Today, authors and publishers increasingly rely on services like Bookscan to track their sales, to commodify popularity into a contract for the next gig. If a publisher thinks you have “millions of fans,” naturally a publisher will want to sign up your new novel.

But we’ve all seen our fair share of creators who claim “millions of fans” who have 1500 followers on twitter. Many people fib, publishers and authors alike. So, one hopes, sales lists you can purchase from stat companies will give accurate info.

I track my own sales as listed by Amazon Author Central (which gets its data from Bookscan) against my actual sales as listed on my royalty statements, and I find Bookscan is so far off as to be completely useless. I’ll show you what I mean with examples below. These Bookscan numbers can have a serious effect on an author’s ability to sell a project, and if they are as wrong as I know they can be, this muddle can cripple a career.

From the Amazon Authors page:

There was an interesting article in the Canadian Globe and Mail about the plight of the midlist author, and the trouble with track records:

And once reduced to pure numbers, those track records determine the fate of proven writers looking for cash advances to begin their next books. “Everybody knows the numbers now,” Toronto literary agent Denise Bukowski said in an interview. “You can’t lie about the numbers.” Retailers don’t order books from authors whose previous work sold indifferently, she added, so publishers respond by cutting them loose.

The upheaval is such that an author like Dan Brown “would never get published now, because his first three books sold nothing,” Bukowski said. But as everybody knows, Brown’s fourth novel, The Da Vinci Code, has sold more than 80-million copies.

The article flatly states that these stats are accurate and reliable.

There was a time when only her publisher knew for sure. But today, anybody can pay to find out exactly how many copies of any book that any author has ever written have actually sold.

Except they’re really not. And, in my experience, not even close, especially if a chunk of your sales went to the comic book market, or to libraries, or digital. The vast majority of those are not tracked by any of the “Nielson-like” numbers. And even when I’ve worked on major projects for companies like DC and Marvel, on books which have been in major bookstores outside comic shops, and with major authors, the Bookscan numbers came in at less than 10% of my actual sales.

So, have some screen shots.

I am not going to give you all the gory details about all of my projects, because I don’t think my clients would appreciate my divulging this proprietary information. I will, however, start off with one Bookscan number that is so far off the mark that anyone can see it’s just wonky, and I don’t think I’m poking my publisher in the eye by doing this.

According to my Bookscan stats, Spider-Man: Died in Your Arms Tonight graphic novel sold only 188 copies, in all editions, over the last two years.

Does anyone believe that? I sure don’t. I got a royalty check for more than $188, for crying out loud. And we’re not getting $1 per book sold, OK?

A goodly portion of this low number is due to the fact that Authors Central only got linked to Bookscan back in 2010. So, all sales aren’t showing up.

OK, so let’s have a look at one of my books published after Amazon linked to Bookscan. I am not going to tell you what this book was, just that it is a book from a major publisher.

According to Bookscan, it has sold 542 copies in hardcover. Ouch. What a bummer! This is accurate as of yesterday.

Except I got a royalty statement on this thing. And according to my royalty statement, this book sold 7181 copies by end of the accounting period, which was last summer. As of now, it has sold over 10,000 copies in hardcover. Respectable numbers. Not tearing up the charts, but enough to issue a new edition.

So, the accumulated Bookscan numbers are a good 93% off my actual reported sales from my publisher, as of my last royalty period.

That’s pretty scary, especially if you’ve got clients looking at your next project and seeing data that’s this far off the mark. Ten thousand sales isn’t a bestseller, but it is considerably better than many books are selling these days. It’s a solid number for a graphic novel. (Exactly what a midlist book is, or what constitutes a winner to your publisher is a matter of endless debate. You can read more about it here. Also, read the comments – especially about the “appearance of success” due to “speed of sale” as opposed to backlist sale over time. Which is where an author like me makes most of her dough.)

Here’s another one of my projects which is from a B-list publisher (not an insult, just giving some context). According to Bookscan, we only sold less than 400 copies. (EDIT: my publisher has asked me to be a little less revealing and I have complied. So I’ve rounded off the number and removed the screen shots.)

But according to my royalty statement, we sold just under 11,000 copies as of last summer.

This is not, by any means, the best selling stuff I have done, it’s just the stuff I got in the last accounting period, and it’s at hand. Some of my books sell a heck of a lot better than this. A Distant Soil, for example, moved tens of thousands of graphic novels as a backlist item, but you’d never know to look at Bookscan.

I can’t tell you what this book is, but I can tell you it is from a major author. And according to Bookscan, the work we did together moved a sad 3010 copies.

This book came out after Bookscan was added to Author Central, so I have to assume those are the numbers Bookscan sends to clients. I’ve cashed royalty checks for this thing, and I am not getting anything like $1 per copy on this anymore than I’m getting $1 per copy on Spider-man. I’m not even getting 10 cents per copy.

These wildly inaccurate Bookscan numbers can be used to dump an author. And that’s a bummer.

Here are more screen shots of my Bookscan sales on projects that I know for a fact have sold more than 100,000 copies each. Those books pay some bills every year, and that is very nice. But according to Bookscan:

I’ve been told many times, and have often repeated here, that Bookscan numbers are half to one quarter of what your actual numbers are. But in my experience, it is 90% or more off on every single one of my books. No exceptions. (EDIT: I checked one other book after writing this, and it fared a bit better: about 80% off.) The numbers are so far off, at first I assumed that these Bookscan numbers were just showing me books sold on Amazon. But not according to Author Central:

Currently, Author Central obtains the sales data from Nielsen BookScan, which collects the print sales report from over 10,000 retail book sellers. In order for Nielsen BookScan to report sales data for a book, the book’s seller must participate in Nielsen BookScan and the book must appear in BookScan’s bibliography. This bibliography is generated from a number of third party sources including the Ingram Book Company.

I’d love to give you a complete look at all my sales and compare them to all my Bookscan numbers, but that’s not fair to my clients. But if Bookscan really does provide this information to Author Central, and what I see there is what others are seeing in their Bookscan data, then the numbers are about as useful as hiring a psychic to figure out what sales are. Voodoo would be more useful; at least you get to eat the chicken after you cut its head off.

Is this discrepancy unique to graphic novels because of comic book market distribution? Is Author Central not getting all the Bookscan data? Or is Bookscan really that off the mark?

I have no way of knowing if other author’s Bookscan data is as far off as mine, but one thing’s for sure: the idea that anyone can now subscribe to a data provider and get accurate information is bunk.

Just take a look at the Spider-Man GN sale there, and look at some of the big-name authors I’ve worked with.

And do your own math.

The only accurate numbers you as an author are ever going to see are on your royalty statement. And with some publishers, not even then.

Hope this is of some use. Have a great New Year.

With big book sales.