The Midwinter Bump

[UPDATE FOR MIDWINTER 2013: This is last year's post, but the principles of the exercise are the same. Just didn't want to reinvent the wheel.]

As the ebooks in libraries war rages on, we’ve been having a tough time putting our money where our mouths are. In my last post, I talked a bit about our’ struggle to prove their worth to a publishing industry that’s less than receptive to emotional appeals. As long as publishers see library loans as “lost sales,” it’s going to be incredibly difficult to convince the Simon & Schusters and Penguins of the world to sell us their eBooks on mutually beneficial terms.

So much of what we do to fuel the engine of book discourse is intangible by nature. As a profession that holds quantifiable information so dear, it’s a sad irony that we’re unable to document just how much we’re able to contribute to book sales, be they e- or p-.

But an opportunity to do just that is just around the corner.

After all, Midwinter is coming.

At Midwinter, ALA gives out awards for notable books in a host of categories. For awards like the Newbery or Caldecott, this can mean immortality. Children’s titles are notorious for having short shelf lives. Getting that silver or gold medal on your cover ensures that your title will be noticed (and purchased) for years to come. But we haven’t really been able to quantify how much of a bump these awards provide.

I suggest we do that this year.

Here’s my cockamamie idea: I’d like to get a snapshot of where the award-winning book in each category currently stands sales-wise, and then compare that to its sales after the award announcements. We can take a look at how the title’s Amazon ranking is affected, and use this to get a rough idea of just how much a library-given award can contribute in terms of added sales.

Of course, in order to get a snapshot of a book’s pre-award sales, I’m going to need to know who’s going to win. Good little librarian that I am, I don’t want to compromise each committee’s commitment to secrecy. So I’m going to need someone from each award-bestowing body to take the snapshot, and share it with me after the fact. Call it a white-hat black op. Are you in?

How you can help:Do you belong to one of the committees listed below? Send me an email (theanalogdivide at gmail dot com) to let me know you’re willing to rise to this challenge.

Once your group has selected its award winner, go to Amazon and take a screenshot of its Amazon ranking (here’s an example, for 2004’s Newbery winner, The Tale of Desperaux.) If you want extra credit, find its position on the Amazon Top 100 list for its main category (such as Children’s Books, Teens, or Mystery), and take a screenshot of its ranking.

After the announcement has been made, we’ll go back and see whether these titles move up or down on the list.

I’ll update this as volunteers come in. If there’s an award that I’m missing, please let me know.

  • Andrew Carnegie Medal
  • Coretta Scott King Book Awards
  • Coretta Scott King – Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement
  • John Newbery Medal – CHALLENGE ACCEPTED
  • Margaret A. Edwards Award
  • May Hill Arbuthnot Honor Lecture
  • Michael L. Printz Award – CHALLENGE ACCEPTED
  • Mildred L. Batchelder Award
  • Odyssey Award
  • Pura Belpré Awards
  • Randolph Caldecott Medal – CHALLENGE ACCEPTED
  • Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Medal
  • Schneider Family Book Award – CHALLENGE ACCEPTED
  • Stonewall Book Award – Barbara Gittings Literature Award – CHALLENGE ACCEPTED
  • Stonewall Book Award – Israel Fishman Non-Fiction Award – CHALLENGE ACCEPTED
  • Stonewall Children’s & Young Adult Literature Award – CHALLENGE ACCEPTED
  • Theodore Seuss Geisel Award
  • William C. Morris Award
  • YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults

There are probably too many titles on these lists to measure everything. But if we can pick a couple of titles off of each list, it might serve as a good sample.  It’d be nice to have at least one title from each category:

  • Adrenaline
  • Fantasy
  • Historical Fiction
  • Horror
  • Mystery
  • Romance
  • Science Fiction
  • Women’s Fiction

Additional categories (and volunteers) are trickling in.

  • Listen List (audiobooks) – CHALLENGE ACCEPTED
  • YALSA Great Graphic Novels List – CHALLENGE ACCEPTED

I hope you’ll join me in this crazy experiment. Questions? Comments? Suggestions for better data? Let’s talk in the comments below.

  • Andromeda Yelton

    Suggestion for better data: also ask them to take snapshots, or record data sans titles if that’s better, for books considered but not awarded, as a sort of control.

  • Eli

    I’m all for blops, but how will this convince publishers that ebook checkouts aren’t lost sales? It’s not the marketing departments that need to be convinced, it’s the boardrooms, and for
    them we’re in the tough spot of having to prove a negative. Realistically, the only entity that would have the data and the willingness to examine it to find the causal link or lack thereof
    between borrowing and buying is amazon! It will also
    be very interesting to see what kind of pressure is
    applied to the committees that have accepted your challenge. regardless, this is a great idea and I’m intrigued to see if we can catch a snapshot of the midwinter bump!

  • Guest

    As an author whose book was included in one of these wonderful awards in the past, I should warn you that amazon (or bookscan) rankings mean very little toward scientific data of the “bump” due to the more significant rise in sales coming through other channels. But good luck. Sounds like an interesting project. 

  • Anonymous

    That’s a fantastic idea, Andromeda, and one that I’ll share with my folks on the inside. I’m totally flying by the seat of my pants on this so I’m more than open for ways to improve this experiment.

  • Sarah Cornell

    I think this is a great idea as well.  I’ve just been thinking through Guest’s concern about Amazon versus all the other sales channels.  At first I wanted to suggest getting sales data from library vendors (YBP, B&T, Midwest, etc.) but perhaps that data is too circular for your needs.  (Look! Librarians buy it more often when the ALA gives it an award!) If you want to find out if civilians buy more copies, then what other data sources are we missing…?  Does the independent booksellers association collect data like this? Can you trace the ALA-award-then-bestseller connection? 

    Just some ideas. I’m looking forward to seeing how it goes!

  • Anonymous

    You’re right on all counts, Eli, as you so often are. I don’t expect this to be the definitive statement on how libraries influence book sales. It’s really more of a attempt to create any quantifiable data that might give us a foot in the door of those smoke-filled rooms. Here’s hoping there’s at least something that registers.

  • Anonymous

    This is an issue, and it’s always going to be difficult to obtain a comprehensive portrait of any sort of sales figures. (Even if there’s a bump in the Amazon numbers, it remains in question whether it’s due to the MW announcements. Correlation/causation, etc etc.) I’m probably not the person to be doing this kind of research – but I figure I can at least get the conversation started. Thanks for your comment.

  • Anonymous

    Sarah, Bookscan is probably what you’re looking for as a) data is automatically generated from points-of-sale at major retailers and b) they deliberately don’t include libraries in their tallies. That mainly covers major retailers (airports, B&N, etc), but indies aren’t really included in that – those numbers are generally tracked by IndieBound.
    I’ve got a few feelers out to find people with access to either/both. As I mentioned above, I’m pretty much flying by the seat of my pants here. I don’t expect to create a full-blown analysis of how these awards can affect sales activity.  I’d just like to find out whether library efforts can make a ripple in the pond. Once we get these initial results, we can see about structuring a more rugged experiment.

  • Ron Michael Zettlemoyer

    I don’t think you have to manually try to get before and after snapshots of the book rankings, at least as far as Amazon goes. Services like use Amazon’s API to track sales rankings over time.  Someone could easily even build an app around your idea and the Amazon API to more easily accomplish what you’re thinking of: build a history of rankings, let you add award winners to a list, and start more actively tracking and reporting on them.

    You’d probably want to add non-Amazon data to your calculations, like bestsellers lists from the NYT and the like. Adding library circulation figures could also be interesting – did it increase interest in borrowing the book? Do some awards only increase borrowing while others increase purchasing? I forget the name but there is at least one initiative to start some kind of library data sharing where libraries anonymously share information that might help with this.

    There are also some interesting comments about this here:

  • Anonymous

    These are all terrific suggestions, Ron, and I’d love to use code to automate this process. The only problem right now is time. Awards are announced on Monday, and I don’t really have the ability to put something together on my own.

    But this is something I’d like to do down the road, along with additional sources like the NYT bestseller rankings, Indiebound, and others. This is just a jumping-off point. Maybe we can get some people together to come up with other ideas. 

  • Handerson

    How about doing sonething with PW starred reviews?

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