When a book is first released, it’s only natural to want to know immediately how sales are going.  Unfortunately, with publishing’s screwy system of returns, usually the best way to find out what’s selling well is by waiting to see what doesn’t get sent back.  And that can take 4-6 months.  Obviously, if an author hits a bestseller list, there’s an immediate indication, but without that, it can be awfully hard to know for sure.  And it’s understandable for authors to go looking for numbers wherever they can get them.  But the following places are not going to give an accurate picture:

  • Bookscan – This is probably the most accurate, but only for what it counts.  Keep in mind that Bookscan numbers do not include sales from Wal-Mart and a number of other alternative bookselling outlets, such as grocery stores, drug stores and the like.  It might be helpful to have as a comparison, but in some cases Wal-Mart can account for almost half the print run. 
  • Amazon rankings –  Though it’s certainly nice to be #1, these really have no meaning whatsoever on overall sales.  Amazon’s sales might account for about 4% of the total of any given title.  And a spike in rankings could occur based on just a handful of sales.  While I do think Amazon’s numbers can give some indication of interest, they’re not very reliable in general.
  • Pub Alley – I’d never heard of this website and I’m still not completely sure what it’s all about.  But an agent recently mentioned that her author saw her sales indicated here and then was astounded to find out the numbers listed were grossly inflated – like four to five times so.  I have no idea where they get their information.
  • Publisher’s press release/PW announcement – Again, these are probably going to be inflated.  The publisher wants the author to look good and have the media pay attention.  Unless the book is already hot and #1 on the NYT, I really wouldn’t believe announced print runs.

So how in the world can an author find out what’s going on?  The best way is to ask your editor.  Ask how many books shipped.  Ask how that relates to expectation.  Ask if there are reorders coming in (even that can take *some* time, but it’s usually faster than returns).   Ask if it’s on any of the individual store’s bestseller lists within the genre.  Sometimes we get these lists; sometimes we don’t.  But it never hurts to ask. 

If there are any other number sources I’m not thinking of, let me know in the comments.