I think it’s very important for a creator have a broad understanding of their own business. Understanding the book trade and the direct market sales models have been an invaluable chuck of knowledge that Chris and I have utilized over the years. As publishers, we’ve gained a unique perspective and understanding that’s really helped us develop strategies, methods and business practices.
Let’s talk about one of those today. Keeping up with sales numbers.
In order to understand this, we will first need a little lesson on the difference between the book trade and the direct market.
It won’t hurt…much.
The book and comic book retailer is where the rubber meets the road. Point of sale is the end of the line, when the consumer walks over to the cash register and purchases your work. Which is why when Borders, one of the larger book chains in the US went down, people were in a bit of a panic.
Believe it or not, the death rattle of Borders had profound implications on the publishing industry. Publishing will never be the same and has already changed a number of standard business operations to compensate for the loss of shelf space. For example, pre-order numbers will no longer help estimate print runs since Amazon is now the number one seller of books. Why is that? Well Amazon doesn’t take very large initial numbers and thus lowers their return rate. Oh wait, I think I just got a little ahead of myself.
Sorry, lesson on the book trade. Right.
Most publishers have a distributor, who will ship orders out to re-sellers (Baker & Taylor, Ingram) or stores (Amazon, Barnes& Noble, etc.). Some stores will get the books from the re-sellers in which they have accounts. The stores/ re-sellers have 90 days to decided whether to keep the book or return it. They don’t actually pay for it until that 90 day mark and don’t pay for it at all if they send it back during that period. They can also pay for it and then decide later to return it for a full refund.
A majority of distributors pay publishers 45% of sales to re-sellers/ stores at 90 days and another 45% at 120 days with a 10% reserve held for a full 12 months. All to protect the distributor and the publisher from the inevitable stack of returns that come in mostly right before the 90 day mark.
What I have described above are just sales to get the book available for purchase by a consumer. These sales don’t actually indicate how many people bought the book and took it home to read.
Then there was Bookscan.
Bookscan is run by Nielsen (those TV ratings people) who have stores report ‘point of sale’ to the end consumer and then gathers that info for companies with Bookscan accounts. Bookscan numbers are NEVER the total number of end consumer sales since not every store reports to Nielsen. These numbers are a percentage of sales and that percentage can differ from publisher to publisher, depending on distribution model. (I could go on and explain distribution models in further detail but I think we should move on.)
Over the last ten years “your Bookscan numbers” have become a very important indication on how your next book might perform. Editors have been using these numbers to help them decide whether or not to buy a project or not. Which is why mid-list authors are having a harder time selling books, while new authors, with no Bookscan record, are on the rise.
Now that we have covered some basics about the book trade, let’s jump over to the direct market which is all about the comics.
The direct market for the most part is Diamond. Books bought by Diamond from publishers/ distributors are non-returnable, which means they ain’t comin’ back. The main customers of Diamond are comic shops since the majority of their products are comics and comic book related stuff. The terms are a basic net 30…and scene.
Ordering for these titles is typically due three months in advance of shipping with the opportunity to add to your order about month before the title ships (this varies from publisher to publisher and can result in a lower discount for the retailer unless the publisher decides to eat the up charge).*
The comics publishers know their sales numbers because they know what Diamond ordered since once the book goes to Diamond there isn’t any chance of the book coming back for a refund. This system does rest on the backs of the retailers (unlike the book trade) and thus they will not try to order more books than they think they can sell. If they do order too many, they lose money.**
It’s difficult to get access to Bookscan (it’s expensive unless you own a publishing company and your distributor gives you access for free). I’ve heard of writers getting together to pay for a subscription. This might be worth it if you are a prose writer, and even though the trade collection is the one that may pay a royalty, comics pros live and die by the single issue.
Fortunately there are public estimates of Diamonds sales numbers for trades and single issue comics available online. ICV2 publishes an estimate of what the Diamond numbers are for the top 300 single issue books and trades every month.
Which is awesome! Now here’s what you should do with this valuable intel.
If you have a project that is currently being published, keep track of your numbers. Copy and paste them into your own spreadsheet and calculate the change in the numbers.
Are stores ordering less of the book? Are they ordering more? Are there any re-orders at the bottom of the list?
Pay attention to the overall trends in the market. For the most part, comic and book sales have been on the decline over the past few years. Is your book declining at the same rate as the overall market? Is it doing better? Do the order numbers seem to be stabilizing? How are books comparable to yours performing?
Have a project you are trying to sell? What do the sales numbers look like for each publisher? Again, how are books that are comparable to yours performing?
Wait, why is this all important to you the writer, artist, creator?
Cause with all this knowledge you can know how your book is REALLY doing and helps to inform you why publishers and retailers are making the decisions they are making.
As well as all kinds of other stuff.
Are you on the verge of being cancelled? Or are you building capital that you can turn into a better deal on your next book. Is it worth trying to pitch to ‘publisher X’ when their top-selling book is only selling 3K? Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t.
Is the publisher going to earn out? You really care about this one. Why? You want the publisher to ‘earn out’ and get their investment in the book back and then some. Cause if they don’t, the likelihood of you selling them something else is slim.
Also, if you already have an established record, any publisher/ editor you pitch is also looking at these numbers to determine risk factors.
Don’t you think you should know what your own report card says?
I do. I look at it all the time.
*Since I am not a comics retailer or a comics publisher, nor have I ever been, I would LOVE someone to give me more details on this ordering procedure so I could post it here. Not entirely sure I have it all correct since it is not something I am completely familiar with. You can email me at allisontype at gmail dot com .
**See Brian Hibbs talk about this in his excellent column.