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Consolidated Sales Data Hard to Find

But changes to data reporting are coming.

An article in Publisher’s Weekly highlights the problem of getting accurate sales data for religious books, when there are so many sales channels and so many different definitions of “religious” or “spiritual.”

Here are some highlights from the first paragraph, and three paragraphs in the middle of the article.   You can read the whole piece here for a limited time.

Counting religion book sales is an exercise in balancing data and definition. No one source has all the numbers; the category “religion” can contain everything from fiction and history to memoir and self-help, and more. But because publishing is a numbers-driven game, everyone would love better data for these changing economic times, preferably with good news.

Within publishing, there’s religion publishing, and then there’s evangelical Christian publishing, a subset of a subset. “We’re a bit more drilled down than the religion category,” says Michael Covington, who is information and education director at the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association and the group’s stats guru. ECPA has historically been able to do a good job of capturing data from Christian retailers, but the success of Christian publishing and its expansion into the general market has brought growing pains to the industry. Covington estimates that two-thirds of Christian products are now sold outside Christian channels: in Wal-Mart, at amazon.com, in general market bookstores.

Covington, who met with Lubeck and Jordan recently, says more information is always helpful. ECPA is now working on its own refinements of data collection for and from its member publishers. It is testing a new model that aggregates sales data from publishers into seven channels, so publishers can learn more about what is selling where. The seven channels: Christian retail; Internet sales; general trade; mass market; international export; wholesalers; direct to consumer; and all other. He says data grouped in this way will better show backlist strength and channel exclusives and near-exclusives, enabling publishers to gamble less, or smarter, with frontlist. “This isn’t data anybody’s seen before,” Covington says.

Some Christian publishing veterans argue that their size in the market as a whole is underreported because industry statistical tallies are so fragmented and incomplete. “My frustration is there is no one place to get an accurate picture of sales,” says Jonathan Merkh, v-p and publisher at Howard Books, a Christian imprint of S&S. Nielsen BookScan, which collects point of sales data that by its estimate includes 75% of retail sales, doesn’t include sales from Wal-Mart, where Christian books do well, nor does it include some Christian retail chains. Religion numbers from Bowker are also partial; it counts published books in an annual tally, and its PubTrack service focuses on sales in the Christian market. “If they all were counted by one source, people would be surprised at how well this category is doing,” Merkh argues.

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