Monday, March 7, 2011

What’s So Great About Those Bookscan Numbers, Anyway?

Wherein I Expose Myself as a Bit of a Numbers Nerd

Okay, so a lot of the hoopla and hysteria has died down about Amazon introducing limited Bookscan data to authors. Now that the surprise has worn off and those that were liable to be shocked and dazed have recovered, let’s talk about just how useful a tool they can be. Especially now that we’ve talked at length about the very many different ways success can be measured and achieved, these numbers shouldn’t hold terror for you.

Because yes, I always come down firmly on the side of the more information the better and knowledge is power and any permutation of such sentiments.

Plus, isn’t it better to know if the numbers aren’t great early rather than later? Because if you find out early enough, at least you can do something if you want to. [Note: This is a luxury that applies mostly to children’s and YA books. As I understand it adult books have a much shorter window to ‘make good’ and by the time you realize it’s not happening, it may be too late to do much about it. Kids books, by virtue of their sales channels and distribution patterns, usually have six to twelve months, often longer.]

Important Caveat: You are only allowed to look at and play with your sales numbers if you can be professional about it and not panic and whine to your agent or editor. If numbers make you hyperventilate or break out in welts, best to come back next week. ☺ Also? Don’t engage in any of the following activities while you are in an active, creating phase. Save it for a fallow or dormant time.

So the first thing to do is begin recording your weekly sales numbers (by book) on a spreadsheet of some sort—either computer based or plain old paper. The thing is, four weeks of data is pretty much meaningless. It is putting that data in context where we can see patterns and trends and directions. So record your weekly sales. Not only are you compiling important information, but it is also a great metaphor/microcosm for the cyclical, up and down nature of publishing that you can see with your own eyes. Your book might spike one week, then be on a downward trend for the next two, then spike back up in the fourth week.

If you have more than four books out, as I do, and you only see three titles listed in the graph then a nebulous “other” listing, you CAN find out your sales numbers by individual title. Up at the very top left corner of the screen where it says All Books, there is a little orange arrow. Click on that to reveal each individual title’s numbers. (I actually just found this out last week.)

One reason it can be so helpful to see this information real time is that, if you’re lucky, you might be able to detect a cause and effect with your marketing efforts. After a series of Skype visits, or a blog tour, or school visits you may be able to see your numbers move, which will be a good indicator of which type of activities have an impact on your sales. However, it is also important to remember that sometimes the impact a particular activity has may not show for a while, so only use this in a reinforcement type capacity—not as a means of eliminating stuff.

See if you can get your agent to finagle some sort of performance expectation from your publisher or editor so you’ll have a benchmark you know you’re shooting for. Although a good rule of thumb is the goal of earning out your advance within the first 12-18 months, that is only one, very rough, measure. There are lots of others.

For me, where the Bookscan data has the greatest value is in the geographical breakdown. With these geographical numbers, you can do a much, MUCH better job of targeting your marketing and promotional efforts and therefore achieving a much better return on your investment.

The darkest blue areas are where you have the highest concentration of sales, the medium blue the second largest, and then the light blue is the third largest. For ease of discussion I’m going to call them Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3 areas respectively. If you know where your sales are strongest, you can really tailor your marketing and promotion efforts, thus saving time and money and most importantly, energy.

For example, if you were going to do a post card mailing about your newest release to indie bookstores, it would make sense to perhaps start with the Tier 2 and Tier 3 areas, with the assumption that the Tier 1 areas are already big fans and well aware of your new release. However, you could send those Tier 1 bookstores some bookmarks or thank you notes for their support. A postcard or mailing you sent to the areas where you have few or zero sales would be more along the lines of an introduction.

Or let’s say you wanted to mail out some brochures about your availability to do school visits. Clearly it makes the best sense to mail those to the geographical areas with your highest level of sales, because you will have greatest name recognition there and most likely schools and libraries will have heard about you and be excited about your work and therefore more interested in having you come visit.

The same would apply if you were trying to put together a do-it-yourself book tour. It would make sense to target those areas where your books did pretty well to begin with so the bookstores could use your name as a draw and have a better chance of bringing in an audience.

Or if you wanted to do a mailing to key public and school libraries, perhaps it would be best to focus on your second and third tier regions to build on your mid-level market penetration.

Or maybe you can see that your books do really well in urban areas, but there are certain urban areas you haven't made a dent in. Perhaps those areas could use some of your marketing energy and resources.

You get the idea...

Hopefully all this number talk hasn’t given you a bad case of hives and you can see that this data holds some great potential for us authors, if we just spend some time thinking about how best to use it, other than using it to feed our paranoia. ☺

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I want to thank everyone who weighed in with their time management suggestions last week! I will be adding them to the body of the post soon. In the meantime, I’d like to announce the winner of the book drawing is . . . Donna Gephart (aka Wild About Words). Donna, email me and I will get your signed copy of Mitali Perkins’ Bamboo People in the mail to you!


Anna said...

Great advice! Thanks for the marketing tips (and for ways to calm down after seeing those numbers).

liz said...

Okay, I MAY be breaking out in hives now, but it's still a very helpful article. Thank you.

Gabrielle Charbonnet said...

I didn't even know one could do this. Very useful information, and good marketing tips. I don't think I want to know my numbers.

Wild About Words said...

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you! I will look forward to receiving Mitali's book. Wahoo!

Natalie Aguirre said...

Thanks for sharing. I don't have a published book yet or even an agent. But I found it helpful. Thanks.

Carin Bramsen said...

I didn't even know about the availability of Bookscan numbers until I read this article, so I am much obliged. And I love your ideas about what to do with that info.
Thank you!!!

Benjamin said...

This sounds ultimately confusing for a sales tracking system! (Referring to the color charts used to show market penetration). Is it like a population density chart that uses the colored circles to show the size and density of urban areas?

Lena Coakley said...

Put me down for hives as well. But you're right--knowledge is power. Thanks for a really clear, concise and helpful post.

Rae Carson said...

Fabulous post. Thank you! And thank you for saying that knowledge is power.

I'm hoping the information age moves authors and publishers toward more of a partnering philosophy. Making Bookscan available is a good--if scary--step.

Audrey said...

I always suspected there was some useful purpose out there for those numbers. Thank you for pointing me in the right direction.

Anonymous said...

The geographical info is provided in the form of a map. The map is shaded: darkest blue in the areas where the most copies were sold, white where no copies were sold. The actual number of copies sold in each area is also provided in a sidebar next to the map. Also, if you hover over a spot on the map, a box pops up to show you how many copies were sold there. It's actually pretty easy to use.

R.L. LaFevers said...

So glad you all found the information helpful, and very sorry about the various hives, welts, and hyperventilating they may have caused. :-)

Rae--I am 100% with you on that partnership concept! It seems like the only way to survive the coming complex times.

And thanks, Anonymous, for stepping up with an explanation for Benjamin!