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What is Nielsen’s BookScan?

By Cheryl Bolen

We’ve all heard of the USA Today Bestseller list and would offer our firstborn to get one of our books on the New York Times Bestseller list, but a lot of us are unfamiliar with the list which might very well be the most accurate indicator of a book’s sales.

The Nielsen Bookscan has only been around since 2001--which might explain why a lot of people don’t know about this treasure trove of point-of-sale information. Within the publishing industry, however, BookScan is not obscure. It’s a must-have because of its cash-register tracking data, data that publishers are willing to pay big bucks to receive.

It’s easier to say which retail outlets are not tracked by BookScan than ones which are. Drug stores, supermarkets, the smaller independents, and Wal-Marts (which don’t let anyone track their sales) are not reported on Nielsen’s list.

But all bricks-and-mortar and on-line bookstores report to BookScan. This includes B. Dalton, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, Borders, Deseret Book Co., Hastings, Musicland, Tower Music & Books, Walden Books, Follett College Stores, general independents, Amazon.com, and Buy.com. Discount retailers like Costco, K-Mart and Target also are tracked by Nielsen’s BookScan.

Sales at these retailers are estimated to represent 70 percent of all books sold.

BookScan differs vastly from the periodical lists (PW, NY Times, USA Today) which select "sample" markets for tracking.

Another plus to BookScan’s method is that all books are tallied equally--regardless of whether they are mass market paperback, hardback, trade size, a non-fiction diet book, or religious tract. (This can also be said for USA Today’s list.)

For the past year Nielsen has been offering the 9,000 plus members of Romance Writers of America a low-cost, abbreviated list of the top 100 romance titles sold each week.

Authors who pay $52.50 annually (credit cards accepted) can log on at the RWA website’s Members Only section and see BookScan’s list of the top 100 romance titles sold in the previous week. (Determination of whether a book is a romance is standardized in the industry with BISAC codes.)

The listing tells publisher name, book title, author’s name, this week’s rank, rank in the preceding two weeks, and year-to-date sales. The lists are not archived; so, they can not been retrieved at a later date.

BookScan offers the same package (with mystery titles instead of romance) to members of Mystery Writers of America at a slightly higher cost, $55 for the first year and $57.50 for the second.

Members of the PMA Book Publishers Association pay $799 annually for much more detailed data from BookScan, and the Washington Post reports that at least one publisher, Simon & Schuster, uses that data to determine whether to buy from a particular author.

You may ask why you’d wish to subscribe if there’s no likelihood of your making the BookScan list. A buck a week is a fairly cheap way to monitor the public’s reading habits. Yes, we all know who are selling those Top 15, but wouldn’t you like to know who’s holding down the eighty-eighth spot?

 This article first appeared in Happily Ever After in October 2005.


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