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August 11, 2006



I'm surprised by the sales for Fiddlers, should I be? Even if the hc sales are actually triple what BookScan reports, I always thought McBain sold more. A lot more.

I think, however, this is exactly what Otto's bemoaning. He'd say that Weiner's sales are underserved while the other authors deserved more attention. I haven't read any of the books on your list, but if his only reason is the cozy vs. hardboiled distinction as opposed to looking at each book on its merits, then he's just wrong.

It is unfortunate that he'd choose to use his power for evil and not for good.


I'm assuming all those are HC? Becuase Bookscan is totally irrelevant for mass market paperbacks. A book can sell 100,000 copies and only show up as selling 7000. It has to do with whose reporiting and so many of the Kmart/SamsClub etc world aren't.

Ingrid (I.J.Parker)

I don't know what to make of Otto Penzler. The column sounds a bit sexist in the juxtaposition/opposition of Spillane and Weiner.
Frankly, I don't relate to either extreme, but sales figures do not tell you much about quality anyway.


M.J., just updated the post. Harcourt doesn't do mass market paperbacks at all, but it's conceivable that the trade paperback sales are quite underreported. They are also new releases in trade pb (last 1-2 months) so again, too early to tell.

Brenda Coulter

Mr. Penzler has never suggested that good sales are an indication of quality writing. In fact, he appears to believe quite the opposite. So let's hope he doesn't use your numbers to demonstrate your lack of talent.

Thanks for linking to my blog.

Lana Lang

Using this type of reasoning, I guess James Patterson is the best crime writer of all time.


I saw the original draft of this post and it was written on Crayolas. Go figure. Otto Penzler: prescient psycho.

Jason Pinter

This has nothing to do with sales figures equating quality, but everything to do with the fact that many people enjoy the work Mr. Penzler readily dismisses (like this open-minded gem from his column, "The whole Graphic Novel thing has failed to enchant me, I confess"). So heartwarming for someone to "confess" in a column in a major metropolitan newspaper.

The logic seems to be "I don't understand it, therefore it isn't worthy of my intellect."

That's just plain ignorant. Nobody reads every genre or every author, but disregarding entire bookshelves due to personal taste is just ludicrous and offensive. I don't read romance novels, but I'd sure as hell never have the audacity to question the legitimacy of the genre, or "confess" to being so close-minded that I say the entire genre has "failed to enchant me." Millions of people read romance, chick lit and graphic novels, and that's something you'd hope anyone could understand.

This isn't to take away from the many wonderful contributions Mr. Penzler has made to the literary establishment, but there are times where if you see a fool with a megaphone, you need to reprimand them and take it away.

David J. Montgomery

Is it really close-minded to say that graphic novels haven't enchanted you? It's a personal judgment and it seems fair enough.

A lot of things don't enchant me. Graphic novels are certainly one of them. (I think they're a little silly.) Romance novels don't enchant me. Fantasy almost never enchants me, nor do fabricated memoirs.

Is there something wrong with saying that? Some people enjoy such things, some people don't.

Otto's other comments do reveal a cranky, petty and probably biased mind at work. But this is nothing new. He does this every six months to get people talking about him again and get his name in the paper. This is why people don't take him seriously anymore. (Do they?)

That particular statement, however, is not an example of it, in my opinion.

Charles Ardai

Setting aside Otto's comments for a moment, let me weigh in on a different matter: Bookscan is not just an imperfect measure of book sales, I believe it is a catastrophically bad one. I can confirm M.J.'s comment that Bookscan systematically undercounts sales of mass market paperbacks, but I'll go further than this: In connection with hardcover books whose sales figures I know firsthand, Bookscan's sales figures have been off by a factor of anywhere from 4 to 7. In other words, Bookscan did not report 70-80% of the correct number -- it reported 14-25% of the correct number. Now, if Bookscan systematically underreported by a fixed amount or percentage, that would be fine -- you could back out what the right numbers are. But as far as I can tell, it doesn't. For some books it probably does report 80% of the sales; for others, 14%; and unless I'm missing something, there's no way to tell which it is for a particular title without getting your hands on the royalty statement for that book (which, after all, might understate sales but can pretty much be counted not to *overstate* them).

Does this mean that Jennifer Weiner's sales don't exceed the aggregate sales of all of Otto's titles? No. Maybe they do and maybe they don't. It just means we can't have any confidence in the accuracy of any of the numbers.

Al Shuey

I am continually amazed by the number of folks who talk in such an expert fashion about Bookscan and have never used it.

First things first---Bookscan measures RETAIL sales. It does not claim to represent the totality of a book's sales. The library market, for example, is not measured by Bookscan---because they are not retail sales. Therefore, checking Bookscan numbers against a royalty statement would be pointless. Interestingly, for mystery writers, a comparison between their royalty statements and Bookscan sales would demonstrate how beholden they are to the library market.

Second, it is true that for paperbacks carried by the mass merchandisers, Bookscan is a far less accurate measurement. But Sarah's rubric that Bookscan "isn't necessarily the most accurate measure of how a book is doing" is absolute nonsense. I've worked in the book business for over 20 years, have had access to Bookscan since its inception and it is far and away the most accurate read of how books are performing in the RETAIL marketplace in the history of bookselling.

To me, what seems to really get people all in a knot over Bookscan isn't the inaccuracy of the system---it's the truth told by its accuracy---that in the retail world, the vast majority of books sell in relatively small quantities for a nation of 280+ million people.

Tess Gerritsen

Al, you raise a good point about the library market, which may buy up a large portion of a hardcover mystery author's print run. An author with a respected name could well sell 5,000 or more hc copies to libraries across the country -- even more than what that author would sell on the retail market.

Jason Pinter

From my experience with bookscan, I agree with Charles that it's not infallible by any means, but other than looking at royalty statements it is at this moment, for better or worse, the most accurate way of determining book sales.

In most cases (but certainly not all), bookscan reports approximately 70% of hardcover sales, 60% of trade paperbacks, and 30%-50% of mass market books. They can vary to a large degree, however, and as Tess notes they don't take into account outlets like libraries, independant stores, or Wal-Mart/Sams Club, etc... They can be even more off regarding certain genres (street lit and romance come to mind) where bookscan reports a mere fraction of actual sales, simply because most books are bought from outlets that aren't reported by bookscan.

When publishers use bookscan, they do attempt to factor in all other potential sales outlets. For their own books, though, publishers have databases that contain precise gross/nets.

For most books, bookscan is fairly reliable, but you need to take the numbers with a healthy dose of skepticism. Ironically the authors bookscan seems to underreport to the largest degree are major bestselling authors, who sell huge quantities at Wal-Mart, in libraries, and in airports and newstands, which aren't covered by bookscan. Also, some publishers sell huge quantities of books through direct mail, which aren't taken into account either.

Charles Ardai

In fairness, I should acknowledge that I assume Bookscan does accurately track and report the subset of book sales that it claims to accurately track and report. The problem is that Bookscan numbers are frequently cited as a proxy for "total copies sold" -- and they are a poor proxy indeed for this, because Bookscan not only undercounts sales, it undercounts sales by hugely varying percentages from title to title. This makes apples-to-apples comparisons of many Bookscan figures impossible.

So, for instance, saying "Book A sold 3000 copies on Bookscan and Book B sold 6000" tells you nothing about the relative *total* sales of the two books. It would be incorrect to conclude or suggest that Book B sold twice as many copies as Book A overall -- but that's exactly how I've frequently seen Bookscan figures either explicitly or implicitly being used.

Incidentally, note that there is no logical inconsistency between the statements "[Bookscan] is far and away the most accurate read of how books are performing in the RETAIL marketplace in the history of bookselling" and "Bookscan is not a very accurate read of how books are performing in the retail marketplace." The fact that there's never been anything better doesn't mean that Bookscan is very good -- just that everything else has been worse. And, at the risk of being accused of pedantry, Sarah's use of the phrase "isn't necessarily the most accurate" clearly was idiomatic, meaning not "there exists some other service more accurate than Bookscan" but "Bookscan isn't all that accurate."

Tess Gerritsen

>>Ironically the authors bookscan seems to underreport to the largest degree are major bestselling authors, who sell huge quantities at Wal-Mart, in libraries, and in airports and newstands, which aren't covered by bookscan.<<

That's what I've always suspected, Jason, which must be distressing news for midlist authors. It means that the smaller your hardcover Bookscan number, the more accurate that number probably is. And for blockbuster authors, it means they're selling way, way more than Bookscan would have you believe.


My problem is with people using Bookscan problems in the press since they are only retalil sales of one kind and therefore its too easy to say - the book only sold X when it really sold ten times X.

I'm not saying Bookscan isn't doing what it says it is doing. I just feel for all the authors who see their bookscan numbers used to show they aren't selling well - or not as well as perception when indeed they might be.

That was why I brought up Bookcan in general.

That said - I agree with Sarah about the presumtions in OP's post and agree with David about how irrelevant columns like that have become.


I'm not saying Bookscan isn't doing what it says it is doing. I just feel for all the authors who see their bookscan numbers used to show they aren't selling well - or not as well as perception when indeed they might be.

That was why I brought up Bookcan in general.

That said - I agree with Sarah about the presumptions in OP's column and agree with David about how irrelevant columns like that have become.

Al Shuey

Here is a list of the major retailers who report to Bookscan:

B. Dalton
Barnes & Noble
Chapter 11 Books
Deseret Book Company
Follett Stores
Tower Music and Books
Walden Books

There are also close to 400 independents reporting in, inlcuding Powell's, Tattered Cover, Elliot Bay, etc...

That is a pretty comprehensive list, folks. And the holes that exist only apply to a small sector of the titles published annually. You can try and nitpick it to death---you are book people, after all---but any list that compiles the cash register sales of the vendors cited above has enormous value.

David J. Montgomery

It sounds like Al must be an investor in Nielsen! And apparently he doesn't like "book people" much.

Who wouldn't be book people, by the way? Illiterates? :)

Tess Gerritsen

since we have your brain to pick (I hope you don't mind!) do you know if Sam's Club (part of the Walmart empire) reports? It's not mentioned on the Nielson website And what about those airport bookstores? I'm trying to spot the holes, to understand why certain titles are underreported.

Al Shuey


I can confirm that I have no money of any kind invested in Nielsen---nor am I employed by them. Their numbers make my life easier, and I like to defend them to the hordes.

I can also confirm that I am a "book person" as well, having spent over 20 years working in the business. And I know you've been around the block as well, so don't pretend that you didn't know EXACTLY what I meant by that comment...(smile)...

Al Shuey


Feel free to pick away at what's left of the gray matter...

Walmart as a corporate entity does not report to Nielsen---and my understanding is that this is true for ALL of Nielsen, including Soundscan! And also missing are the lovely wholesalers that supply the airport stores---unless it's one of the major chains, where the numbers would be included under the numbers for that chain.

Jason Starr

It seems pretty obvious to me that if--at the very least--Bookscan isn't reporting libraries, airports, Walmart and Sam's Club, that this is a very large hole.

Al Shuey

Jason---indeed a big hole---IF a book is available in all of those outlets. Not a great percentage are. But for, say, an author published as a trade paperback original,where there is minimal library market and not much distribution outside the book trade, the numbers are scarily accurate.

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