The Great Bookscan debate continues. Rich Johnston has helpfully leaked the actual chart so everyone can play along at home. ADD, Brian Hibbs and Dick Hyacinth all weigh in with second third or 99th rounds — to be honest we’re beginning to get flustered and lose count.
We would agree that the argument over the definition of terms like mainstream, indie and art is getting a little silly, and everyone’s pre-existing conditions are making themselves heard loud and clear, as when ADD turns this
Also worth considering is how perception of Bone has changed over time. When it first debuted, it was so different, so much better than the vast majority of comics, that I think one might have been justified in lumping it in with Eightball or Yummy Fur (I know I did, back in my late teen years). Today, with the massive success of the Scholastic printings and the sheer number of similar works (many inspired by Jeff Smith), it’s harder to classify it that way.
Dick Hyacinth looks at the Bookscan kerfuffle, and is sharp enough to understand exactly why Bone is an art comic, which some people you would think would know better weren’t able to quite wrap their brain around.
It’s getting so we’re almost ready to turn it all over to the brave few like John Mayo and John Jackson Miller who just crunch numbers on a higher, Euclidian plane.
Just to beat out own hobby horse again, yes, we know that Bookscan figures don’t tell the whole story, and they shouldn’t be used to paint a much-beloved graphic novel as a failure just because it sold “only 5000” copies according to Bookscan. The point is that D&Q and Fantagraphics are publishing very successful books that are selling healthy amounts of copies even though they sell “only 5000” copies on Bookscan. In that regard, this piece from Slate by Daniel Gross from a few years ago is must reading: Why writers never reveal how many books their buddies have sold.:
BookScan, a Nielsen service started in January 2001, tallies retail sales from chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders, from Amazon.com, and from stores like Costco (but not Wal-Mart). James King, vice president for sales and service at BookScan, suggests that the database captures about 70 percent of sales for a typical hardcover book. As such, BookScan has emerged as a powerful tool for the editors and agents whose employers pay several thousand dollars a year to subscribe. But in the hands of journalists and polemicists, BookScan data has becomes a blunt instrument to humiliate, minimize accomplishments, and express joy at the misfortune of other writers.
It’s not just us, folks.
As long as we’ve got the mop out, we’d like to address one more question. Many times commenters wonder why we’re so obsessed with sales figures anyway, because they don’t give a shit about them. To be blunt, we’re obsessed in sales figures because in our 20+ years of working in various areas of the publishing, EVERYONE is obssessed with sales figures!
When I was at the Hollywood Reporter, we constantly fretted over the sales variance between us and Variety. When I worked at Disney Adventures, they once made a big display of FOUR YEARS WORTH of covers with the newsstand sales for every issue so that the ENTIRE STAFF could look at what sold well and see if they could come up with a formula. (The answer, I seem to recall, was Timon from the Lion King.)
At DC, sales figures were shown to us every month, and every so often there would be the sad meeting when we were told sales had reached the point of no return and a book was getting cancelled. And so on at PW and Fox Atomic and the other places that give us money.
As observer/bloggers, we’re being given imperfect, incomplete numbers. But you can bet that the perfect and complete numbers are what are driving most of the trends and decisions of the industry. So, that’s the bottom line. We’d like to think that Alvin Buenaventura and Dan Nadel don’t sit around obsessing over Bookscan, but we’ll also bet that every once in a while they run a P&L and adjust the business plan.
For those of you uninterested in sales figures, that’s fine, and you can just skip over posts on sales figures like you do posts on Hugh Jackman. For ourselves, we’ll keep trying to get more and better information so those who want to can look for the next Timon.
UPDATE: Tom has one of his great “I don’t care about this so I’ll write 1200 words about it” posts. You should read the whole thing, as it’s a fitting wind up to this whole discussion:
I suspect what’s deeply frustrating to many publishers and their advocates is that they now see comic shops through the lens of their recent experiences with bookstores. Despite the lack of saturation in the bookstore market and the fact they’re competing with so much product and it’s tough there and all the many, never-denied problems with book sales, over the last decade they’ve been made to feel much more welcome in that market than they have been in the comics market. Their bookstore distributor probably hasn’t signed massively unfair and restrictive contracts with their other clients that puts them at a structural disadvantage. They’re treated with respect and enthusiasm at BEA compared to the disdain or begrudging acceptance that greets them at comics conventions. Their bookstore distributor doesn’t try to sell them services as much as it seems to work with them as a partner in selling as many books as possible. Their retailing partners at the bookstore level don’t spend hours trying to convince them that they’re doing better or at least as well as another market. There is no framework by which the idea that anyone owes anyone anything is ever floated. No one from Amazon.com has ever to my knowledge publicly ripped into a comic book publisher for allowing a comic shop to take one of their sales. Can you blame many publishers for simply making room for a market that has in the last decade moved so many books, treated them professionally in doing so, has been the avenue for their biggest hits, and whom their records now indicate serves more than 50 percent of their bottom line? I can’t.