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Publishers Weekly adds real numbers to its best-seller lists

Best-seller lists are tricky things, because no one except the people who put them together knows what the numbers really are. Now Publishers Weekly is ripping off the veil and will publish the top 25 listings in the weekly BookScan sales charts with actual numbers attached. Heidi MacDonald explains what’s going on at The Beat; this week’s chart is free, but after that PW will put it behind a paywall.

This information is fascinating but comes with a couple of caveats. BookScan, which is a service provided by A.C. Nielsen, tracks books sold in bookstores, including Amazon but not including the direct market, mass-market stores such as Wal-Mart, book fairs, or sales to libraries. So when you look at the list, it’s useful to keep in mind that some books will do better in comics shops than bookstores, while for others, such as manga and graphic-novel memoirs, the opposite will be true. What’s more, BookScan doesn’t cover the whole market— Heidi says it captures 80 percent, but her commenters dispute that. In other words, the charts only give a piece of the picture, and it’s more accurate for some books than for others.

To me, the most interesting column is the last one, which shows the number of copies sold this year to date. My rough rule of thumb is that a book has to sell about 3,000 copies to break even, and by that measure, most of the non-superhero books are doing well (and the superhero ones are probably selling gangbusters in the direct market).

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