BROOKE GLADSTONE: Under the current tracking system, we might never know how many of Clinton's books were actually sold once they hit the stores; traditionally the publishing industry has been tighter than the Kremlin when it comes to actual sales figures. Why? Because in book publishing as in other spheres of human endeavor, total exposure is embarrassing. What if the latest literary darling tanks or the ten big ones you paid for Clinton go down the drain? That's news they can use against you at shareholder meetings, not to mention cocktail parties. VNU, a media company based in the Netherlands, has developed a new more accurate system to track book sales. Sara Nelson has written about it for Inside.com, and she joins us now. Welcome to OTM.
SARA NELSON: Hi.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So explain to us how this new system -- Book Scan -- works differently from the system we currently have.
SARA NELSON: Well essentially what Book Scan does is count the number of books that are sold to consumers. Pure and simple. And the system that we have now s-- there are no direct to consumer figures. What most people have and what most consumers have and what, what all publishers rely on to a large extent are the best seller lists.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And how do they generate best seller lists?
SARA NELSON:Well-- every paper that has its own best seller list probably does it slightly differently, but the, the bellwether obviously is the New York Times Lists. They take reports from 4,000 places that sell books --that's bookstores, that can be gift shops, anywhere that books are sold, and they estimate based on the number of books what sold more than what. But at no point do they ever have full reporting.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Book Scan doesn't anticipate tallying every newsstand, supermarket and book store in America.
SARA NELSON:No. But what Book Scan proposes to do and is on its way to doing is having virtually all of the major chains -- that's the Barnes & Noble, B. Dalton, Borders -- still may end up being something of an estimate -- they may not have it down to the absolutely last book, but it is a far more complete system.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Now from what we hear, subscribing to this service is going to be pretty expensive. Why would publishers and book sellers be willing to pay for the service?
SARA NELSON: They're willing to pay for it because let's say they want to publish a book about volcanoes; they're trying to make an estimate of what - how many books they could sell. If they have access to this service, they can go in and look up the last 5 books about volcanoes and how they sold, and if they all sold 10,000 copies, then they know, you know, gee -- even if we're really terrifically lucky, we're probably not going to sell a million copies.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So that's why they would want the service.
SARA NELSON: Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why wouldn't they want this information?
SARA NELSON:If you work at Random House and you know Simon & Schuster's book bombed, you, you've got something on them. Publishing people tend to feel that their business has a little bit of magic in it, and this takes the magic out of it. The sad truth about it is, is that the book business is not that big a business moneywise. If 500,000 people buy a book in hardcover, that's a lot of books to a books publisher. Five hundred thousand people go to the movies - it's a bomb. So I think publishers don't want to be seen as competing in this arena. Everybody's going to say oh books -- who cares about books?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you're saying it, it makes them look like the small potatoes they are?
SARA NELSON:The ugly reality which I think nobody really wants to face is that people do not read at the rate that they go to the movies or buy records.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Well it would definitely make a failure seem like an absolutely irredeemable failure. But it also would have the effect of making a great success -- a huge best seller into --into an even bigger best seller and, and actually inspire copy cat books.
SARA NELSON: I think it's double-edged, and I think it's double-edged for publishers. I don't think anybody would be disappointed to have Stephen King's numbers out there, because he sells a lot of books! I think it's, it's really a problem for the publishers or and may I say the authors of a literary book that is very well reviewed and that sort of has good word of mouth and that people think really highly of and then you look at the numbers, and it's, you know, 10,000 books! That can work against the book. They say well everybody said it's so great, but only 10,000 people read it. The, the other thing is, is that these sales numbers are all relative. I mean I think once the public get over the shock of seeing what these numbers are, that a book that sells 500 copies in a week is doing terrifically, it'll all sort of settle down. So then when you see somebody sells a hundred books in a week, that's not so bad if 500 is the best you're going to do. I think initially it will be shocking. So I think people's minds have to get sort of turned around to that. I mean there -- I think people do still expect to hear that something sold a million copies and nothing sells a million. I mean very few. Some things do, but very, very few books sell like that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sara Nelson, thank you very much.
SARA NELSON: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sara Nelson covers books for Inside.com. [MUSIC]