Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Reported Sales: Selling In vs. Selling Through

There are two different levels of sales for books: the numbers that sell from publisher to bookshop; and the numbers which sell on from bookshop to reader.

That first number, which is usually referred to as the sell-in figure, is always the higher of the two, because a few books will always get lost, stolen or damaged; and so long as returns are allowed, many of those books will eventually find their way back to the publisher: sadly, returns rates of 30 or 40% are not unusual.

The number of books sold from bookshops to readers is usually called the sell-through, or the sell-on, and it's a very different thing. Readers tend not to return books unless the pages fall out as they turn them, or a segment of the book is bound the wrong way around. As the second figure is more fixed than the first it is a far more reliable indicator of a book’s real sales, even though it is usually much lower.

So while publishers will often use the sell-in figure to trumpet a book’s success, writers should not rely on it when estimating what their royalties are going to be like, as those will usually be calculated from sales figures even lower than the sell-through, thanks to the joy of the reserve against returns. Which deserves a whole series of posts of its own!

14 comments:

Dan Holloway said...

Thanks for this Jane. I'm all too aware of this practice.

Your post reminded me of reading about the bad old days of cinematic excess (the Simpson-Bruckheimer days) when people would be paid a cut of net rather than gross, and the studio would trumpet a film's success with its gross, and then have their accountant prove that because they paid $2000 dollars a pop for pizza for the key grip they'd come in with a whopping loss and couldn't afford to pay anyone.

Which only goes to show. Plus ca change. The ones who get rich are the money man.

Olivia Ryan said...

Thanks for this interesting post. I must admit, when my first book was published I was very naive, and didn't really give much thought to books being returned by bookshops. The first time I saw returns on my statement, I was devastated!

Helena Halme said...

Another invaluable post. Which number is used for the best seller lists published in newspapers? I'm guessing the selling in figure...?

Jane Smith said...

Dan wrote, "Which only goes to show. Plus ca change. The ones who get rich are the money man."

You're assuming that the publisher gets paid for all the books sold in, though, Dan, and it doesn't: often a bookshop will buy books on 90 days' credit, and then return a lot of their stock on day 89, and only pay for the ones it's kept; then the following day the same bookshop will reorder the book, and so keep on extending its line of credit.

Publishers have to pay for all the books they print, and if they get 40% returned that's a big loss to cover (I'm sure I've linked somewhere to Snowbooks' blog posts about returns, which are well worth reading): while many returns can be resold some can't, and again, the publisher has to cover the cost of those books.

Helena, I'm not entirely sure which figures are used for best-seller lists: but something tells me that you might be right there. Do you think I'm getting cynical in my old age?

Anonymous said...

It depends on the bestseller list.

The New York Times list, like a lot of lists, is a survey of reporting stores. A selection of stores, whose identities are kept secret, report their weekly sales to the Times. Other lists, like the Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal list, use a similar system.

The USA Today list goes by strict BookScan numbers*: i.e. sell-through.

I have never heard of a bestseller list based on sell-in.

*http://editorialanonymous.blogspot.com/2009/02/definitions-for-perplexed-bookscan.html

behlerblog said...

So while publishers will often use the sell-in figure to trumpet a book’s success, writers should not rely on it...reserve against returns.

Jane, dear, are you insinuating that our sales numbers have an artistic flair?

behlerblog said...

often a bookshop will buy books on 90 days' credit, and then return a lot of their stock on day 89, and only pay for the ones it's kept; then the following day the same bookshop will reorder the book, and so keep on extending its line of credit.

It's not just bookstores. Here, in the US, Igram, Baker & Taylor, and other warehouse distributors do the same thing, and it drives us insane because we have to pay for the shipping on those returns AND the shipping on the new order. Enough to make one drink heavily.

Melinda Szymanik said...

For a writer, there are few things more sobering than returns. If readers don't buy our books we are back at the beginning again - do not pass go, do not collect $200 (maybe they should put out a bookseller version of monopoly!)

Nicola Morgan said...

Go on, Jane, post about rturns! I DARE you! You know you want to ... I am safely in London and on a crappy laptop so I can't - which only leaves you.

Bjarne Bjerklund said...

Whilst official sales lists tend to be sell through, there's been a tendency(at least in norway) of the publishers using sell-in values in their own advertising to boost further sales. It seems to be effective because they keep doing it every holiday season...

Dan Holloway said...

Jane, that's not what I meant at all. By "money men" I meant the accountants.

Perhaps I shouldn't be too cynical - I'm sure when things kick off the lawyers get rich too :-)

j purdie said...

Interesting info.

Thirty to forty percent of returns does seem high, although as has been mentioned here in the comments reorders to extend credit are common. So how much does the sending back and reordering affect the returns percentage?

I remember reading an article on the Bookseller website about Canadian and Southern Hemisphere publishers reducing the returns rate to around twenty percent. The article also suggested British publishers should talk to their Canadian and Southern Hemisphere counterparts about reducing UK returns.

Dan, with you there on the net v gross. There's a comment by JM Straczynski available on the net (somewhere on aintitcool.com) about how he produced the TV series Babylon 5 for $90m, it made $500m in sales and is still $50m in debt!

(Now that I'm using blogger I'll have to comment more to get back into the top ten!)

R.R.Jones said...

Great post.

Mark Lord said...

Selling in large volumes of books can help a book sell though can't it? The main means of promoting a book seems to be have it prominently displayed in a bookshop. The more copies on display the higher the chance that a potential reader will pick it up and look through it.

So if you want your book to sell well you probably want a lot to be sold in, but have to expect a large % of returns. I suspect that even your bestsellers will have fairly high returns %. Bookshops won't sell all the copies they buy in before they need shelfspace for the next title they want to promote, so will send back excess stock to the publisher.