1% of Books Sell 5K And Other Misleading Stats
The Massive, Secretive Influx of New Yorkers To Flint
The book world (aka my twitter feed) is abuzz with a recent stat in the New York Times that only 1% of books sold more than 5,000 copies in 2021. (This after a previous stat that only 2% sold that many in 2020). I think this stat might be very misleading!
Also, the book world pretty much overlooked what I find to be a much more interesting story from Publishers Weekly about shifting demographics of book buyers. I also find it very misleading!
I’m going to outline my theories about these articles and stats, but warning: this newsletter contains only theories! No evidence! But I’m writing them up now (and peppering your inboxes yet again) with the hope that maybe you all can help me with evidence and more analysis.
First, on the Bookscan statistic:
1.) Bookscan numbers are artificially low, and thus very misleading. They don’t include library sales. They are heavily weighted towards indie bookstore sales, and indie bookstores don’t stock an enormous range of books. They don’t include, for instance, the direct sales that come to Belt Publishing through our online store. They don’t include any sale that doesn’t involve scanning the barcode. So it’s not clear that one can make any conclusion from Bookscan. You can get a pretty good sense of the range of copies a book might sell based on it, if you are selling the kind of book that gets counted often in Bookscan. But otherwise it’s a dodgy.
2.) How many books total does Bookscan include? Has the total number risen in 2021 over 2020? Over 2015? Self-publishing is booming, so my theory is the same number of books are selling over 5,000 copies as sold that many in 2020, or 2015, 2010. So I want to know the number, not the percentage. I’m not great at math but it seems that this figure might only tell us that that there are more books total being published. Maybe 10,000 books sold over 5,000 copies in 2015, and 10,000 books sold over 5,000 copies in 2021. Same number! Smaller percentage! Because there are that many more books out there that only ever intended to be sold a few hundred times. (self-publishing)
3.) Despite the above, this statistic is very, very good for those of us in independent publishing. This might be the only stat that could convince people to stop chasing the Big Five Big Advance dream—-if people realize from the jump that the number of copies a book will sell will not vary much depending on who publishes it (assuming a range of experienced publishers with a proven track record), they might start to consider other factors when weighing who to sign with. After all, look who won the recently announced International Booker and Pulitzer Prizes for fiction (answer: indie presses).
Now let’s look at this Publisher’s Weekly piece that the book world/my twitter feed found less quote-tweet-worthy. The story is about book sales going down in major cities. The title is “Why Are Book Sales Slipping in Big Cities?”
“Since physical retailers started seeing a rebound in business after the plunge in sales in the early days of the pandemic, Barnes & Noble CEO James Daunt has often said that stores in urban areas are having the toughest time recovering. It turns out B&N is not alone in that regard. Kristen McLean, executive director of business development and industry analyst for NPD Books & Entertainment, noted that sales in most retail segments in big cities are having a difficult time making up the ground lost since 2019. Looking at books in particular, eight of the country’s 10 biggest book markets have seen their sales performances this year through May 14 trail the 15% increase in the overall market compared to the similar period in 2019”
The last phrase of that paragraph is this:
“while many midsize markets have seen substantial gains, according to BookScan data.”
Which, of course, prompts me to ask: why are sales rising in midsize markets???? and even propose an article for Publishers Weekly that has the title “Book Sales in Midsize Markets Are Soaring” That would be a cool thing to read, no?
So what does this article, and not the one in my head, think is the cause of this downturn?
“It has since become clear that the biggest factor is the migration of people away from big cities”
Wait what?? Come on—if that many people had left big cities for smaller ones—enough to skew book buying statistics, clearly quite a lagging indicator—wouldn’t we be reading about it on A1 of the Times?
To be fair to this analysis, of which I’m suspicious but as I’ve said up top have no hard evidence to refute, here’s how it continues:
In the Boston area—where sales were up only 5% (10 points below the industry increase)—the slower growth was due to the switch to remote learning at the city’s many universities, as well as office closures that allowed employees to move to less expensive areas—such as nearby Portland. A similar trend can be seen in Northern California, where the San Francisco Bay Area was the only DMA to have a decline in sales in 2022 vs. 2019, while nearby (about 200 miles away) and less expensive Fresno/Visalia saw book sales increase by more than 16 percentage points over the industry average.
Research shows book buyers are more likely to come from middle- and upper-class households, she added, and these are also the workers most likely to have the opportunity and means to migrate.
Okay, let’s take this information at face value and see how else we might parse it:
1.) There are middle- and upper-class households in smaller markets too! Maybe those people are buying more books?
2.) What other recent factors have emerged during the pandemic that might explain a rise in book buying outside major cities? (BOOKTOK BOOKTOK BOOKTOK)
And now, let’s continue to write the article I want, the one about the boom in smaller markets, and ask: which smaller markets are doing well? Why might those be?
Some questions I have for this list:
—have new independent bookstores opened in these cities recently, and might that account for the increase? B&N branches?
—have bookstores, new or not, started reporting their sales to Bookscan that didn’t report them in 2019, thus creating the increase, but also a false one?
—I am 100% percent confident that the growth in cities I know best on this list—Flint, Grand Rapids, Cincy, and Columbus is not due to a bunch of Manhattanites moving there! 23% in Flint! I mean come on!
As I said up top, I’ve been thinking about these two articles all week, and I’d really love to hear what you all think/theorize about these statistics, and also if any of you have info that might help us untangle assumptions and generate new analyses. Why are book sales are surging (if they really are, and not just being reported more) in the specific cities above?
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