The NPD Featured Talk: BookScan for Booksellers at BookExpo 2018 was an informative and useful discussion of BookScan data led by David Walter, executive director of NPD Book (previously Nielsen Book), who walked booksellers through the methodology for compiling designated market area reports as well as industry bestseller lists.
To begin the Thursday, May 31, talk, Walter gave booksellers a comprehensive explanation of BookScan, a sales measurement system that aggregates data from approximately 85 percent of the U.S. trade market for physical books.
“In an average week, we are tracking a half a million unique ISBNs — 14 million units, with 16,000 locations contributing data, which includes both bricks-and-mortar and online stores,” said Walter. “We make this data available each week through our reporting website and other reports to our clients and partners.”
The parties reporting to BookScan include large retailers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble; Walmart, Target, and grocery chains; and ABA member bookstores that choose to report to BookScan, said Walter. BookScan uses this data to create weekly national bestseller lists, but also breaks out those lists into 100 geographical, or Designated Market Area (DMA), lists so booksellers can see how titles are performing in different regional markets.
Because BookScan measures sales to consumers, Walter said, no data is collected for institutional sales to schools, libraries, and book clubs; there is also no data from wholesalers, corporate sales, or exports. In addition, titles that report a high proportion of bulk sales in a given week are not included in that week’s data collection.
The primary users of BookScan are publishers, said Walter, who look to BookScan for insights to inform their business decisions. Based on the data that booksellers report, publishers may decide what genres to focus more on, or whether to acquire a specific title from an author. BookScan also lets publishers view sales data for their own books and access their competition’s reported sales, as well as view overall market share. Data from BookScan also helps publishers better manage their inventory and minimize returns, he said.
Next, Walter discussed some of the longer-term trends in print book sales, noting a decline in print book sales after the 2008 recession and the closure of Borders in 2011. However, BookScan has recorded consistent growth in print book sales year over year for the past five years, with an average growth rate of 3 percent. According to Walter, print book sales were up 3 percent in 2016 and 2 percent in 2017.
“Bearing that in mind, continuing growth and 2 percent growth year-on-year points to a very healthy market, which certainly aligns with what we hear from ABA and what we see in our own numbers about growth for independent booksellers,” said Walter.
Walter reported that much of the sales growth over the last four years has been driven by adult nonfiction sales; adult fiction sales, on the other hand, have been largely flat, and kids’ and YA sales have been up and down.
In adult nonfiction, there has been consistent growth in history, politics, and law, with very strong growth last year at around 13 percent, due to bestsellers like Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann (Doubleday), books that tied into movies like Hidden Figures (William Morrow) and The Zookeeper’s Wife (W.W. Norton & Company), and On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder (Tim Duggan Books), which sold in massive numbers due to the political moment.
The self-help category has seen double-digit growth consistently over the last two years, with 21 percent growth last year; classic titles like How to Win Friends and Influence People (Simon & Schuster) have done well, along with more whimsical, contemporary fare like You’re a Badass by Jen Sincero (Running Press).
Walter also cited a 75 percent increase in poetry sales last year, which BookScan found was due in part to stand-out titles by “Instagram poets” like Rupi Kaur (Milk and Honey, Andrews McMeel). Graphic novels for kids have also shown consistent growth over a number of years, with the success of Dog Man by Dav Pilkey (Graphix) and titles by Raina Telgemeier.
ABA Project Manager Peter Reynolds was on hand at the session to speak about ABA’s Indie Bestseller Lists, which are created with data collected from ABA member bookstores who report to the list each week, either through BookScan or directly to ABA. One of the benefits of reporting to the all-indie list is that indie bookstores can help show the media and consumers the vitality of the indie bookstore channel, and even help contribute to improvements to indie bookseller/publisher relations.
“Each week when you report to BookScan — or some of your stores report directly to ABA each weekend — the sales go through our bestseller list database,” Reynolds explained. “Our bestseller lists do not reflect unit sales; we use a sales rank value system to be fair for all of our stores, small and large.”
The bestseller database adds the sales rank values for all of the ISBNs from all of the reporting stores and combines them to determine the rankings for the list, he said. In addition to checking out the overall list, Reynolds encouraged booksellers to take advantage of the nine regional bestseller lists ABA creates each week, as well as ABA’s specialty bestseller lists published twice a month.
Margot Sage-El, owner of Watchtung Booksellers in Montclair, New Jersey, next reviewed how looking at the Indie Bestseller Lists and the BookScan national bestseller lists have helped her increase sales and better curate her inventory.
“A lot of book buying, I find, is very instinctual. Especially when you buy your frontlist books, you get information from places like BookExpo, from your reps, and you have an idea of what your people want,” said Sage-El. “It’s an educated guess, but it’s a guess. So I find it very helpful being able to check on a weekly basis your own [store’s] bestsellers versus the national bestseller and the indie bestseller lists. It makes me check to make sure I have everything on hand that I should.”
“When it comes to commercial bestsellers, I may not sell a lot but I know someone might want one, so I need to have some there,” added Sage-El. It’s also been heartening, she said, to get confirmation on whether what they are selling is similar to what other indie bookstores are selling.
As the session concluded, Walter mentioned that BookScan will be retooling its system later this year to fine-tune what it provides to ABA members via its national and Designated Market Area reports. Walter encouraged booksellers who do not already report to the Indie Bestseller Lists to contact Reynolds at firstname.lastname@example.org to begin doing so, which will allow them to gain access to BookScan’s national bestseller lists. Making the effort should be easy enough, he added, since most major POS systems are integrated with BookScan.