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February 26, 2009


A Completely Superflous Final Reaction To The Use Of Bookscan Numbers

Because of Peggy Burns' mighty performance yesterday top of blog, I'm off the hook in terms of providing a resounding post on the matter of Brian Hibbs and his yearly analysis of the Bookscan numbers. Part of me is glad. I have to admit, I didn't understand half of what was argued in places like this long thread at The Beat. For some reason the arguments were funneled into a structure over how well the works of Los Bros Hernandez sell or whether or not the sales success of Identity Crisis is occasion for high-fives or uncomfortable shifting in our collective shoes. Or something. I'm not quite sure.

Several folks including Hibbs were nice enough to endorse my qualification that the Bookscan numbers should be taken with a grain of salt. Unfortunately, they didn't seem to join me in the rest of that qualification. There are grains of salt and there are times when grains won't do. I'd suggest that just as important as blanket skepticism regarding such numbers is that we realize the more specific the uses we find for such numbers, the more we need to regard them with suspicion. Inaccuracy compounds inaccuracy. Those numbers may taste a bit dodgy a la carte, but toss a bunch of them as a salad and someone's going to the hospital.

imageThe fact that Bookscan reports 719 sell-through from its accounts on Love and Rockets New Stories Vol. 1 while Fantagraphics put 5500 into the total market is something I find interesting not as a measure of sell-through, or L&R's general appeal or the wisdom of the recent format switch. We'll get a much better number for that eventually. I see 719 not so much as a low number -- and it is -- but as a bad number. Non-returnability and the emphasis on initial orders makes Direct Market estimation a much, much firmer and more useful number. Even it's not a perfect one: a lot of royalty statements don't line up with the order numbers in that realm, too. But in contrast to the DM's sometimes suspicious figures, the relative labyrinth of bookstores sales -- the combination of buy-ins and non-returnables and returnables and a longer sales window and warehousing and library sales and stores that don't report -- means that the Bookscan figures should be trusted to carry much, much less.

What do we know for sure? Next to nothing. Heck, maybe Fantagraphics is going to see 80 percent returns on L&RNS Vol. 1. I guess that could happen. My hunch, and you don't have to agree with me, is that when all is said and done and the sales cycle themselves out it's way more likely they'll end up with a figure closer to the 3850 -- a figure they've projected from the vantage point of seven years' experience doing this now with almost no margin for serious error -- than they will to 719. These additional sales will come from a combination of continued Bookscan-reporting bookstore sales, library sales, sales through the non-reporters, sales in the form of non-returnable purchases apparently made by Amazon.com that they'll warehouse while reporting sell-through to Bookscan, sales when volume two comes out, and so on. If I'm wrong, I'll get to write that story, I guess. But I don't think I will be.

Here's the thing, though: even if they don't get near 3850, anywhere they end up between 719 and 3850 remains an indictment of the Bookscan number's utility as a measurable, manipulable statistic. I don't care if a number is 75 percent off or 519 percent off. I don't want to play with it, and neither should you.

Further, let's get one thing clear: there's no continuity and no proportionality between the various Bookscan numbers. This should be obvious in that it's a number we can't predict and a number that is bound to change over time. Just the fact that a number for a book that came out in January is going to be different than for the same book had it come out in November should discredit these numbers' use. It is also to my information-gathering capability the experience of multiple publishers offering multiple titles over multiple years that the Bookscan numbers are all over the place in terms of their ability to predict the final sales figure. Some Bookscan numbers are close to the final result, many aren't, and some are very far away.

So: if such numbers are to be used for rough approximates -- say, "Random House seems to be doing well by DC" -- that doesn't mean they should be manipulated against one another. If someone insists they be manipulated against one another, that's your choice, I guess, but manipulating them against a set of numbers from the DM derived in a completely different manner with different methods, that would seem to be really, really wrong. Toss in the utilization of colloquial constructions -- all the stuff about "one store of this type sold the same as seven percent of all the bookstores in North America" and I simply don't know how anyone can argue that's useful or fair or, really, not outright laughable.

The funny/sad thing about this I'm not sure why anyone wants to argue DMs vs. Bookstores at all. Not right now. It would be awesome if the Direct Market were still moving art and indy-comics the way it did when you could push 9000 copies of Dog Boy through a nation of carry-everything stores. That Direct Market is gone. Recent news seems to indicate a harsher market right now for anything not a Brian Bendis-written team book or without Batman kicking the bucket or lacking the President on the cover than that which existed just six months ago. Twenty years ago is a different world.

Right here, right now, additional markets aren't just desirable, they're necessary. For many people the ability to operate in multiple markets is the difference between publishing and not publishing, and has been for several years now. For some folks, every single market of any value is the difference between making a modest living and making no living at all. For certain companies and titles it's the difference between existence and extinction.

I suppose it could be upsetting if you were a comic shop owner to hear some goofy blogger or a dozen of 'em declare Khrushchev-style that any money spent on promoting to comics shops is money down the toilet or simply trumpeting that the bookstore is clearly the future. I'm not sure people do that all too frequently anymore, but the memory of such proclamations might linger. At the same time, you don't re-assert the truth by bending it. Advocacy shouldn't have to rely on running something else down. The bottom line here is no one in a position of any importance at any company has to my knowledge ever seriously dismissed the still-crucial Direct Market as a place to sell comics. Those same people, these very good people, they also don't get to decide how easy it is to participate in the additional markets they need to pursue to stay alive. I suspect a long and detailed argument over who places what emphasis on what market and who feels bullish about what avenue for sales and who can score points on whom on a comments thread is a luxury that slipped out the side door months ago. We need all the markets right now. We need all our attention facing forward.

I realize that I'm writing for myself at this point, and thank you for indulging me to any extent you have
 
posted 4:00 pm PST | Permalink
 

 
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