My most popular question as Publishing Librarian

As the Publishing Liaison Librarian not only do I answer questions from people in Publishing, but also from other SFU students and the general public. The most popular Publishing question I’m asked would be:

“How many copies of [Book X] were sold?”

Quite a few people think this is a nice, straightforward question.  Alas, The Big Book of All the Book Sales is a myth. To the surprise of no-one in Publishing, the first line of enquiry is to contact the actual publisher of the book. This can be through the Publisher’s website, found either with a quick Web search or through a listing such as BNC’s Catalist or Northern Lights. There is also searching Books in Print (BIP) in the Publisher section, which is is no longer at SFU but is available at local public or academic libraries.

Of course, publishers don’t have to reveal information about their book sale numbers, or in fact even respond to questions if they don’t want to.  Many people just give up on the question by this point  (often because it was an idle question in the first place), but for those who really want to know and are willing to some digging, here are some search suggestions.

For a recent book, there might be article articles about it in Quill & Quire or Publishers Weekly.  For Quill and Quire, the SFU community can search CBCA Complete with  a search such as: pub(quill and quire) AND [Book X]. For Publishers Weekly, the SFU community can search Business Source Complete with a search on the Subject: “Book title X (Book)”, e.g. HARRY Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone (Book). This approach usually works if the book is a bestseller.  A related search path is to find ads for the book in magazines such as Quill & Quire,  Publishers Weekly  or New York Times Book Review. Again, if a book is a bestseller the publisher will often boast of the number of copies sold in ads.

For an older book, perhaps someone else has done the legwork and has mentioned it in a biography of the author or criticism of the book. Otherwise, there is again asking the publisher, if still in existence, or possibly the checking archives of the publisher, such as through SFU’s Canadian Publishers’ Records. This should be left to people interested in undertaking painstaking research.

Finally, in a related search, there is finding information on when the book was on bestseller lists. On the PUB 371 course page there are some resources on publisher information, including bestseller lists.  (Note: Since BNC Research is one the of listed resources I’ll mention that, yes, BookNet Canada and Nielsen BookScan do track sales for publishers and bookstore, but alas, these data are not revealed to the public or academic researchers. That would make it too easy…)