Sporadic Sequential
Monday, February 19, 2007
Methodology Musings

There's a lot to digest in Brian Hibbs' look at BookScan's year-end chart of 2006's best-selling books in the "adult fiction | overall | graphic novels" category, but there was one particular tidbit I wanted to focus on. After reaching the bottom of the list (where the lowest-selling title shows 4,784 copies sold in 2006), Hibbs remarks:
That’s it for “art comics” – there’s no D&Q, there’s no FirstSecond (on that one I checked with a source, yup they’re all below the 4784 line; nope, not even American Born Chinese)
Say what?!? Nothing from First Second managed to place on BookScan's list of best-selling graphic novels for 2006?????

Even after my initial shock wore off, this fact still continued to nag at me. After a while, I finally realized why: According to ICv2 interviews with First Second's editorial director Mark Siegel, at least two books from First Second each had print runs over 20,000 copies. American Born Chinese, for example, had a combined print run over 25,000. As Siegel noted, the first printing was 16,000, which was before the book was nominated for a National Book Award. The second printing was for around 10,000 copies, and there was a planned (as of Dec. 4, 2006) third printing of unspecified size. This also doesn't count copies of the more upscale, more expensive Collector's Edition, which Siegel says is "usually a print run of about 2,000 for the diehards." So even before a third printing, close to 30,000 copies of American Born Chinese were in print.

Other bestsellers for First Second included Sardine in Outer Space (three printings for a total near 25,000) and Deogratias: A Tale of Rwanda (two printings for a total near 20,000).

So where are all those books going? First, a couple assumptions/qualifications:
  1. I have no idea how closely print runs line up with actual sales. I'm sure it's not one-for-one, but I'm also assuming sales have to be fairly strong for a publisher to go back to print multiple times.

  2. I'm assuming the Direct Market was not the primary market for these books. Although I'm sure many of the finer comic shops did a good job selling these books, Diamond's graphic novel charts fail to list American Born Chinese any of the months after its September 2006 release, or on its year-end list, either. (One thing that could skew this assumption is if First Second is another one of those publishers where retailers get a better deal ordering from distributors other than Diamond, in which case of course First Second's books aren't going to show up on Diamond's lists.)
Based on this, I'm guessing that what's happening is that at least some of First Second's books are getting classified in a category other than "adult fiction | overall | graphic novels." According to the BookScan website:
Nielsen BookScan categorizes first under the headings: Adult fiction, Adult non-fiction, Children and Other. Within these categories subjects or genres are broken out further in order to reflect common subject groups such as mystery, romance, art, cooking, study aids, toddler and young adult, etc.. Nielsen BookScan uses BISAC codes, a system of over 4,000 tags devised by the Book Industry Study Group used to determine where a title falls in the subject groupings.
So BookScan starts with four high-level groupings — Adult fiction, Adult non-fiction, Children and Other — and then narrows it down from there. And the list Hibbs is looking at is only covering graphic novels from the adult fiction quadrant. And, back to ICv2's interview with Mark Siegel, it sounds like some of their books may be categorized under the "Children" heading:
In chains, is that series going into the children's department?
Sardines [sic] is, and from our second list, sometimes Kampung Boy has been going into children's. Even Journey into Mohawk Country, which is our first real non-fiction entry, is sometimes shelved in the children's section. Mostly the rest of our list gets shelved with graphic novels.

Of course, being shelved in a section isn't the same as BookScan tagging it that way for tracking, but I'm guessing Sardine is actually classified as a children's book given the target audience. (I don't have my copy with me; otherwise I'd check the classification on the back cover myself.) I have no idea if this could account for American Born Chinese's mysterious absence from the BookScan list, but it was nominated for an award in the Youth Literature category, so it's possible.

Another possibility, of course, is that First Second's books are selling in venues that aren't tracked by BookScan. Given BookScan's apparent penetration into the bookstore market, however, this seems lees likely. (Although perhaps not as unlikely as it might first seem. The example of the gap between Fun Home's sales and the sales measured through BookScan is another case of wondering where those sales are coming from. (Oops — upon further googling, it looks like the 55K figure is for books in print, not actual sales, so perhaps the sales gap isn't quite as pronounced.))

In closing, this is just my long, rambly way of saying: Yeah, these kinds of sales lists are always interesting, but they should always be taken with a grain of salt. In the case of First Second, the disconnect between print run figures from the publisher and sales figures from BookScan is large enough to make me question the overall usefulness of BookScan's data. It may be helpful for tracking larger overall trends (manga continues to dominate the sales charts but DC is doing better and better in the bookstore market) but when you start to drill down and look at specific examples, everything begins to grow murky. Or, as Hibbs said more succinctly in his intro, "There are three kinds of lies: Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics."