by Pat Holt
Tuesday, July 17, 2001
SOUNDSCAN (AND ONE DAY BOOKSCAN?) 'DOGGED BY PHONY HITS'
Just when you thought the stage is set for Bookscan, the new data-collecting system that may revolutionize bestseller lists (see #249, #250), along comes news that the model for Bookscan - the music industry's Soundscan - is being "dogged by phony hits."
I must say a smile came to these weary lips when the Los Angeles Times reported exactly HOW the Soundscan system, like the records it places at the top of the charts, "may turn out to be a dud."
So far, the controversy over Bookscan has been about interpretation of its numbers, not about the "hard data" itself, which, taken directly from cash registers in retail stores, has sounded pretty pure - invincible, in fact.
But now music label executives complain about "a coterie of independent consultants and merchants from Los Angeles to New York who have developed a system to distort sales numbers that are reported to Soundscan," writes Chuck Philips of the Times.
"There's nothing complicated about the scheme: It involves retail clerks swiping a CD numerous times across a scanning machine to falsely boost sales figures."
Holy cow! You knew it would have to be a sophisticated and high-tech scheme, complete with hired professionals, to bring Soundscan, a system "believed to be precise and tamper-proof," down for the count.
Of course in a scandal of this nature that harkens back to the days of payola, the response of industry chieftains in the five major record companies has been stern and I must say, uplifting.
They "all denied knowledge of any label in their organizations participating in any schemes to enhance sales figures," the Times reports. "It's got to stop," said Sony Discos chairman Oscar Llord. "I am very disappointed," said Billboard magazine chart chief Geoff Mayfield.
In any case, Soundscan is an electronic system. It can make adjustments. "We have security measures in place. We catch them," says Soundscan's chief executive Mike Shalette somewhat ineloquently. As to the culprits and the consequences that must be paid, "Let me put it like this: Some stores that used to report to Soundscan no longer do."
That's telling 'em. That's going to Dodge and cleaning out the bad guys. And what a deterrent it will be to bookstore clerks with scan-twitchy fingers that tough measures are being taken to stop "these kinds of shenanigans," as Billboard's Mayfield puts it grimly.
I have no doubt that Soundscan will fix the problem, and that very soon those naughty music producers will bribe even more brilliant yet misguided clerks to find another way to sabotage the system.
The point is, that "hard data" everybody thought science would give to us in the 21st century turns out to be as suspect as ballots in a presidential election. And you know that's pretty hopeless.
BORDERS.COM! WELCOME TO THE TAXABLE COMMUNITY
I can't believe that only a few years after independent booksellers got the sales-tax-issue door slammed in their faces, Congress in California has begun to change its mind, and now the California Board of Equalization is close to requiring Borders.com to collect sales tax in that state.
Nothing is firm yet, but according to the American Booksellers Association, the board met July 10-12 to consider a petition from Borders.com, which has been fighting attempts to get the chain to collect sales tax. Instead of granting the petition,the board instructed BofE staff "to draft an opinion that states that Borders.com must collect sales tax," the ABA reports.
Why the BofE didn't go after Barnes & Noble is a puzzlement, but maybe the thinking behind the Borders.com decision will set a precedent.
Remember when independent booksellers Andy Ross, Bill Petrocelli, Neal Coonerty and Hut Landon were conducting tests to show the obvious links between Borders.com on the Internet and the hundreds of physical bookstores in the Borders chain? It seems clear now that the results of these tests made a difference, as the ABA reports:
"[Board member Dean] Andal said at the meeting that he was most persuaded by the fact that consumers who had made purchases from Borders.com were able to return those items to Borders' bricks-and-mortar stores and receive cash refunds. Such policies, he noted, led him to believe that Borders.com had established nexus in California, that is, had established a physical presence in the state, which would require the company to collect state sales taxes."
So bravo, independent booksellers! Let this be the first domino to fall across the nation. (Heck, if you've gotta settle with 'em in the courts, hack 'em in the clicks-and-bricks at the old BofE.)
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I remain puzzled by the objections to Bookscan. While I can understand objections to popularity contests in general, if one is to have a list of "best sellers," it should be a list of those books that have actually sold the most copies. Electronic scanning seems like the obvious, simplest way to accurately accomplish this.
I'm even more puzzled by your comment that if Soundscan is adopted, "Somebody's got to sort through the 'hard figures' and take out all the bibles, cookbooks, gardening catalogs, baseball abstracts, war statistics, government publications, academic works, monographs..."
Why? If the actual best selling book this week is a cookbook or gardening catalog, I'd like to know that. I certainly don't want the information censored by someone who thinks I only care about "the kind of books we already find on bestseller lists."
Holt responds: Well, if you want a "fully loaded" bestseller list, it'll go on for hundreds of titles and probably be interesting for awhile before that crowded and tangly jungle look sets in. I guess Bookscan could publish several lists - a complete list, a literary list, a Bible-toting list, a food-fight list and so forth - and let readers take their pick, but given the problems above (see first item) I'm not sure readers will give any of 'em much credibility.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
We already have an accurate method of determining Best Sellers. To wit: BAKER & TAYLOR, BOOKAZINE, KOEN and INGRAM sales to bookstores (which they already compile and code as bookstore sales - they even separate chain bookstore sales as a separate sales number) represent the most accurate number of books sold to bookstores. Their figures are available at the end of each day, allowing newspapers to draw upon the figures as required for their closing date of Book Review/daily papers.
These sales do not take into account the massive laydowns in retail stores by publishers, but they do represent, very accurately, sales velocity, which is the most reliable figure of which books are actually being purchased by consumers.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Re the recent Pat Holt column about Geoff Shandler's fears regarding Bookscan:
"If that happens with Bookscan, he fears, publishers will use the data to make easy, no-risk decisions. Instead of pulling out the titles that have been simmering on the back burner and giving them some extra heat, they'll just turn on the gas under the already-percolating. They'll keep the obvious sellers selling and the lesser-knowns, well, lesser-known."
This is exactly what the big publishers want to do anyway and have been aiming at all these years. Let's just get on with it: the creation of a two-tier publishing industry.
Tier 1 is the big publishers, the superstores and big independent booksellers, the media that suck and are sucked up to. It's hardly worth the effort of indie publishers trying to get into these places anyway, measured against the costs of getting in and the huge percentage of returns. Tier 2 is everybody else, including specialty retailers real and virtual. The real challenge for us Tier 2 types is to figure out how to develop delivery systems that will do an end run around the Tier-1 dominated players.
It doesn't take a lot of brains to figure that Britney Spears's novel is going to outsell our translations of modern Japanese literature. If this is what Bookscan is going to tell big publishers, well, duh. And if something like "Name of the Rose" ever shows up on a bestseller list again, can you just commission a book of that beauty and complexity on the spot and make it work? If you think you can, maybe you SHOULD be publishing Britney's book. We little guys'll fill in the vast holes left in the cultural landscape. Oops, is that a snobby thing to say?
An Independent Publisher
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I'm not as eloquent as the guy from the Science Fiction Book Club but I support everything he said. Years ago I paid attention to various bestseller lists -- until I found out how they were created and gamed. I haven't looked at one since and find myself avoiding any book that is promoted by mentioning its place on those lists. (Since anything that has to be promoted on the basis of a lie is likely not very good.)
What we need is for the people who believe that this whole thing is more "art than science" to provide their subjective lists based on their subjective tastes -- that's one of the virtues of indy bookstores, right? People who actually read books and all that. Just don't confuse those subjective lists with objective lists of sales.
I note that there is a real demand for lists actually based on real sales: people love watching how their favorites do on the Amazon sales meter ... mainly because they believe that those numbers represent real sales and that they are not being lied to.
Perhaps if publishers and list compilers had a modicum of faith in the intelligence of the public they would act as if we proles could understand and interpret a list for ourselves even if it hasn't been massaged and sanitized for our protection. As the saying goes, "Reality - what a concept."
Holt responds: Egad, don't bring up that dang Amazon.com "sales meter"! It bounces around like George Bush's credibility ratings, and it's about as accurate. Yet few are the authors and publishers whose eyes aren't cemented to it night and day, knowing it's based on second-by-second sales of hundreds of thousands of titles that wing through cyberspace, signifying nothing.
Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.
"Holt Uncensored" is an online column by Pat Holt
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