13 December 2007

Missing Sales Targets

Target? What target? Given the way the publishing industry reports "sales" — and the fact that they really aren't sales most of the time, but merely placement of copies on consignment — it's entirely unsurprising that Ron Hogan of Galleycat and Hillel Italie of the AP can't agree on what constitutes a "hit" or a "miss" in 2007 book sales. I was somewhat amused to note the reliance on Bookscan as a data source. As Hogan noted in the body of his article, Bookscan doesn't reach the library market; neither does it reach college bookstores, big-box stores, direct sales, or book clubs.

In the bad old days, I might have given the following composition assignment:

Compare and contrast 'sales achievement' awards in theatrical film releases, recorded music releases, and printed book releases. Ensure that all comparisons and contrasts rely only upon data drawn from congruent data sets.

Of course, that's a trick question: There exists no congruent data set that one can construct among those three entertainment markets.

  • Film "sales achievement" is based solely upon box-office gross, and never bothers to include such things as charity performances, tape/DVD rentals, or tape DVD sales. It also fails to account for the number of people who don't see an entire film because they left the theater in disgust... or who went to a film solely for the purpose of making out in the back row of a darkened theater (how else does one get guys to "chick flicks"?).1
  • Recorded music "sales achievement" is based solely upon units sold of a particular performance — not a particular work — and never bothers to include such things as exposure through concert performances or radio (or, worse yet, Muzak and other derivative works). Further, it does not consolidate differing performances of a single composition; that is, you won't find any "sales achievement" award for Ray Davies' "You Really Got Me" that consolidates sales as performed by his band — The Kinks — with sales by, say, Van Halen.
  • Printed book release data bears about as much resemblance to a true "sale" as Hollywood box-office receipts bear to true "profit," particularly since the vast majority of all shipments are on consignment... and it completely ignores used-book sales, remainders (an increasingly important market for trade fiction in terms of its actual ability to expose the impecunious to non-mass-market books via the 'net), and book-club editions, and does a startingly inconsistent job of consolidating data across differing editions. And the less said about how collections and collective works get tracked — or, as in reality, don't — the better.

Despite these obvious issues, though, there remains one valid "compare and contrast" issue among these three areas: Theatrical film releases and recorded music releases both use an outside agency — admittedly, an agency with only dubious independence, but still — as part of the "certification process" for their equivalent of bestseller status, while publishing is deathly afraid of allowing anyone to look at its bookkeeping (and is, in general, deathly afraid of allowing itself to look at its bookkeeping). Thus, when one sees that a recording has been awarded a "gold record," or that a film has "grossed $50 million", one can be reasonably confident that — within the confines of the definitions noted above — that represents actual "sales" to a fairly close approximation. One cannot say the same for publishing royalty statements,2 and that's before considering the nonsense of WFH gamescreatureship.3

The less said about sales-tracking in nonprint editions — excerpts, or even entire books, on the web (or even included on a CD-ROM collection with a book purchase, as that publisher often does), or downloaded through reputable third-party vendors — the better. And that's before one even considers the definition of "unit" in "unit sales," which is obvious for theatrical films (albeit less-obvious for television!), at least moderately obvious for recorded music (until one considers, say, Jesus Christ, Superstar and the issues it raised), and completely nonobvious for print publishing... or electronic publishing.

In short, this particular argument resembles two ships in the night crossing the same latitude in different oceans. It's an argument about nothin' (MP3, artist-authorized, slow server).

  1. Neither, of course, does box-office gross properly translate to unit sales. Not only are the default prices substantially different across the nation for the same product — an uncomfortable megaplex seat in the suburbs of Chicago defaults to $10, while it's still less than $7 here, less than 150 miles away — but it also fails to account for student/senior discounts, matinee showings, and so on. Even worse, it does not consider either block-booking or tying arrangements, both of which were prohibited by various antitrust decisions from the 1930s through 1960s but have nonetheless reemerged as increasingly common practices.
  2. My ultimate ambition is to get a royalty statement onto the preliminary ballot for Best Fantasy or Science Fiction Short Story. It is, at minimum, a work of fiction, even if authored — these days anyway — by a relatively automated computer system that is not nearly as creative as Galatea.
  3. Leaving aside whether "gamesmanship" is fairly — or unfairly — gender-specific, it is also species-specific, and some of the games I've seen don't qualify as human endeavor.