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Exact Sales Figures: The Needle/Haystack Conundrum

As part of its continuing coverage of the Clive Cussler/Philip Anschutz lawsuit (more on that below) the LA Times delves into one of the key points of the lawsuit – did Cussler grossly overinflate his sales figures – and fans back into the publishing industry’s general cluelessness vagueness of exact sales figures. Finding data about book sales got easier in 2001, writes Josh Getlin, when Nielsen BookScan, a New York-based firm, began compiling information that measured about 70% of the U.S. book market. Yet there is still confusion in the marketplace. BookScan records sales from major chain stores, a sampling of independent sellers, online firms like Amazon.com, plus Costco, Kmart, Target and Starbucks. But it does not track weekly sales from Wal-Mart, religious stores, gift shops, grocers, drugstores and other outlets.

Meanwhile, publishers routinely withhold full sales figures, saying the information is proprietary. The only people legally entitled to know those numbers are authors and their agents. “The publishing business has never gone out of its way to report actual sales numbers because it has no real interest in doing so,” said Albert Greco, a Fordham University economist who analyzes business trends in the book world. “It’s hard to know what’s real. If an author on TV talk says his book has sold 1 million copies, only a few people will know if that’s true.” Especially when announced print runs are about twice the number of actual books printed, the despair of returns at full price and the small number of readers as compared to other forms of media.

“Most books don’t have anywhere near the financial success of movies, even unsuccessful movies,” said Cathy Langer, chief buyer for the Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver. “So if you look at sales figures, it’s not a pretty picture. And when you get so obsessed with numbers, you lose the wonder and creativity that’s basic to the book business.”

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