The Subjective World of Book Sales Numbers


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Nielsen BookScan reports 4.1 million copies of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince sold in the U. its first 24 hours of release. Industry tracker, Scholastic, reports when sales at Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club and airports are added, the figure jumps to 6.9 million in the same period. Nielsen also reports the Mountain region of Utah, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada accounted for 328,000 of the sales.

Astronomical sales figures are fun to imagine but the real business of selling books is closer to selling éclairs. Authors, publishers and bookstore owners get up early, do their work, hope customers buy and then deal with unwanted leftovers. Similarities don’t stop there. The baking and book business both say name identity, distribution, word-of-mouth, and price make a difference. Quality helps but isn’t always mandatory because things sell more in the big stores than one little boutique bakery or bookstore down a sidestreet. Fortunately, judges sometimes overlook sales. It was rumored Gilead by Marilynne Robinson sold less than 10,000 before winning the Pulitzer Prize this year.

Pastry taste and book preferences are subjective—and regional. Consider the week of January 29 when Nielsen’s Book standard rating nationally placed James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces as number two while Sheri L. Dew’s If Life were Easy, It Wouldn’t Be Hard in the same slot in Salt Lake City, Utah though it didn’t place nationally in their top fifty. But then, the Los Angeles area number ten, 2006 Los Angeles & Orange Counties: Street Guide didn’t either.

Books are also ranked by genre which is a good marketing opportunity to showcase books that otherwise no one would have heard about. The same week Night by Elie Wiesel was number one in adult non-fiction, Cell by Stephen King topped fiction. Stitch & Bitch, The Knitter’s Handbook by Debbie Soller led crafts and hobbies, Backyard Bugs by Vincent Douglass led education and travel’s number one was Walt Disney World 2006.

The book industry is not eager to release exact sales figures but it has been reported that books on a best seller list can currently be selling anywhere from low thousands to hundreds of thousands a week. They do start bragging when a book hits over 50,000 total sales which can include titles as diverse as Celtic Needlepoint to Raising a Daughter and Almost Vegetarian.

Choosing a favorite éclair is as subjective as choosing a favorite book. Marketing techniques and availability gain attention and increase the odds but when asked about a favorite éclair people are as likely to name their grandmother’s over a frozen brand as they are to name Nancy Drew over any Stephen King.

Rebecca Guevara is a speaker and freelance writer whose first novel, The Trading of Ken, published last fall and can be seen at , , or she can be reached at


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