Why Nielsen’s book sales figures don’t add up

There was an article in the Daily Mail newspaper last week that talked about the 77 million books that were pulped in the UK in 2009. [You can read the article here]

The books that were pulped were mostly “celeb” ones, and I’ll talk about that next time, but today I want to focus on something else that was mentioned in the same article. It stated that around 59,000 books published in the UK in 2009 sold an average of just 18 copies each.

But this is something that I have an issue with. Where exactly is Nielsen Bookdata getting these figures from? I would imagine they are only able to track sales through bookshops – those which order their books through wholesalers such as Gardners and Bertrams.

But take one of my own books as an example. Since only about 1% of people order The Fastest Way to Write Your Book from bookshops, the number of sales Nielsen has recorded for that book in 2009 will be pretty low. If those were the only sales then I’d be extremely embarrassed (and looking for another job). But they’re not.

Because Nielsen is ignoring the 95% of sales that came through the ideas4writers website. I know they’re ignoring them because I’m the only person who knows how many we sold, and Nielsen hasn’t asked me.

They’re probably also ignoring the 4% that Amazon shifted (since Amazon orders them direct from me, not through a wholesaler). And they’re also ignoring the copies I sold myself when I was out and about, though admittedly that was only a handful this year.

If those authors who (according to Nielsen) only sold 18 copies are actually selling them through other routes – online, schools, talks, fairs, conventions, conferences, magazine ads, etc – then their true sales figures are much (much) higher than Nielsen says they are. And therefore book sales (particularly self-published ones) are much healthier than Nielsen is reporting.

It’s the bookshops that are dying, not book sales (apart from “celeb” books). Authors and self-publishers are simply finding other places to sell them. Quite right too – that’s exactly what they should be doing. But those sales aren’t being counted by Nielsen.

Those authors who did only sell 18 copies (or fewer, or anything less than several hundred in fact) should give themselves a stern talking to (and that’s very much the polite version). They either need to learn how to do marketing properly (which really is enormous fun) or write better books that people actually want to read.

Half a day spent doing a bit of market research (which involves nothing more complicated than asking a few people) would save them months of work followed by crushing disappointment when it turns out that nobody wants to read their book.

Dave Haslett, www.ideas4writers.co.uk


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