Posted by: Kathy Temean | October 28, 2010

Things You Need To Know About BookScan

Since so many of you have signed book contracts or  seeing the your book hit the shelves, I thought you might be interested in this post that Alan Rinzler had on his blog.  This is important information to know about your sales.

Here’s Alan (make sure you link over at the bottom – there’s more):

An author friend of mine couldn’t figure out why he was having so much trouble selling his new book.  He had a respectable list of published books to his name, a regular schedule of speeches and workshops, and a solid platform in print and broadcast media.

So on a hunch, I looked him up on Nielsen BookScan, an industry service for publishers that reports actual book sales by ISBN number at retailers across the country.

There was the answer in black and white. The sales figures for his last book were dismal.

He was shocked at the news, certain that the numbers were wrong.  In fact, he was only dimly aware of BookScan and didn’t really understand what it was or how it worked.

Big mistake.

BookScan numbers are like an author’s credit rating

All book publishers (and some savvy authors) subscribe to Nielsen BookScan.  The very first thing an acquisitions editor does is check a published author’s Nielsen numbers, when considering a new submission.

Nielsen BookScan tells the naked truth about how many copies a book sells. It produces weekly tallies via electronic links to thousands of cash registers across the country. This is no guess or anecdotal report. It’s all ka-ching, straight from the till.

The numbers may as well be carved in stone.

“We only report what we receive from cash registers, and we never change our numbers,” said Jim King, the go-to guy for book publishers at Nielsen in a phone interview at the company’s White Plains, NY offices.

“The book may have sold additional copies, but not through our reporting outlets. An author’s book might have sold at non-reporting retailers like Wal-Mart or book clubs, but we have no way of including that.  So there’s no way anyone can request us to change an ISBN report.”

Recent BookScan results may determine whether a book is acquired

The most recent Nielsen numbers will therefore have a powerful impact on whether or not a book is acquired in the first place, since publishers take these numbers as indications of the new book’s potential success.

Poor recent numbers may put a damper on a publisher’s enthusiasm to sign up your major new opus. I’ve known authors with a long track record of success slip into a marginal status with a single recent sales failure.

Brutal but true.

How Nielsen numbers impact bookseller orders

Even if a book is ultimately appealing, recent low Nielsen numbers will impact the all-important realistic projections for the new book’s potential sales.

This can affect not only the advance, since most publishers predicate the amount paid on signing on projected first year sales — but also the first printing.  That’s because sales reps know that the major accounts will also consult Nielsen as well as their own internal records to determine how many they’ll order of the new title.

In some case, they may actually pass. That’s right, book buyers may skip ordering any copies at all if the author’s last book had unimpressive performance numbers.

How Nielsen collects sales data

Nielsen says that they cover about 75 percent of retail book sales in the United States.  In a typical week, they track sales of more than 300,000 titles by their ISBN numbers, at nearly 13,000 retail accounts in the United States, including Amazon, the national chain stores like Barnes & Noble, Borders, Books-A-Million and 450 independent bookstores (extrapolated from 1700 total.)

Other sales outlets include some big box discounters like Costco, Target and K-Mart.  Recent additions are some “non-traditional” book retailers like Starbucks and Toys “R” Us.

Keep in mind that Nielsen’s 75 percent of total is an average, depending on where each individual and unique book actually sells. In cases where a book sells primarily in normal retail outlets, the report may be closer to 100 percent accurate.

All this means that we have weekly access to honest sales figures that can’t be altered by agents, publishers, or authors themselves.

A loophole – not all sales are recorded

But as Jim King told me, there’s a caveat.  BookScan’s numbers don’t include sales from every source.  Wal-Mart sales, for example, are not included.  Non-traditional retailers like gift stores and other specialty shops that include books in their product mix aren’t usually hooked up to Nielsen.

Nielsen may also capture fewer sales when significant quantities of your book are sold primarily through the mail, or book clubs, or when the author sells the book directly at non-book store events like trainings and workshops.

Keep in mind also that BookScan didn’t go live until January of 2001, and didn’t begin accumulating data until that time.  So Nielsen won’t have data on books published before then.

This loophole gives authors an opportunity to provide a more accurate picture of their total sales record — if they have the documentation to prove it.

Click this link to read Alan advice to writers.

Talk tomorrow,



  1. The business end of this business is SO sobering *sigh* There’s SO much to be aware of, so much to keep on top of! Thanks, Kathy, for keeping on top of something so important 🙂


  2. Again, good stuff. And I was searching through your archives for other info. Your the best!!!!


  3. **You’re** instead of your, oops! 🙂
    I posted my comment before I had my first cup of coffee, not sure if both my eyes were open–LOL.
    Does anyone else check their favorite blogger/s before their first cup of coffee?!


    • Chris, typos like that drive me crazy too lol And since I’m a nightowl (which I’m working on changing), I’m always up when Kathy posts them after midnight, so I’m usually checking stuff then. I AM getting better—well, in a fluctuating type of way—with going to bed before midnight. It worked for two nights, then it got later again. When I go to Barnes at night, they close at 11, so I can’t fall asleep early *sigh*

      But I completely understand your need to correct the mistake! I would always correct my typos on forums, but esPEcially here, right? I mean—WRITERS are reading! LOL


      • LOL–Donna. Nothing wrong with being a night OWL!


  4. I know that reports it’s sales numbers to BookScan and will do wholesale orders for things like books signings etc.


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