In the past four years, tracking the sales of religion books has exploded in sophistication with the advent of tools like Nielsen BookScan (which tracks sales in various ABA channels) and STATS (which does the same for the CBA, or evangelical Christian market). Individual accounts like Wal-Mart and Amazon also provide many publishers with weekly sales updates. Although the technology isn't perfect and the range of reporting bookstores is still incomplete, BookScan and similar services have entirely changed the way religion publishers do business.

No More Fudging

Many publishers used to be more generous in calculating their sales than they can be today. In the freewheeling days before BookScan, publishers could inflate sales numbers when they were trying to promote an author to bookstores, and agents sometimes overestimated an author's prior sales history when pitching a new book to an editor. Byron Williamson, CEO and president of Integrity Publishers, said, "Back then, we just had publishers' numbers. And some people were more evangelistic with those numbers than others. They call it 'preacher count.' "

BookScan makes such old-fashioned puffery difficult to pull off. For example, one publisher PW talked to was recently thinking of picking up rights to a book that its original publisher claimed had sold more than 5,000 copies. "On BookScan, the title had sold, and I'm not kidding, one copy," the source said. "I've had examples where an agent or author has told me that their book sold x number of copies, and I look it up on BookScan and see that's not the case. If the disparity is too large, then I know something's not quite right."

Religion's Black Hole

Still, BookScan is not yet an infallible tool for sniffing out actual sales. The service is widely considered to represent about 70% of the sales of a typical ABA trade title, with the other 30% coming from special sales, bulk sales, book club purchases and other retail channels (with the most glaring lacunae being Wal-Mart and Sam's Club, which don't report to BookScan). But for religion publishers, BookScan numbers cannot represent that large a proportion of sales, since BookScan does not try to track religious bookstores.

John Helmus, director of sales analysis and market planning for Wiley, said he regards BookScan as one useful tool among many when piecing together a mosaic of data. "We try to extrapolate using information from STATS, BookScan, Barnes & Noble and Amazon, compared to our other religion titles. We have a good sense of how much would go to CBA and the different religion channels."

Sometimes the difference between what BookScan reports and what publishers know from their own sales data can be substantial. In early 2004, Zondervan reported sales for Rick Warren's blockbuster The Purpose-Driven Life as exceeding 11 million copies in all of 2003. But, according to Zondervan, BookScan had reported only 2.4 million for 2003, or just under 21% of the total sales claimed by the publisher.

Data for one of Zondervan's other top authors, prolific novelist Karen Kingsbury, show an even greater discrepancy. In mid-February, Verne Kenney, v-p of sales at Zondervan, told PW that even though Kingsbury was the number one current fiction author in the CBA (and held five of the other spots on the CBA bestsellers list), her BookScan numbers for the previous month didn't reflect her overall transactions. "On her top fiction title [Beyond Tuesday Morning], BookScan data reported about 3.2% of what we know we sold at POS," Kenney said. "It doesn't have what's going on in the Christian marketplace. That's a fundamental problem."

Sales for Warner Faith's golden boy, Joel Osteen, show a similar incongruity. According to information obtained by PW from a different publisher, Osteen's Your Best Life Now is registered by BookScan as selling 392,306 copies in 2004 and 157,254 copies in 2005 as of February 16, for a total of 549,560 copies to date. But by mid-February, Warner Faith had shipped 2.2 million copies and estimated a sell-through of 1.7 million—more than three times the BookScan estimate. "We're selling enormous amounts of books every week in Sam's and Wal-Mart, and those aren't recorded," confirms Rolf Zettersten, publisher of Warner Faith and Center Street.

STATS: Tracking the CBA

Maybe BookScan has shied away from tracking CBA sales because there's another tool that already does that. Launched in December 2000, the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association database STATS (which stands for Sales, Tracking, Analysis, Trends, and Summary) canvasses nearly 1,000 CBA stores each week for point-of-sale information. "We have data coming in from chain, regional chain, indie and even some unique stores such as church bookstores," said Kelly Gallagher, v-p of business development for ECPA. Since CBA itself reports that Christian chain stores (e.g., Berean, Family Christian, Lifeway, Mardel, etc.) represent only about 28%—30% of the overall sales volume in the evangelical Christian market, ECPA weights its reporting STATS stores so that chains represent no more than 30% of the aggregate.

Gallagher said that STATS currently has 53 subscribers, 33 of which are publishers. (Others include distributors, international rights buyers and Bible printers.) Christian publishers interviewed for this story were pleased with STATS overall and emphasized its usefulness in their business. "STATS has been a great tool for us," said Gary Davidson, v-p of CBA sales for Thomas Nelson. Davidson noted that when he came to publishing eight years ago from the Christian music business, "there was nothing" in the way of reliable POS information. "STATS was like going from zero to 100 miles per hour. Sometimes we struggle with how to use it most effectively and how to learn the tools in a limited amount of time. But it's changed everything."

Not every Christian publisher is as enamored. Warner Faith's Zettersten said it is useful to editors when they're looking to acquire an author, because "it does give you some idea of an author's market distribution" in the CBA. "But for us it's not a reliable source, because it's completely inconsistent. At one point, we thought it represented a third of the CBA market, then half, then a quarter. It's different for every book." Zettersten also questioned whether it's possible to get an accurate assessment of the total Christian retail scene when that climate is changing rapidly and stores are closing every week.

ECPA is hard at work trying to improve the service. Nelson's Davidson is enthusiastic about STATS+, an optional higher-fee subscription service that debuts this week. It automatically creates the kinds of reports that Nelson has in the past generated itself using the basic sales information from STATS. "You just click a button, and it'll do a pie chart or a bar graph of a trend," he said. "They're also looking at being able to report ABA and international sales. To have one source that you can use for everything would be incredible." ECPA's Gallagher confirms that STATS+, through a special partnership with Bowker (which provides the software overlay), will give subscribers extensive customized reporting on everything from market share to author efficiency.

Gallagher added, "We are now giving serious assessment to what we've done with categories. When we created the categories, we did them for publishers who were selling predominantly in a niche called 'Christian retail.' Now Christian publishers sell 50% of their product in other markets. So the question is whether to use the CPC [Christian Product Code] or the BISAC code. We've talked with BISAC about integrating back into the BISAC subject codes."

Tracking Non-CBA markets

The evangelical Christian market is the 800-pound gorilla of religion book sales, but other niche markets exist that have yet to be systematically stalked the way that ABA and CBA sales are. Chief among these is the nation's Catholic market, which serves a potential audience of up to 65 million Americans. (Of these, Loyola Press's senior acquisitions editor Joe Durepos figures that about 17 million "put their butts in the pews in Mass each Sunday.")

Because many Catholic readers buy their books in ABA chain stores, BookScan should theoretically be more accurate in gauging the liturgical market than it might be for evangelical stores. But in reality, according to Matthew Diener, Loyola's managing editor, "We're lucky if a third to a half of actual sales of Catholic titles are tracked by BookScan. We sell a good percentage of our titles through the parish market, which of course is never reported." That's especially true, he said, of smaller Catholic houses whose books aren't routinely carried by the ABA stores, and of any books that will sell fewer than 10,000 copies. It takes a certain critical mass of sales before a Catholic book will be carried in an ABA chain store, thereby ensuring that at least some of its sales wind up on BookScan.

For Catholic authors, the other major factor is back-of-room sales. Diener cites as one example Chris Lowney's Heroic Leadership: Best Practices from a 450-year-old Company That Changed the World. On BookScan, the Jesuit-modeled business book "only shows a few thousand, rather than the 20-something thousand that we've sold." Lowney's demanding schedule of speaking at Jesuit colleges and to business organizations is responsible for the difference. Another example is Matthew Kelly, who this month owns the top two spots on the Catholic bestseller list compiled by the Catholic Book Publishers Association. Durepos said that Kelly, who has sold about 750,000 books and tapes at his own events, doesn't register high on BookScan. "For his [self-published] book The Rhythm of Life,90% of his 100,000 hardcover copies were sold at church events." Last November, S&S Fireside picked up the rights and did a repackaged edition, but even that isn't manifesting as well on BookScan (21,000 copies sold) as the author and publisher know he's actually sold (at least 36,000).

Michelle Rapkin, v-p and director of Doubleday Religion, which has a strong Catholic emphasis, agrees that Catholic book sales are definitely "much more grassroots." Moreover, "it's a grassroots scenario without very large platforms like electronic media, TV and radio. How many Catholic personalities are there who have large radio ministries? And aside from EWTN, there's no Catholic equivalent to The 700 Club or Trinity Broadcast. So you can't rely on as much of a public profile or platform. You can rely on people who are selling large numbers of books in the backs of churches." One of those people is Scott Hahn, who has sold nearly half a million copies of his books with Doubleday, many of them at his own events. "He probably travels 40 weekends a year," said Rapkin.

Direct author sales are also a driving force in the smaller Buddhist market, which features a few household names (the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh) alongside a much larger pool of lesser-known gurus, workshop leaders and meditation teachers. "If a person has a dharma center where they give a talk every week, word of mouth builds," said Rod Meade Sperry, media and publicity director for Wisdom Publications. "Having teachers as authors is a wonderful thing because they have a constant forum." Sperry said a significant portion of Wisdom's books sell to its core Buddhist audience either directly from the publisher, through a dharma center or at an esoteric or metaphysical bookshop—none of which register on BookScan. "So for us, BookScan is kind of incomplete, but it does give a good sense of a giant segment of the market."

Another niche that's not on BookScan's radar is the Jewish market. Jewish Lights editor-in-chief and publisher Stuart Matlins said that the Jewish book world is small and decentralized, with no specialized distributor. "There's no New Leaf or Spring Arbor. So there's no centralized source of information." Jewish bookstores and synagogue gift shops only account for 10%—15% of Jewish Lights' overall sales. The other pieces of the pie go to ABA independents (10%—15%), mainline and liturgical Christian bookstores (10%—15%), Amazon (11%), Barnes & Noble (10%) and Borders (9%—10%), with the bulk of the rest being direct-to-consumer sales.

Matlins said he gets "sufficient reporting from Barnes & Noble and Amazon to meet our needs. All information is interesting, but not all information is equally useful. I'd do virtually nothing with BookScan information, because we're not in the business of high volume sales. We're not printing 50,000 copies of something." (Publishers report that BookScan charges its subscribers on a sliding scale based on annual sales volume, with smaller houses paying in the very low five figures and larger publishers stretching into six. BookScan declined to be interviewed for this story, citing time constraints due to employees' round-the-clock efforts to beta-test a new version of the company's Web site.)

The one religion market that is at least partially included in BookScan's weekly canvas is the LDS (Mormon) market, where Deseret Book, the top retail chain, contributes its numbers weekly. "All of our stores are ABA members, so it's an opportunity that comes to us as part of that association," said Keith Hunter, v-p of sales and development for Deseret Book.

Still, he said, the Mormon market is far from fully represented in BookScan's figures, since Deseret's 41 stores constitute only a fraction of the 700 or so LDS stores (many are small, mom-and-pop affairs). BookScan numbers, he said, are helpful for indicating "how our books are doing in the national market," since Deseret is a publisher as well as a retailer.

Changing the Process

Although tools like BookScan and STATS were originally created to help publishers track their sell-through (versus their sell-in before store returns), in the past four years the tools have changed the entire publishing process. In acquisitions, editors check actual sales numbers against the claims of authors and agents when offering a contract. Publishers also are using BookScan to track the effectiveness of publicity campaigns. Roger Freet, a senior editor at Harper San Francisco who spent several years on the sales and marketing side there, said, "If we have an NPR booking in Cleveland, we can see how the book sales do in that region that week. We're obviously a high-publicity culture, and to track the tangible fruits of a media booking in a particular geographic area is great."

Joel Fotinos, v-p and publisher of Penguin/Tarcher, said that BookScan's geographical tracking allowed him to market a book aggressively in one region, testing the waters before launching it nationwide. The summer 2004 title Small Changeby Susan and Larry Terkel broke out in the authors' home region of the Midwest before making a splash on the national scene. "We went back to print a second and third time within the first six weeks of publication," he said. "By using BookScan, we were able to see that a good portion of sales were indeed in the region that we focused on. So we knew the campaign had worked, and we could take it to the next level."

BookScan and STATS are still in their early stages, signing on subscribers and expanding their cross-section of reporting stores, but they've already changed the landscape of religion publishing. Some publishers expect that BookScan will eventually take on more of the religion market, and they regard it as a positive sign that in the U.K. some Christian stores have already begun reporting to BookScan. Others express hope that services like BookScan and STATS can merge or cooperate to create one-stop information shopping. Clearly, such services are here to stay.

BookScan and STATS at a Glance

Nielsen BookScan STATS
Date the service went live January 2001 December 2000
Stores canvassed Approximately 4,500 retailers, including ABA chain stores like Borders and Barnes & Noble; some ABA independents; Amazon; and some discount stores like Target and K-Mart Approximately 1,000 CBA chains and independents
Stores not tracked Wal-Mart and the price clubs; book clubs, special sales or back-of-room sales; most religious bookstores Any stores outside the evangelical Christian market
How often updated Every Wednesday Every Wednesday
Coding used BISAC, the system of 3,000 book category codes developed by the Book Industry Study Group CPCs, the ECPA's own system of categorization (though this may change)
Future plans Currently beta-testing a new version of the Web site, which will soon be launched to subscribers This week, ECPA will debut STATS+, which can analyze trends, author efficiency and market share