especially true when you consider that, according to the article, “BookScan captures point-of-sale data from outlets that Nielsen estimates sell about 80% of print units.” In other words, it probably captures, at most 50% of sales. Now, from an author’s point of view, it doesn’t matter if it is 50% or 80%, publishers use the Bookscan numbers to figure royalties and that means they are knowingly not paying royalties on every book sold.

Read that last paragraph, especially the last two sentences again. Bookscan /Nielsen “estimates” they are reporting 80% of print sales. So they admit their numbers are not accurate. Yet publishers continue to use these numbers to pay us for our work and they treat these numbers as gospel. Worse, too many of us are letting them get away with it. Why? Because these same authors are still so deep into the mindset that you don’t rock the publishing boat or you will never be offered a contract again or they are so enamored with being published by a “real” publisher that they don’t see the forest for the trees. Either way, authors are getting the very pointy end of a short stick.

So, again, do your research. Decide if the money you will get — if you are lucky enough to get an agent and then a publishing contract — is worth the time and effort you put into writing your book and all the promotional stuff you have to do afterwards. Then ask yourself if you might not make as much, if not more, going with a small press or going indie. I can’t answer the question for you because we each have our own needs and desires when it comes to publishing. For me, there is only one major publisher right now I’d go with — Baen. Other than that, I’ll go small press or indie until we see how things shake out in the industry.

(Cross–posted to Nocturnal Lives.)

Facts, figures and scams. Oh my!

After last week’s non-post, I spent some time last night and this morning trying to figure out just what to  write about in today’s post. There’s a lot going on in the industry and yet so much of it is the same old same old. You have the report from AAP (Association of American Publishers) confirming what most of us suspected: e-book sales have risen past the 20% mark. At the same time, others are predicting the resurgence of print or the death of e-books because their rate of sales increase. Then there are the new and more imaginative ways to scam writers desperate to see their name “in print”. Of course, there is also the continuing story of the Night Shade Books sale. And that’s only scratching the surface.

According to the AAP, e-book sales accounted for 22.5% of all sales in 2012. Ten years ago, e-books accounted for 0.05% of all sales. In the last few years, there’s been a great deal of discussion about where the tipping point would be with e-books. I suggest we have reached it. For one thing, the figures reported by AAP are about as accurate as those reported by Bookscan. AAP is a voluntary organization that is reporting sales reported to it by its members. It doesn’t take into account, as far as I can tell, sales by any number of small and micro presses, nor does it report sales by self-published authors. If we were to take all of those potential sales into account, it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see that e-book sales accounted for over 30% of all new “book” sales last year.

But there is another reason why I say we’ve reached the tipping point. I’m hearing more and more authors talking about how their legacy publishers are refusing to release rights e-books rights back to them even though these same publishers are reporting digital sales on the titles in question that are well below the “in print” figures necessary to maintain the rights. Now, there are several possible reasons for this. The first is that the publishers know the e-books in question are selling more than they are reporting to the authors and are, therefore, an active participant in fraud. Since I’m sure there is no one in publishing who would willingly and knowingly — much less carelessly and negligently — defraud an author, we won’t spend any real time on this. (Besides, I need to quit laughing before continuing.)

What I feel is the truth of the matter is that publishers know just how important a role e-books will play in their continued survival and, like someone afraid of drowning, they are clinging to anything to stay afloat. So they drag their feet when they receive notice from an author demanding their rights back. They’ve learned over the years that authors are hesitant to hire attorneys to protect their rights. There’s still that mentality among too many of us that tells us that if we rock the boat, we’ll go on some blacklist publishers share amongst themselves and will never be published again. The only problem with this is that those authors demanding their rights back are the ones who have figured out that they can make money without having the “big name publisher” putting out their e-books.

Does this increase in market share mean the death of print? Not yet, and probably not for a very long time. I can foresee a niche market for print for years to come. But it does mean we will see a steady movement away from print as the medium of choice. That’s pretty much a no brainer because our kids are more tech savvy than we are. Their kids will be even more so. They will be much more comfortable reading on their screens than we are and that will be their “comfort” read, just as a print book is for so many of us.

All that said, there are those who are saying that because e-books sales grew “only” 41% last year that it has reached the saturation point in the market. Now, let’s face it, that’s just silly on the face of it. But the same qualifiers I put on the figures reported by AAP on the market share held by e-books apply here. Besides, a 41% increase is still a major indicator that e-books are here to stay and will continue to be the major force in publishing sales. This is particularly true when you consider that print sales continue to be flat or, in many areas, fall.

If all that isn’t enough to make your head spin, then the lengths some folks will go to get money out of authors ought to. Anyone who want to call themselves a writer or an author ought to know the first law of writing: money flows to the author not from it. We’ve all heard the horror stories of vanity presses that would guarantee to publish your book as long as you paid a few hundred to many thousands of dollars to buy and sell X-number of the books afterwards. The result was usually that the poor author was out the money and had a garage full of books that he couldn’t give away.

Over the years, these vanity presses have found new ways to market themselves. Unfortunately, they still exists. But now there’s a new twist out there: crowd sourcing. Writer Beware pointed to one that, at least on the surface, appears to be questionable at the very least. Fifty Shades of London is an anthology being touted by Endeavour Press. They are looking for fifty short stories or essays to go into the book. Their project page claims Endeavour Press is “the UK’s leading independent publisher of digital books.” All you have to do is submit your short story or essay of 2,000 words. Oh, wait, there’s another little catch: you have to pay to be included.

That’s right, you pay to be included. What do you get for your money, you ask? You get your work proofed and published in the anthology. No editing. Nothing more than proofing and editing in a book you have to pay to get into. Sounds like a deal to me — NOT!

At least there are only two backers for the project so far. But those two are guaranteed to be two of the first five stories in the anthology, should it be published. How do I know this? Because it is one of the “perks” of being a first backer. For the first five backers at a MERE 50 GBP, you guarantee your place as one of the first five stories. After that, your 50 GBP gets you a place someone in the anthology. Now, what is interesting reading their pledge levels, they are all the same price. You can choose to be among the first five stories, or to simply be included in the anthology, or to be part of the anthology AND receive one of only 10 printed copies of the book, or be part of the anthology and receive five — that’s right FIVE — e-books from Endeavour.

Folks, I repeat, money runs to the author and not from him.

And that brings us back to the Night Shade proposed sale. I wrote several weeks about about how the terms they were presenting to their authors (which really amounted to nothing more than blackmail, imo) were horrid. I wasn’t the only one to do so. Nor was I the only one to question why SFWA seemed okay with them. Since then, the terms have been amended and they are better. Not great, mind you, but at least better. Michael Stackpole has a post here about why he is now going to sign the new contract. While I understand his decision — and would probably have done the same thing — it’s still not a great deal for the authors. But it does beat having your novels, and future novels based on those currently held by Night Shade, from languishing in bankruptcy hell.

The lesson of all these stories is to be sure you know the terms of any contract you sign. Don’t just rely on the fact that your editor or publisher is “a nice guy”.  Failure to pay royalties in a timely manner is a breach of contract. Failure to do so on a regular basis is a warning sign that ought to tell you to start whatever process you have to in order to get your rights back. Stop thinking about your career as something other than a business, because that is what it is. It is your business and you wouldn’t let a distributor of your goods fail to pay you for items they’d already shipped and been paid for if you were a farmer or manufacturer. So why do it when you are a writer?

Money flows to the writer and not from him.