Why writers never reveal how many books their buddies have sold.
There's a huge demand for metrics on the success or failure of popular-culture products: BoxOfficeMojo reports how much business 36 films did at the box office yesterday. Each week, Nielsen lets the public know the ratings of the top 10 television shows. Billboard ranks the top 200 albums. (This week's No. 1, the Dixie Chicks' Taking the Long Way, sold precisely 525,829 copies last week.) Click on the Blogads order page, and you'll see measures of weekly and daily traffic for hundreds of blogs.
Still, there's at least one sector for which we lack reliable and transparent market data: books. Sure, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today publish best-seller lists. But these lists don't tell us precisely how many copies of each book have sold or the difference in sales between No. 1 and No. 101 or between the leading fiction title and the leading nonfiction book.
The data does exist, of course. 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. But 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.
On occasion, as in this essay in the New York Times Book Review by Rachel Donadio, which flagged the impressive sales of Philip Roth's The Plot Against America (412,000, according to BookScan), flattering figures are presented. Generally, however, when a book is a smash hit, publishers will gladly leak numbers to reporters so they don't have to use BookScan. More frequently, BookScan figures, which undercount actual sales, are an excellent conveyor of schadenfreude. They're used to show how the vulgar prosper, as in this article which shows how many books James Frey sold (subscription required) after Oprah recommended them. Or to show how the mighty have fallen: In February 2005, Josh Benson noted in the New York Times that sales of former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman's book were even more moderate than her politics, having sold "just over 4,000 copies since its release in late January."
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.
BookScan data also become cudgels wielded in political and ideological debates. Last week, Andrew Sullivan joyfully posted on the market failure of Mary Cheney's memoir: "She got a reported $1 million advance. She has had a blitzkrieg of publicity. And according to BookScan's data yesterday, she sold a total of 1,633 books last week. Her year-to-date sales are 4,091." Take that! (But then again, we knew that Mary Matalin's right-wing book imprint wasn't such a good idea.) Earlier this spring, when Matt Drudge excitedly noted that Crashing the Gate, a book co-authored by Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, had low BookScan figures, right-wing bloggers like Roger Simon ran with it and trumpeted the comparative success of right-wing über-blogger Glenn Reynolds' book. Oops, turns out InstaPundit's book wasn't so hot either, as Glenn Greenwald and other bloggers noted.
BookScanning has become popular for a few reasons having to do with the culture of journalism and publishing. In general, the publishing world treats money the way old-line WASPs once did—as a subject that genteel people simply don't discuss. The only question considered to be more indelicate than how much one was paid to write a book is how many copies it has sold.
In addition, many magazine and newspaper journalists—the type of people who most frequently deploy BookScan data—are either frustrated book authors, failed book authors, or moderately successful ones. It makes us feel better about ourselves when we see recipients of undeservedly large advances do poorly. (For the record, I, too, have BookScanned. I used data from the service extensively in this article about business narratives and in another piece to suggest that Steve Brill was doing better as an entrepreneur than as a writer.)
There's an etiquette to BookScanning. You BookScan your enemies to take joy in their failure or to aggravate the agony you feel at their success. You don't BookScan your buddies, your colleagues, or your editors. That's partly to protect the BookScanned from the embarrassment of having others know that the project on which they labored for five years racked up sales in the middle three digits. And partly to protect the BookScanner from the embarrassment of knowing just how successful the guy who sits in the next cubicle has been. After all, the only thing worse than seeing friends fail in the literary marketplace is seeing them succeed in the literary marketplace.
BookScan also has its own karma. There are probably a bunch of authors laying in wait for the day when Edward Wyatt writes his first book or when Andrew Sullivan's next volume comes out. To paraphrase Bob Dylan (whose Chronicles, Volume 1has sold 370,000 copies in hardcover, according to BookScan), the scanner now will later be scanned.
Daniel Gross is the Moneybox columnist for Slate and the business columnist for Newsweek. You can e-mail him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter. His latest book, Dumb Money: How Our Greatest Financial Minds Bankrupted the Nation, has just been published in paperback.