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Clobbering the competition at BookNet Canada’s PubFight

PubFight kittens (courtesy BookNet Canada)

Publishing is a competitive industry, but perhaps no more so than during PubFight season, an annual fantasy publishing game that pits professionals against each other using live sales data.

Q&Q spoke to BookNet Canada CEO and president Noah Genner, one of the masterminds behind PubFight.

How did PubFight begin? Part of BookNet’s mandate is to educate people in the industry and entering the industry on analytics and data science, and how it can all be used in book publishing and on the retail side. Sales data was a relatively new thing when we launched our program almost 10 years ago. A lot of people in Canada hadn’t had access to it before, so we tried to find ways to make people adopt it or use it a little more.

One of those ways was to get sales data in front of people and get them used to using it. And a way of doing that is to gameify it. I am a huge fan of fantasy sports games and have run a fantasy sports pool for 20 some-odd years.

Who participates in the game? There are two tracks. We have the live or trade PubFight, which are industry professionals made up of our staff, retailers, publishers, distributors, and wholesalers. Usually we run about 10 to 12 leagues, with about 10 people each. It’s free to play, the only condition to play is that you have to be a SalesData subscriber or contributing retailer. The reason for that is we’re using real live sales data for the titles and there are confidentiality details.

We’re recruiting now and groups are just forming, including ones from the Literary Press Group, Indigo, and Random House. Most of the leagues come from within a certain office, so you get a league from Scholastic competing against their co-workers, but there are some leagues that cross publishers. For some people it’s their real-life job, but often there are people from editorial or marketing who don’t have a direct relationship with the numbers.

Also, most of the higher-education publishing programs “ Ryerson, Centennial, Humber, Simon Fraser University, and York “ run leagues for their students, but with historical sales data.

How does the live auction work? Our auction is named Fakefurt. BookNet, along with a few industry people, pulls together a list of titles for the season, usually about 300 to 400 titles going to pub between August and Christmas.

We build an electronic catalogue, just like a real publisher, and make those titles available to all leagues. Each league does its own live auction and each publishing house or player has to build a fall list from those titles. You have $200,000 and you have to buy 10 titles. So, for instance, if you spent $135,000 on Harry Potter, you’d only have $65,000 to spend on the other nine titles. It’s a supply-chain tool, its not about literary merit.

What happens after the auction? As titles sell in the real world, you get credited in your fantasy publishing league. But you also have to manage virtual print runs. Those aren’t real, but as the season progresses, you have to keep reprinting and managing stock levels as if you’re a real publisher. If you run out at any time, you don’t get credit for any real sales.

There are different ways to print: offset takes three weeks, digital takes a week, and those costs go against the balance sheet for your publisher, along with the advances you paid for the original titles.

How do you win PubFight? At the end of the season, we declare a winner in each league with the best net profit. We have a small party with all the participants, and declare a top league and an overall winner.

At the party it’s interesting to see people from different publishers or retailers or different roles get together and have this common thing to talk about. But really, it’s just supposed to be fun.

This interview has been edited and condensed.