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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.

Monday, June 29, 2009

A Bookscanner Darkly

A week or so ago, another agent I know, Andrew Zack, blogged about a negative experience he had with Bookscan.  A book he had on submission was rejected by at least one house because the author's prior sales on Bookscan were not very good.  This frustrated Andrew because the actual sales were much better than what the Bookscan numbers were saying.  There is nothing more frustrating to an agent than to have a book you like rejected for a not very good reason.  Here at JABberwocky we had a manuscript by Fred Durbin rejected by one house because marketing vetoed it even though everyone on the editorial side was enthusiastic, and I found this rather an odd thing to do because a chunk of the book had just been serialized in Cricket Magazine, which to me you'd think maybe the marketing people would think was a nice hook.

I've known Andrew for a very long time.  He was one of the last young publishing up-and-comers to cut his teeth working for Donald I. Fine, and for some categories of work I'd unhesitatingly suggest him; I quite envy in particular the breadth of his non-fiction offerings.  But I don't agree with his assessment of Bookscan at all.

There is one major problem with Bookscan, which is that a fairly full access for one user ID costs a small fortune.  Several thousands of dollars, in fact, so the cost is really prohibitive for a lot of literary agencies.  There are some ways to get some information for less; but if you want to really have fun with this you've got to pay big bucks.   For me, for that kind of thing, cost is almost no object because I've always been fascinated with numbers.  In college, before I had a career in publishing, I would always enjoy looking at the index cards used to track ordering activity at the Community Newscenter locations in Ann Arbor, and it's not like I stopped doing that sort of thing once I actually had a real professional reason to do so.  Imagine how happy I am every Wednesday morning when I can have a week of actual POS sales data for the entire JABberwocky list delivered to my computer.

And yes, the information is flawed.  It doesn't include Wal-Mart, which guards its sales data zealously.  It doesn't include Larry Smith's table at a convention.  It doesn't include a lot of grocery or drug store or similar channels, though they've kind of gone from 0 to 25 MPH in the past couple years first by adding a few supermarket chains like Kroger and Stop and Shop and this January adding Hudson News.  It doesn't include a lot of non-traditional channels, so I was out of luck the same way as Andrew Zack when I tried to market a sequel to a book that was selling mostly through Motherhood Maternity.  Maybe if you as an agent subscribe to Bookscan you can be aware of possibe situations like this and try to address them with a line in your marketing letter, but that may or may not work.  It could just force a house that wants to reject to come up with some other "polite" but silly reason to say "no."  Or maybe they'll believe Bookscan before they believe the agent.  Agents do lie sometimes.  A baseball free agency season hardly goes by when some GM isn't complaining about the mysterious other suitors Scott Boras claims to have, and I'm sure some editors feel that way about some literary agents.

But Bookscan is a tool, and like all tools it can be used right and used wrong.  Right about the time I first got my Bookscan subscription, I noticed that the just-published Crossover by Joel Shepherd was selling pretty danged well for a book that had been taken by Borders but not by Barnes & Noble.  I was able to go to Lou Anders at Pyr and point this out, and Lou was able to go to the sales people at Prometheus Books, and they were able to go to B&N and get them to take some copies of the book.  And this helped turn CROSSOVER from a dubious proposition into a solid enough performer that it's now been chosen to launch the mass market program from Pyr.  A lot of things had to go right for this to happen, but it all started with somebody paying attention to those Bookscan numbers.

And now this year, I was able to notice a sales spike for Adam-Troy Castro's Emissaries from the Dead after it won the Philip K. Dick Award, and I was able to make a good numbers-based case to Diana Gill at Eos and she was able to go to her sales people, and we've gotten some renewed support from Borders for Emissaries and its sequel The Third Claw of God.  It's too soon to know if this will have the long-term payoff that I saw with Joel Shepherd, but again this is at least getting some good use out of the tool.

Of course it costs so darned much, that I'm not sure on strict cost-benefit terms that I can justify how much I pay in order to achieve these victories.  It's a no-brainer for me because of the weird wiring of the Joshua Bilmes brain.  But does it really pull my fat out of the fire near often enough to start saying cost should be no object?


Robert J. Sawyer said...

Fascinating, Joshua! Thank you for posting that.

Vera Nazarian said...

Very interesting indeed, thanks for the inside view.

Gleaning from this, Bookscan, as any other specialized tool, appears to be effective in proper context.