People often ask me about the books I have written, “how many copies have been sold?” And it surprises them to find out that I have no idea. For instance, my book Parentonomics was published initially by UNSW Press and then MIT Press before being translated into, I think, 6 other languages each with their own publisher. For each and every one of them, total sales are a mystery. Sometimes I plead and can find out this quarter’s sales but the overall picture cannot be grasped. And certainly there isn’t enough information to work out if I should write another book or not. And trying to glean this from Amazon sales data is, at best, a rollercoaster of wild changes in rankings. (You might think that some payment might generate that incentive but in reality, for books that aren’t best sellers my interest is in reach because a pure monetary motive won’t cut it when there isn’t much money).
This article in the NYT struck a chord with me. I’m not alone. Just when I thought this sort of frustration was a small publisher thing, here we find out that the biggest publishers have had the same issues.
Dave Cullen, the author of “Columbine,” a nonfiction book published in 2009 by Twelve, part of Hachette, said he had become accustomed to haranguing his publisher for sales data. While his publisher was patient and accommodating, Mr. Cullen said, he frequently wondered why he could not check the same information himself.
“Some of this is the publishers trying to be competitive,” Mr. Cullen said. “And some of it is that they’re opening their eyes. Publishers didn’t realize the frustration that authors have.”
Three big publishers — Random House, Simon & Schuster and Hachette — will now put that information online. This is supposedly in response to Amazon who was vertically integrating into publishing with the hook of providing information. But why was that so hard to do? What barriers could there be to providing authors with information before? Surely, sales data has been electronic for decades. Even if it isn’t online, how hard could it have been to request? Why would this have been something “years in the making”?
Every speculation I have about this is sinister. But the economist in me wonders whether conspiratorial sinister motives could have really sustained themselves for this long. Perhaps publishers kept information for themselves to make it harder for authors to sell themselves to smaller publishers. That said, my guess is that the data existed somewhere and even smaller publishers could assess an author’s popularity.
Anyhow, if anyone has theories or information on the “the iron curtain of book sales data” please feel free to comment on it here.