Publishers are notoriously cagey when it comes to announcing sales figures of books, but what if books got sales RIAA-style certifications (gold, platinum, diamond) the way hot albums and songs do in the music industry? It might be interesting for readers to know how the bestsellers truly stack up next to each other in sales. Having concrete benchmarks like these could add some competition and swagger to an industry that can be seen as down-market and somewhat sleepy. According to Publishing Perspectives, Sarah Wendell of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, who recently posed this question, argued that “honorifics would help customers know what books had sustained long-term interest with readers and would, ultimately, aid in discovery and spur even more sales.”
For most authors who don’t regularly top the bestsellers lists, the idea of sales info going public is nerve-racking. When Amazon announced in December that they’d give authors free access to Nielsen BookScan’s weekly geographic sales figures (previously hidden behind a paywall costing thousands a year), some authors spoke out against the idea. YA author Christine Johnson tweeted, “Amazon gives authors access to Bookscan numbers. In other news, thousands of authors go on automatic suicide watch.”
Some of this anxiety comes from the fact that a large percentage of published authors post tiny, almost negligible sales figures (the average book sells 500 copies in America). Even the highest profile authors are prone to unpredictable flops (I can’t decide whether The Situation and Snooki’s low book sales are a surprise or not), and especially in the realm of political punditry, authors use embarrassing sales data as ammo against their competitors. Also, BookScan numbers aren’t particularly reliable – because they don’t track transactions made at every book vendor, the numbers are often not-so-generous, or worse, “woefully inaccurate.” On a finer point, cold, hard numbers are not always an accurate metric for success; other factors, like number of copies shipped and returned can make judging book sales very complicated.
Still, Americans love rankings, and I think it would be fun to see certifications single out the runaway hits, even if we don’t need to know the exact numbers for any given book. I remember in an undergraduate fiction writing workshop, my professor warned the class that there are fewer than 300 writers in the U.S. who make a living solely from their books. Her point was that no one should go into writing novels for the money, which is undeniably good advice, but I don’t see the harm in celebrating the exceptions to the rule to give aspirants hope. Also, it wouldn’t be bad for the book biz to look at least as relevant and exciting as the music industry. The last album to go diamond (sell upwards of 10 million copies) was Usher’s Confessions back in 2004; plenty of books have done way better than that since then.
What do you think about book sales certifications: good, bad, or unnecessary? What should the cut-off numbers for gold, platinum, and diamond be?