Reading at the Crossroads

Reading at the Crossroads is an archive for columns and letters which appeared in the Terre Haute Tribune Star. I also blog here when my patience is exhausted by what I feel is irritating, irrational and/or ironic in life. --gary daily

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Location: Terre Haute, Indiana, United States

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Friday, December 09, 2005

Clearing the Shelves with BookScan

[gary daily col. 17 May 19, 2002]

“Sanity is not statistical.” George Orwell, 1984

Which books in bookstores are readily available? When you go to your local library and can't find that Pulitzer Prize winning novel from a couple of years past on the shelves, what's the explanation?

***

As best as I can reconstruct from memory, here’s a conversation I had with a “management associate” while checking out my purchase of a book at a large bookstore chain in Indianapolis.

“I’m curious, do you use BookScan here?" (More about this company in a minute.) This brought the otherwise listless associate to life. The tired stare I had been getting turned positively vibrant.

“Couldn’t do without it. It gives us so much information. Tells us everything we need to know.”

“Really? For example?” I asked. Now I was at full alert.

“Well,” she said, waving vaguely to her left at shelves of books, “this store is fifth in the country in the sales of books classified as ‘Inspirational.’” To this news, she added a geographical-editorial comment, something about “this territory being the Bible belt.” I guess she was saying that if you don’t have Professor Harold Hill working for you, “You gotta know the territory,” so it’s a good idea to hire BookScan.

I asked her if stocking all of these “Inspiration” books means the store cuts down in other areas. “Right.” she answered. “We carry fewer books on local interest subjects and we don't stock as many books by local authors as we once did. And we no longer offer all of the New York Times bestsellers at discount. We stock fewer of those than we used to.”

This last point about the bestsellers touched on something I’d been thinking about but now started to see in a different light. Most casual readers of these lists probably assume that in something called a “bestseller” list the “seller” part represents in some way, shape or form the sales of books and that the “best” element implies most in quantity of those sales. Wrong.

As far as I can discern, here’s what goes into the construction of these lists. Newspapers gather data by calling up select bookstores and compiling sales statistics based on the phone reports they receive. No attempt is made to create a scientific sample of stores polled. In collecting this information, the list compilers ignore stores selling only “genre” books. For example, stores specializing in books on spirituality and science fiction. Through this combination of selective data gathering and unsubstantiated reporting, papers such as the New York Times and the Washington Post formulate, for better or worse, their bestseller lists.

Regardless of what you might hear from talk show alarmists, none of this represents an east coast egghead conspiracy aimed at curdling minds into liberal scrambled eggs. This flawed bestseller list stuff really is old news. What is new to the scene, however, is the emergence of a force in the business of determining what a bestseller is in the form of a company called BookScan. As reported in the “Book World” section of the Washington Post, “[BookScan’s] pioneering firm uses scanners to track each book purchase at the ‘point of sale’ -- the cash register -- providing a never-before-seen snapshot of which books actually sell. . . . When these point-of-sale tallies begin showing what's really selling in this country, U.S. bestseller lists may never look the same again.”

And this leads to the question: Is a “you buy ‘em we count’em” approach to bestseller lists, stocking shelves in bookstores, or, ultimately, what books should be published and in what quantities, the best way to determine what should be made available to the reading public?

Most readers, whatever their tastes, are willing to state in unequivocal fashion that a chunk of cheese is not a book. They also, switching to the medium of television, recognize that “Survivor” is not Ken Burns’s “The Civil War.” But the BookScan approach to the publishing and marketing of books leads to more and more “Who Stole My Cheese” titles just as television’s counterpart to BookScan, the Nielsen ratings, lead to more and more “Survivor” imitators. Businesses utilizing the legerdemain of sales demographics, slice and dice people into “consumer modalities.” Is this because “consumers,” let alone “modalities,” do not scream with outrage the way living, breathing, reading, individual people do?

I hope this doesn’t all strike you as far removed from your book reading life. You may feel that your book universe will always remain wide and diverse because most of your selections are made at one of our nation’s public libraries.

Think this over then. A few years back San Francisco’s library system committed a major crime against books and readers when it sent dumpsters full of valuable classics and one-of-a-kind items to the local landfill based on a “numbers are what counts” approach. The Chicago Public Library went through a scorching debate on this approach in connection with the weeding of its collections.

Today, many libraries acquire books, build and weed their collections, primarily on the basis of use. BookScan type decisions are playing a role in libraries right now. That little bar code on the books you borrow “rings up the sale.” In libraries it’s increasingly a “you use them or we all lose them” story. You won’t find this news in the “Inspiration” section of chain bookstores.

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