As a growing number of independent booksellers join the major chains in signing up for BookScan's sophisticated sales-tracking service, publishers are hailing this new technology as a major step toward a more efficient industry. BookScan allows publishers to improve their marketing efforts, while also managing their stock more effectively, by providing "the kind of baseline data that any executive worth his stock options uses for business decisions," according to the Dallas Morning News. The Washington Post's Clive Thompson speculated that the landscape of publishing could change dramatically under BookScan, "particularly when you consider the enormous impact its sister company, SoundScan, created in the music industry." It is precisely this relationship to SoundScan, however, in conjunction with my own experience as a recording artist, that gives me pause about the unintended effects of BookScan technology. As Christopher Dreher recently reflected on, "SoundScan revolutionized the [music] industry... but critics say that it is also increasing the rise of shoddy, market-driven pop music."

Most record industry executives embraced SoundScan's sales-tracking service when it first launched in 1989, and they continue to do so, even while acknowledging that it tends to benefit mass merchants and major labels more than smaller stores and independent labels. According to Danny Goldberg, formerly a top executive at Atlantic Records and Warner Brothers, and now president of Artemis Records (an independent), SoundScan provides "much better information than was previously available"; nevertheless, he concedes, "the smaller the total number of units sold, the less accurate it is likely to be," and data on releases with low sales figures can be "deceptive or downright inaccurate." The Future of Music Coalition, an advocacy group for recording artists that studies the effects of new technologies on the business, reports that SoundScan is prohibitively expensive for many independent stores and labels. FMC executive director Jenny Toomey argues further that "SoundScan ushered in the age of 'scientific spaghetti'—i.e., you throw everything against the wall and 'know' in a week what has the best chance to stick over the long haul."

Indeed, Toomey's analysis captures the essence of my own experience after my rock band, Girls Against Boys, signed to Geffen Records, a major label, in 1996. We came to Geffen with a solid following in place; our previous album, released by Chicago-based independent Touch & Go Records, had sold 70,000 copies worldwide. Working with Geffen was a great opportunity for us to build upon that success. In meetings with Geffen executives, we mapped out an 18-month marketing plan for the new album. When the CD hit the racks in record stores, SoundScan reported a strong first week, with nearly 6,000 sales, buoyed by a healthy amount of radio airplay; the second week was good as well, with sales of around 4,000; by week three, the figure had dipped to 2,700, and radio play had barely increased. Evidently, it soon became clear to Geffen executives that the record wasn't "sticking"—despite initial sales much greater than any of our previous releases. We had hardly begun our months of touring in support of the album, yet the plug was pulled on all major promotion: the 18-month marketing plan had been discarded.

Being a hardworking band with an international audience, we took matters into our own hands and kept the record alive by touring in the U.S., Canada and Europe—and the CD went on to sell over 80,000 copies worldwide. But given that we had come to Geffen with a fan base nearly that large already in place, we were stunned by the label's decision to abandon the album. In an industry obsessed with immediate results—measured almost exclusively through weekly sales and radio reports—SoundScan data became a nail in the coffin of our new record.

Granted, Geffen needed a lot more than 80,000 sales to break even on its investment—we had been paid a hefty advance, and major record promotion routinely costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. There was a time, however, when "artist development" meant more than a hunt for instant radio hits. It's important that publishers not succumb to similar regressive marketing tendencies and remain committed to long-term promotion of their authors and their books. One of BookScan's major challenges for publishers, therefore, is to use the sales data to diversify marketing efforts. Nearly every record label boss will bemoan the music industry's increasing dependence on national radio hits, but few will acknowledge their own role in the shrinking of marketing avenues over the past decade. Regional sales information provided on a weekly basis should give rise to locally based marketing responses. But SoundScan has actually had the opposite effect, by catalyzing the music industry's dependence on giant national (and international) markets. BookScan should inform marketing campaigns, not drive them.

One of the most common critiques leveled at SoundScan is that low-selling albums are reported less accurately than hit records. The service does not track sales at many small stores and specialty venues, where a large percentage of non-mainstream music is sold. SoundScan has attempted to remedy these omissions by extrapolating sales from participating stores, but plenty of music nonetheless slips through the wide gap. Since books generally sell in smaller numbers than records, this problem should be even more pronounced with BookScan, particularly for smaller companies. Several have, in fact, already registered this complaint. These concerns nothwithstanding, most independent publishers are cautiously optimistic about the advent of BookScan. Juris Jurjevics, publisher of Soho Books, points out that book sales are already tracked closely in some other countries, and adds, "My only quarrel with BookScan is how expensive it seems to be. If it remains exclusive information here, it will give the larger firms yet another advantage." Seven Stories Press has just signed up with BookScan at a rare affordable rate secured through its distributor, PGW; and while it is too early to proffer initial assessments of the service, publisher Dan Simon complains that today's book marketing is too often "backward looking... trying to replicate yesterday's successes." Similarly, Four Walls Eight Windows publisher John Oakes says that BookScan "sounds promising... but to extrapolate future trends from it is pure pseudo-science."

The lack of accurate and reliable sales data has plagued the publishing industry, and BookScan should become increasingly elemental as a marketing tool. But looking to the music industry, it is important to note that in the era of SoundScan, CBS Records may never have stuck with Bruce Springsteen for the years it took him to connect with a large audience; he didn't realize major commercial success until the release of his third album, Born to Run. In today's marketplace, Springsteen would likely have been dropped from the label after unimpressive sales of his first record, Greetings from Asbury Park. More and more musicians and fans feel that the record industry has lost its soul in its ongoing crusade to maximize profits. My fear is that BookScan will inadvertently usher book publishing down that very same path. Seven Stories' Dan Simon opines, "Marketing-driven companies are less likely to have firmly held beliefs about what constitutes a new idea, a well-written book, a strong voice of conscience... as questions of conviction and taste become overridden by the numbers."