Amazon’s Bookscan Data and the Rise of Data-Driven Decisions

When I wrote Flower Confidential, I found myself hanging out with a lot of business people.  Plant breeders trying to guess what the next hot color in roses would be.  Growers managing large, complex farms and dealing with such issues as labor laws, water conservation, refrigerated trucks, and currency fluctations, all in one day.  Flower shop owners managing employees, inventory, and marketing strategies for their shops.

Business people.  Business people rely on data to help them make decisions.  It's not the only thing they rely on, but it's one piece of the puzzle–and a pretty important piece.  Now that I own a bookstore, I know that at the end of the day, there are a lot of ways to measure how well we did–but one way to do it is with math.  What did we sell, and what did we spend?

So.  After Flower Confidential came out, these business people all had similar questions for me.  Questions like:

How many books have you sold?

What part of the country do your books sell best in?

Do you sell more books to women or to men? Older people or younger people? What's the average income of your readers?

When I told them that I didn't know, that authors never know, that in some cases (such as that last bit) no one knows–they didn't believe me!  They said, "No business runs like that. That's impossible."

Well, that's the book world–the crazy, goofy, wonderful book world.

But here's the thing:  I love numbers!  Give me some data!  (and just to say it once again, before everyone posts this in the comments:  No, numbers are not the only measure of how well a creative work is doing.  Numbers should not dictate, by themselves, your every move.  But they're IMPORTANT.)

So here's why I'm excited about Amazon giving authors access to nationwide sales data via Bookscan:

  • I can track how well my publicity efforts are paying off.  If I do a radio interview in Chicago, I can check the numbers and find out if that interview sold some books.
  • I can track how well my book is selling by city/region.  To my surprise, Philadelphia is the second-highest city in terms of sales for my books.  I'll watch that number over time, and if it continues to hold, I'll work harder to get speaking engagements in Philadelphia (a city I've never even visited), since I know I have readers there who might like to see me on a book tour.
  • I can get a general idea of how many books I sell every month, giving me some ability to plan my finances like a grown-up.  Authors only get paid every six months, and the amount we get comes as a complete surprise.  Nobody can manage a budget or make financial plans for the year on that basis.
  • If I didn't trust my publisher (and I do trust my publisher), I could compare my royalty statement against Bookscan numbers and have some basis for checking the accuracy of those numbers.

Now.  Bookscan only captures about 70% of sales data nationwide.  If a bookstore, gift shop, or other sales outlet doesn't happen to use a computer that uploads data to Bookscan, those sales are not included.  This can really skew the numbers.  My bookstore, for instance, does not report to Bookscan. 

So this is not perfect.  Also, there's no way (yet) to download and save this data to look for trends over time, so any authors who want more than the last 4 weeks of data will have to jot it down.  But maybe that will change.

And of course, there are all kinds of things that we authors do that don't have immediate, short-term benefits in terms of book sales, but are nonetheless important. 

But still.  It's a huge step forward, and I can't wait to hear how authors make use of this treasure trove of data. Let me know!