About Me

A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

& when the fog lifted...

So what did it mean to have Amazon's "buy" buttons removed for certain Macmillan titles?

I could do a really thorough Nielsen Bookscan research project and check 62 things, but I do have a day job so I'm limiting the investigation to books by my clients which I'd be checking anyway, though drilling down a little further into the numbers than I might do for just my ordinary Wednesday report card check.

When we looked over the Bookscan #s for Week #4 ending January 31, all of us at JABberwocky cried, because it was a kind of depressing week all the way around. Numbers on most things were down. And that had really nothing to do with the Macmillan/Amazon dispute. That started at the very end of the week, and since Bookscan gets the figures based on when books shipped, pretty much the entire effect of the disput would be seen in Week #5. And overall, Week #5 was a stronger week for the JABberwocky list than week #4 was.

So for the week when the full impact would have been felt...

For mass market paperbacks, the typical Brandon Sanderson book, the Mistborn series or Elantris, was on average down maybe 1 or 2 percentage points. The typical Charlaine Harris book, which are not Macmillan, was up maybe 1 or 2 percentage points. The Lost Fleet books were up or down but on balance a little up. No pattern to a Simon Green.

But when we drill down one step, there's a breakdown on Bookscan between "Retail" and "Discount and Other," which includes the major internet web sites as well as places like Costco, Target and BJs. For most books, the "Discount and Other" line therefore just means "internet" because the books aren't available at the discount stores. So for Elantris, the Retail line is up 7%, and the Discount line is -67%. So it looks like this was a disaster for Elantris? Well, yes and no. For the typical mass market paperback, which Amazon does not discount, internet sales are relatively smaller than for hardcovers -- and for boxed sets -- where people go on-line to seek out the discount. It's possible that the Macmillan/Amazon dispute cost 25-35 copies in sales.

And we do see some real damage when we look at the boxed set numbers for Brandon's Mistborn trilogy. Sales on these can weight very heavily toward the internet, because the same 3 books that Amazon won't discount singly get a very sweet discount when purchased in the box. For its entire lifetime, Mistborn in paperback has 18% of its copies sold on-line, 17% and 20% for the next two books in the series. The boxed set has sold 35% of its copies on-line. And for that boxed set, retail sales were down 8% from the week before -- and the boxed set was down 45%. Then again, the last week, the boxed set had been down 38% retail/30% discount because fewer of those sell as we get further away from the holiday and gift card season. If I compare -8 to -45 that's a lot, -45 to -30 not so much, but I think it's safe to say that the boxed set had a big hit.

And what about the hardcovers? Well, The Gathering Storm was down -4% retail, -50% internet. The total drop in sales was only 15%, and that's not an atypical drop for a book that's been out for three months, but we may be looking at 150 or 200 fewer copies. We may be looking at fewer copies for Warbreaker.

Halo novels? The mass market of Cole Protocol by Tobias Buckell was -3% retail, -37% discount, -19% "non-traditional" which are supermarkets and drug stores and airport newsstands, and for this book the discount line may include Target or other non-internet discounters. The trade paperback is -9% retail, -31% internet. But this isn't very significant, because the internet sales are a very small portion of the total, as an example 10% of the lifetime sales for the Cole Protocol trade paperback. So even though these books are selling very nicely, and even though the percentage differences are huge, the actual number of copies represented is no more than 10 or 20 lost sales.

But where we really see a major impact is for those books where a few copies are making a big difference, and the balance on retail vs. internet sales is more pronounced.

As an example, Michael Schiefelbein's first "Victor" hardcover for St. Martin's was Vampire Transgression, and sold 26% of its total copies on the internet. The new book Vampire Maker is just out. This isn't a big bestselling book. The series sells steadily in trade paperback and has for many years, but when it loses -72% internet vs. -26% retail, that takes this new book that needs to sell decently to hold its shelf space and you might be losing 8 copies, but that's a significant percentage of the total number of copies that might have otherwise sold last week. Jeri Westerson's Veil of Lies trade paperback was +32% retail, and down 81% on the internet, and might have lost one-third of its total sale last week. Her new hardcover might have lost half or more of its total sale. Jeri's building an audience for her historical mysteries and like Michael Schiefelbein selling steadily. For these authors, even when we're only talking a few copies, we're talking something significant.

So what does it all mean? The Amazon/Macmillan dispute clearly did cost some sales, perhaps even in the hundreds of copies for The Gathering Storm, though even that may have been only 7% of the total number of copies sold last week. For authors lower down on the totem pole, we might be looking at 5 or 6 copies sold, but that could have been half of the expected number, so it's less significant one way but very significant the other. Some of those sales might just get pushed back into the current week. Some of them might have gone to marketplace sales, and in that case if some of the lower-priced marketplace copies were grabbed up last week thus skewing toward higher-priced marketplace copies now, there may be a slight long-term switch in the next two months where people buy a new book instead of a marketplace copy. Other than for authors whose books were going on sale last week or the week before, the blips are probably survivable. For both Macmillan and Amazon, the dispute was attention-getting but any losses to either probably insignificant against what both sides saw as their potential gains in fighting the battle in public.

1 comment:

Helen said...

Thanks for the analysis. I hope this gets worked out soon. It seems to me that Amazon disabling Buy Buttons can hurt mid-list authors who might get dropped due to low sales.

Straight From Hel