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Trust them, it's a hit

Unlike its movie and TV kin, the publishing industry keeps book sales figures to itself.

February 14, 2007|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Bonnie Nadel, a veteran Los Angeles literary agent, is weary of the questions she's constantly getting from Hollywood industry types: "They want to option a book for a movie or TV, and they'll ask how many copies the book has sold," Nadel said. "And I'll tell them I really don't know the exact number. I would need inside information, which is very hard to nail down."

The flabbergasted looks Nadel gets from people who are accustomed to poring over weekend movie grosses or overnight TV ratings underscores a telling reality about the not-so-modern book business. Publishers are notoriously reluctant to divulge sales numbers, and the complex, arcane nature of bookselling makes it hard to determine how well or badly a title is doing.

Now it's the publishing world's turn to be shocked, at a trial underway in Los Angeles pitting media mogul Philip Anschutz against author Clive Cussler. Anschutz says he bought the film rights to one of Cussler's books because he was told it had sold 100 million copies worldwide. Because of those staggering -- and bogus -- figures, Anschutz maintains, he paid $10 million for the film rights. The resulting film, the 2005 "Sahara," did poorly at the box office.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday February 15, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 67 words Type of Material: Correction
Cussler book sales: An article in Wednesday's Calendar section about the secrecy surrounding book sales in the publishing industry reported that media mogul Philip Anschutz said he had bought the rights to one of novelist Clive Cussler's books because he was told it had sold 100 million copies worldwide. Actually, Anschutz said he acted after being told Cussler's books collectively had sold more than 100 million copies.

Some publishing industry observers, who declined to speak on the record, expressed incredulity that a businessman would pay so much money without verifying such a claim. But others suggest Anschutz behaved like many others when it comes to publishers' sales claims: In the absence of hard proof, he simply believed them.

Finding data about book sales got easier in 2001, when Nielsen BookScan, a New York-based firm, began compiling information that measured about 70% of the U.S. book market. Yet there is still confusion in the marketplace. BookScan records sales from major chain stores, a sampling of independent sellers, online firms like Amazon.com, plus Costco, Kmart, Target and Starbucks. But it does not track weekly sales from Wal-Mart, religious stores, gift shops, grocers, drugstores and other outlets.

Meanwhile, publishers routinely withhold full sales figures, saying the information is proprietary. The only people legally entitled to know those numbers are authors and their agents.

"The publishing business has never gone out of its way to report actual sales numbers because it has no real interest in doing so," said Albert Greco, a Fordham University economist who analyzes business trends in the book world. "It's hard to know what's real. If an author on TV talk says his book has sold 1 million copies, only a few people will know if that's true."

The average customer who walks into a bookstore is not one of them. Often, the numbers the public sees are pure hype, observers say. Even a spot on a bestseller list is not what it may seem: Readers might be surprised to learn how few copies you need to sell to be able to call your book a "bestseller."

Recently, for example, Martin Amis' "House of Meetings," a highly praised work of literary fiction, made bestseller lists in Los Angeles, the Bay Area, plus the national "Book Sense" list from independent stores. According to BookScan, the novel had sold about 5,000 copies in its first two weeks. In other cases, authors put up humongous numbers and publishers are quick to exploit the good news: Doubleday recently took out full-page newspaper ads boasting that John Grisham's bestselling nonfiction book "The Innocent Man" had a whopping 2 million copies in print.

But even those figures raise questions, given the long time it takes for a book to complete its sales life, first as a hardcover and then as a paperback. Indeed, publishers are burdened by the law of returns, which is unique to the book world. To the despair of many in the business, bookstores can return unsold copies of a title to publishers for full credit. This means that a book with an impressive first printing, accompanied by a media splash, could wind up tanking if many copies are returned.

Last week, publisher Hyperion crowed in a full-page newspaper ad that Mitch Albom's two most recent books, "The Five People You Meet in Heaven" and "For One More Day," had collectively sold 11 million copies. Asked to break that number down, publisher Bob Miller said it reflected hardcover, mass market and trade paperback sales in the United States and 37 other countries. He noted that fewer than 10% of the copies had been returned, which is an unusually low figure. The industry average for returns is 30% to 40%.

Elsewhere, sales claims are harder to explain. HarperCollins has declined to comment on a disparity that was noted last week in Publishers Weekly for Vikram Seth's latest novel, "Two Lives." The publisher claimed sales of 20,000; Nielsen BookScan reported only 6,000 copies sold, according to the magazine.

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