Thursday, June 4, 2009

What's hot and what's not: Bookscan's 20-20 hindsight

HALLIE: Trying to figure out what’s happening in the book business? There’s a fascinating slide presentation from the Nielson Company on the retail perspective.

The data is from BookScan which has been collecting sales numbers on book sales since '01 from 12,000 locations nationwide, including bricks-and-mortar and on-line booksellers like B. Dalton, Borders, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Costco, Powells, and others, but apparently not including small independents.

Trends over the last 5 years:
* Adult “general fiction” sales -- UP more than 23%
* Adult “mystery/detective” fiction sales -- DOWN almost 13%

And 2009 doesn’t look as if it’s going to improve the picture. SO FAR:
* Adult “general fiction” -- DOWN over 3% compared to 2008
* Adult “mystery/detective” fiction sales -- DOWN almost 20% compared to 2008


Here’s an interesting breakdown showing 5-year sales trends for mystery/detective fiction:
* Women Sleuths -- UP 9.44%
* General -- DOWN 17.80%
* Espionage -- DOWN 20.68%
* Series -- DOWN a whopping 65.16%

Of course, it’s hard to interpret these numbers. They reflect as much what’s selling as what’s available, and the latter is a function of the decisions publishers are making about what to publish.

So what’s hot over the last 5 years in this cold market?
* Comic/Graphic Novels -- UP 52.68%
* Juvenile -- UP 36.22%

Where are books selling over the last 5 years?
* Atlanta -- UP 20.57%
* Seattle/Tacoma -- UP 15.19%
* Washington, DC -- UP 9.20%
As compared to
* Denver -- DOWN 5.04%

So kids, reading the tea leaves…we should all run right out and write a graphic novel for kids, set in Seattle with a female sleuth. Right?


  1. thanks Hallie, can you see how my eyes are crossing? I suppose it could be helpful to know this, but on the other hand, writing to a trend that's already gone by seems like a sure path to disaster.

    I think I'll just put my head back in my hole and keep writing...

  2. I wonder if that has anything to do with book clubs. I was talking to a book club the other night about my own book, and they asked for a recommendation for the following month and I suggested a mystery and they were surprised. Said they didn't discuss them.

  3. And while series are down 65%, Eisler still seems to be doing well with Rain and Evanovich with Plum.

    Fer sure the beancounters are looking at these numbers and making contract decisions and print decisions and PR decisions based on them BUT all =you= need to do is write a quirky mystery about Guernsey or dream up a protagonist who's a former hit man turned medical intern ...

    It's not about everyone and the averages, it's about the book I write.

  4. I'm with Roberta. And the dirty little secret is that Bookscan is not the be all and endall of all sales figures. Large segments of the marketplace, including Ingram and Baker & Taylor do not report to Bookscan. So that means that most independents and most library systems - which comprise a big percentage of genre fiction sales -are not represented in Bookscan data. If they're saying Barnes & Noble is selling more of what they're calling Fiction and less of what they call series fiction, no kidding. They're also selling more tchotchkes (sp?) And coffee.

  5. Fascinating stuff Hallie. I think Susan is probably right, it has to do with book groups -- although I'm happy to report that my book group does mysteries.

    And if you were actually trying to write to market, you'd want to write to the next five year's market, not the last. Right???

  6. Yes, the data (with all its flaws) inspires all kinds of interesting questions. Is it,as Susan suggests, because book clubs look down their noses at crime fiction? The huge numbers for some literary novels are owed to the sales tsunami when they become book club faves (as when Kite Runner came out in paperback). And Sal is absolutely right--you gotta write what you gotta write. But it does help, as she points out, if it's refreshing and new (as with the talking sheep and the hit man/medical intern). And past performance is no guarantee of future banks and investment houses so presciently told us.

  7. I wish my book group did mysteries, but there doesn't seem to be any interest.

    This year we're doing non-USAn works, rotating through continents and countries. A CASE OF EXPLODING MANGOES from Pakistan, FACTORY GIRLS from China, THE ELEGANCE OF THE HEDGEHOG from France.

    I'm in charge of offering up three African-based titles in another month or so from which we will choose. The titles must either take place there, be written by someone who currently lives there, or be written by an African ex-pat.

    Maybe I'll throw an Alexander McCall Smith into the mix. Or DEATH ON THE NILE. ...

  8. And no one is watching television.

    And no one is reading newspapers.

    So what ARE they doing?

    I was really pleased at the bustle and interest at BEA this year...and from the wonderful ARCs I managed to snag, there are lots of terrific books coming up.

    Even--wait for it--series.

  9. Note too that the numbers shared are by percentage increase and decrease -- trends within the category if I understand correctly. So graphic novels (sales of which might in part be driven by movies recently) might increase by 50 percent, but let's say that's a million books to two million, vs. traditional mysteries dropping from say 100 million to 87 million -- still bigger numbers in total. Incidentally, I probably would've said a couple years ago that I would never read a graphic novel, and now I've read a few. Re, book clubs: the criterion of "discussable" might be an issue.

  10. ...if the 87th Janet Evanovich novel doesn't do as well as the last, doesn't that skew the numbers for all series?

  11. Jeez. My first impulse, upon reading the post was to crawl back into bed.

    But, on reflection (and taking into account that I'm already at the office, and my bed is at home), I agree with Roberta: Keep writing.

    You could drive yourself absolutely NUTS if you allow yourself to be influenced by numbers like these!

    Who is it that said "If you CAN stop writing, then you should"? Anyone posters here think that there are any writers that'll stop writing after reading dismal stats?

    In any event, Hallie, thanks for bringing these numbers to our attention!

  12. Ah, book groups--so many so called intelligent women have told me they only read "literary novels". I pointed out that the best mysteries are the equal to any literary novel and yet their minds have dismissed mysteries as genre trash, only fit for the beach.

    Series are way down? Interesting. I wonder if this has anything to do with certain publishers flooding the marketplace with series so that the quality has become iffy and readers just give up?

    My own sales are doing fine, so I'm not complaining and people like Evanovich and Eisler sell well because their publisher pays to put them on the front table at every chain.

  13. "Anyone posters here think that there are any writers that'll stop writing after reading dismal stats?"

    Yes. I'm thisclose.

  14. Hmm. Statistics like these always give me pause. I'm reminded of the old saying, "Figures lie and liars figure." Which is to say, I'm not sure what to make of the numbers.

    I think your last sentence pretty well summed up the ludicrous nature of trying to somehow tweak our work in response to them. As Roberta pointed out, writing to trends is a losing proposition.

    Maybe we should adopt film industry practices and form focus groups to test out novels before publishing them. :)

  15. I have to say, I have such doubt in Bookscan as a whole that I'm not sure I believe these trends. At least as far as my MMP sales are concerned, Bookscan tallies less than a quarter of my total sales. I've heard that the accuracy level is somewhat higher for hardcovers, but if most of the mystery/thriller sales are in airports and big box stores (which they are) then they're simply not being counted. And as the economy continues to stagnate, I suspect more of the sales are moving in the MMP direction. So the real question is, why does anyone trust the Bookscan numbers since they're so wildly inaccurate?

  16. I would also argue that several runaway book group successes were mysteries: The Lace Reader, Lovely Bones, Time Traveler's Wife...

  17. Wow, Michelle, I'm intrigued. You consider the Time Traveler's Wife a mystery??

    That's my favorite book ever. (I also loved the Lovely Bones)

  18. Seriously, any tips/advice/suggestions for someone who's ready to quit? This business is so subjective. Do this. Don't do that. How do you know if you should keep going, keep writing? How do you know what you're writing isn't pure garbage? The industry sucks right now. Why bother?

    Still anonymous

  19. Stats are for baseball players...I'm with Michelle. To Anonymous, I'd say...why do what someone else tells you to sounds cliched but just write the best book you can and don't worry about the state of the industry. Books have been around - in one form or another - since..what...The Tale of Genji? Probably earlier but that's the oldest one I know of. Anyone know another..Hank..?

  20. Thanks, Rosemary. It a degree. I'm wondering if because there's no much info out there (Internet), those of us who are still plugging away (plodding along?) can get overwhelmed.

    We're told to write the best book we can. Good writing trumps all. Make it shine.

    Then we read author blogs where we learn about copy edits--if that's the right term--that are pages and pages long. Wasn't the book turned it the best it could be??

    I'm trying to write the kind of book I like to read. There are plenty out there. Maybe too many?

    Or maybe because I don't have a good enough hook, a good enough gimmick for a cozy?

    I'm trying not to sound whiny.I know, I know...I should try harder at that too.


  21. My last sentence should've had a smile or grin following it.

    Same anonymous

  22. Hmm, Ro. The story of Gilgamesh? Something like that?
    I have to go Google..

    Michelle, I agree, TTWife is a mystery. Loved it. On lots of levels.

    Oh, anonymous, don't quit. You have to hear no before you hear yes. And I can't tell you the times I spent, so upset, wailing that NO ONE was ever going to buy my manuscript. YOu just--ever know.

    Which is kind of wonderful, if you look at it that way. Who knows what terrific thing is right around the corner? And no one is going to love your book if you don't write it.

  23. TTW was definitely a mystery, albeit a literary one (and darned if it wasn't sci-fi/fantasy too). From the get go, you know something awful is going to happen, but what and to whom unravel slowly over the course of the narrative as it jumps back and forth through time. That was cross-genre fiction at it's very best, and one of my all time favorite books, too.

    I should have mentioned that bookscan doesn't get numbers from grocery stores or drugstores, either. The real question is why isn't there a more efficient system for tracking sales? Apparently in Germany, they can tally up the sales every day for every book. We know all this stuff is computerized, so why isn't there a more efficient clearinghouse? And why can't writers gain access to that information themselves? We live or die by those numbers, apparently, so it seems silly that we have to go through third parties to find out what they are.

  24. Michelle, you ask "why can't writers gain access to that information themselves?"

    Don't they say "knowledge is power"? Can we think of anyone who wouldn't want writers to have The Power? :\)