Watch CBSN Live

Amazon's Gift Horse: A Glimpse of Sales Data to Authors

Just in time for the holidays, Amazon's (AMZN) giving a little gift to authors enrolled in its "Author Central" program four weeks of free access to Nielsen BookScan sales data for their own books. However, authors would do well to look this gift horse carefully in the mouth.

What it offers

The program aims to give authors what their publishers often do not: sales data. Most authors have no idea how their book is performing so the most recent four weeks of sales as tracked by Nielsen may seem like manna from bookselling heaven. Add in geographical breakdowns and visual national mapping instead of the straight numbers that Nielsen provides to customers and you have the beginnings of what Sarah Weinman calls, "a veritable avalanche of nergasmic comments."

What it leaves out

It's a bad sign when seven out of the ten responses in Amazon's FAQ on the sales data are answered with a no. Authors won't be able to see Kindle data, or any Amazon sales data for that matter. The list participating retailers is long, however, it only represents about 75 percent of the total selling picture according to Nielsen.

There's also no historical data, no year-to-date or lifetime sales totals, no separation of sales segments â€" basically no context for these numbers.

Who it's really helping

Amazon's offering of this free sales data is really self-serving. Indeed, by signing up for the Author Central, Amazon says,

Authors can access more specific Amazon sales information when they participate in either of our two direct-publishing programs: and Amazon's Digital Text Platform.

Also, Amazon's Digital Text Platform allows any rights holder to publish a Kindle book on Amazon for free. As a member of the program, you will have access to reporting data updated weekly.

At CreateSpace, an Amazon company, your books are printed on demand. CreateSpace members are able to see the volume of books printed to meet the demand of various sales channels.

The more authors signing on, the greater the potential sales volume. Amazon doesn't care about the individual authors, only that they become part of its publishing fold.

Should authors really want to pony up, they can request more data from Nielsen -- for a fee. That taste of sales information may also prompt authors' agents to sign up for Nielsen Publishers Marketplace BookScan service launched in November.

Our premium service allows unlimited searches of the BookScan database, shows complete data sets (including lifetime and year-to-date sales), and is updated every Wednesday, as soon as the new week's data is available.

We also provide a complete package of BookScan's more than 70 weekly bestseller lists, along with our own "book tracker" feature to automatically follow sales results for up to 10 ISBNs with a single click.

The caveat: it's for agents only. And at $2,000 per year for a single subscription, it's not likely that many authors would be willing to shell for the info when they can wait (sometimes up to six months) for their royalty statements to be issued.

For agents though, it's a small price to pay when you consider that the ten-year old Nielsen's BookScan started gaining traction with major publishers in 2004, with a fee upwards of $100,000 per year.

Why it's a potential problem

Amazon's not one to call a spade a spade. Rather, in this age of dwindling publishing profits when even the major houses encourage authors to promote from a self-generated platform, it's simply following down the path of "empowering" writers to sell their work themselves.

Yet, while it's hard to imagine anyone could sell a book better than its own author, even lean-staffed publishing concerns will be bracing themselves for that avalanche of nerdgasms to come crashing through their doors in the wake of Amazon's offer.

Back in the 80s and 90s (when I worked for a major publishing house), some editors used "indefatigable" as a euphemism for authors who'd go above and beyond the call of duty (sometimes to the point of annoyance) to market and sell their books.

Constant calls and notes to editors and sales reps asking why their book wasn't selling better and unauthorized visits to store buyers amounted to many hours spent assuaging an injured spirit, or worse, undoing an unauthorized deal.

Amazon may find itself fending off a similar onslaught. Armed with the advantages of multi-channel access, and virtually no context for the crumbs of sales data they're about to receive, today's indefatigable souls are that much more likely to be knocking on Amazon's door asking (demanding), "Why isn't my book selling better?"

Image via Amazon


View CBS News In