In Praise of the Sales Force: the stuff a publisher does for an author that the Internet can't replace

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40 Responses to “In Praise of the Sales Force: the stuff a publisher does for an author that the Internet can't replace”

  1. freshacconci says:

    As others of said, this is only true when you had independent bookstores. Those are disappearing and the clerks in the big stores have no say, influence or pull. This, I’m afraid, is just nostalgia.

  2. Narmitaj says:

    Yay! I used to be a bookstore rep. It was quite fun, but not as glam as dealing with sf writers as I was a rep in the UK for college publisher Prentice Hall (and all its US associates). Both booksellers and I shared clouds of ignorance a lot of the time, dealing with textbooks books like Cost Accounting, Discrete Time Signal Processing or Maingot’s Abdominal Operations.

    It was also pretty physical – the big central London stores I serviced at one point, like Foyles, Dillons (London University) or Modern Book Co., required weekly visits with sight of samples of everything new, and we published on average something eight books a day, some of them – like Maingot – being large-format and well over 1000 pages. Parking and carting those in was good exercise.

    Most bookstores even then (this was the early 80s) were well on top of their stock control, but Foyles was semi-mediaeval and used to get reps to stock-check our own books and make up a re-order for approval. Which was good, though of course you couldn’t take the piss as you wanted to maintain a longterm relationship. At the start of the academic year I would even help bring in stock and unpack and shelve it for them, plus we had a window we changed each fortnight.

    Being so arcane, and also as one of its sales points, Foyles used to have stock on its shelves that was years old – I remember spotting some multi-volume series in the engineering department priced in pounds and shillings 12 years after decimilisation. Another nearby area of smaller shelf space would have a pile of our Kernighan and Ritchie C Programming Language, which would turn over 100 copies a month.

    Overall Foyles was bigger than Scotland as a territory. I guess places like that are a little less common these days. But I do remember leaving university and not having had any idea there were such people as publishers’ reps only about two months weeks before I started work at it.

    In about my second week I went into some kind of an alternative bookshop in my new suit and the woman behind the counter declared she was nervous dealing with sales reps and got me to wait to see her boss… It felt mildly odd, as only about 5 minutes beforehand, in geological terms, I had been just the kind of bearded scruffy student who was presumably their most frequent customer type. Shows what a shave, a tie, a fat sample case and a company Cortina can do.

    Oops. Sorry to go on.

  3. Boeotian says:

    I agree with Cory.
    I used to work in a bookstore and I know for a fact that booksales from a specific publishing house are directly influenced by its reps and their relationships with the stores owners and staff.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I think this underscores the often misunderstood value that publishers, and, yes, record labels and promoters do for artists. The common belief is if you build it, write it, make it, and it is “good”, all you have to do is put it up on the interwebs, and people will flock to it. There are so many amazing, but sadly, obscure authors, artists, and musicians out there that simply do not value marketing and pr. For all the internet-fuelled successes, there are millions of failures that really on internet-only marketing. Having someone who knows the industry and the right people to talk to promote your work is indispensible. I am an artist, btw, not a promoter or salesperson.

  5. nicol says:

    Sales rep’s are great. They also convince bookshops to get more books and offer the books cheaper when they do.

    I run a one title publisher for the one book I co-write (with the other author). We’ve sold over 10,000 copies of the book now, and at least 5,000 have come from sales reps in the UK and North America. (the rest from online over 6 years).

    The distributors are also largely unsong – sending out parcels of books ever day to the shops that the sales reps have pitched to (or those who bring the book up on book data) and handling invoices and all the stuff I couldn’t find the time to.

    Most incredible is their cut – each party takes just 10 to 15% off the trade price, which is usually about 35 or 40% off the cover price (Amazon can be higher). So about 50-55% of the cover price goes to the book shop, sales rep and distributor. The rest goes to the small publisher.

    To recap – printed book + ISBN number (£30) + Nielson BookData registration (free) + sales rep (12-15%) + distributor (cc 10%) = working publishers!

  6. jjasper says:

    Jeff, let me see if I can be clear here, people PR and marketing departments are NOT getting laid off because “the web does it better”. There’ no proof for that, and it’s because sales are down, and the economy sucks. Major publishers are cutting back on *risk* and *expense* but that’s because they don’t have the money to take chances with, not because it doesn’t work in a decent economy.

    Books don’t need reps.

    What authors or publishers have you talked to to come to that opinion?

    Look, go talk to people like the bloggers at galleycat, or if I could somehow summon TNH to come explain things. She knows a lot more about it than I do.

    Having a personal relationship with, say, the head buyer at B&N is still an important thing, and worth money for a publisher to create that relationship. Even a relationship with the buyer at a mid sized indie chain like Books Inc in CA is a good thing.

    If reps could tell a buyers what books Oprah is gong to pick, that would be worth listening to.

    How do you think people get in front of celebrities who talk up books in the first place? Oprah may well find hers at the local book store, but there are local and national media personalities who get books to pug on TV, radio, and online exactly because of PR/marketing people at publishing companies.

    Actually meeting people in person matters. The web does things faster, and in bulk. That’s not better, though. Personal relationships, not bulk email, actually do help sales. I know this to be true because I’ve seen it happen often enough, even in these days.

    Calling PR/Marketing Reps/Buyer reps obsolete and replacing them with bulk email isn’t going to help sell books. What we’re seeing now is a contraction in new books, and only sales of established authors getting any budget.

    Again, not because marketing will fail, but because the money just isn’t there for the long term investment.

    I’ll give up trying to explain this until actual an actual publisher comes along and talks some sense. It’s possible I’m wrong here, but every person I talk to in the publishing industry (which is on a regular basis – just had a well know fantasy author crashing in my spare bedroom) come and have a say. So I’m basing what I say on primary sources.

  7. foobar says:

    @fiddy:

    You can tell Amazon not to count certain purchases. It’ll even tell you why it’s recommending something to help with that. If you often buy for other people, you could even just sign up for a separate account for that.

  8. Jeff says:

    I worked in a bookstore too and I liked to get the inside scoop on a new book. That said, the store I used to work for is closed. So is the big box down the road. So, reps can be great, but the world is changing too fast to think this part of the book-selling culture will survive. It’s recommendations on sites like BoingBoing and Amazon that sell me books. And it doesn’t cost the publisher anything to have recommendations on Amazon. It think there is a difference between romanticizing the past and coming to terms with new marketing paradigms. For the most part book sellers are ordering by the numbers, which are based on projected sales for the books that are being pushed by publishers. But, there are plenty of cases where the publisher was to small to devote much time or money to marketing a book, and the book took off anyway because of word of mouth. That means it’s the consumer that makes a book a success, not the publishing reps. Cory Doctorow, you need to be self published, at least for one book. Just one little experiment to see how the numbers change. Book stores would sell that book regardless of whether or not a Tor rep came into to the store to talk it up. I’m quite sure of it. Why wouldn’t they? But, as we know, the publishers are not just there for marketing, but for editing and validating.

  9. bililoquy says:

    That’s a lovely piece. Unfortunately, it’s not clear that those kinds of personal interactions drive much business anymore.

    Now publishers push a book by buying topshelves or fixtures in the bigbox stores. Or — and I’m looking at the back of a major ARC right now — “online review and feature attention, major blog ad campaign, USAToday.com and NYT.com, online forum for booksellers….outreach to SF, Fantasy, mystery websites and blogs.” That’s not a bad thing at all, but it is, I think, more representative of the “sales force” as it stands now. And it is, in many ways, internet-centric.

    I love my “local” indie bookstore (two hours away), but that’s just not where the business gets done.

  10. Ray Maruwa says:

    I have to say that I’m more than a little jealous. When I was trying to promote my book I couldn’t get anyone from my publisher’s sales department to even return my calls or emails.

  11. sabik says:

    Well, if it comes to that, Cory wrote not too long ago:

    In an ideal world, people without a lot of discretionary income are given the electronic edition (which costs [nearly] nothing to distribute) for free. They act like the breezes that loft the dandelion seeds — they go around, telling people about the book and its merits. In this regard, they’re better than random breezes, for they undertake a directed distribution of the book, seeking to bring it to the attention of people who are likely to have a positive response to it.

    (Follow the “Macropayments” link near the end of the article.)

  12. reginald says:

    most people in publishing love books, of all sorts,
    that is why they are drawn to that profession.

    they are capable, enthused, and ready to sell what the public wants.

    the “cannon” can await hundreds of years later.

    it is “art”.

    inb4 i work in publishing.
    (that is the cubicle opposite.)

  13. jjasper says:

    Jeff @ 21 – Oh, I’m not knocking the great work Boing Boing does in helping new authors get recognition.

    Product reps are a dying breed because the web does it better and more efficiently.

    Nonsense. The “web” doesn’t do it better. Actual marketing budgets and dedicated a dedicated PR staff does sell books. Product reps are a dying breed because *everyone* in the publishing industry is suffering.

    Cory Doctorow doesn’t need reps to push his stuff because he pushes it himself. Besides, he’s cool and charismatic and the fans know it.

    ANY proficient PR helps sell books. And his publisher did a damn good job of marketing the book, actually.

  14. Keith says:

    This is the big hurdle. I self published my first book and everything was done on the computer, from editing to layout to designing the cover. POD handled the manufacturing and distribution. I sold about 2 dozen copies just through word of mouth.

    So how do I sell more? Cons are great and all, but I can’t afford to fly my ass all over the country. Living on the West Coat, I can go to 3, maybe 4 of the regional cons a year but even that’s pushing it (I’d like to keep my day job since it’s the one paying the bills).

    What we need is an Internet based method of duplicating what Eric the Bantam Guy used to do. Unfortunately, on the Internet, that’s called Spamming.

    So, I encourage everyone to buy my book! It will make your penis bigger!

  15. Fiddy says:

    I often use Amazon for purchasing gifts for relatives, and my mom is a big mystery and chicklit fan, so now Amazon thinks that I’ve got a hard on for every Nicholas Sparks book and every Mary Higgins Clark that comes out, based on my previous purchases. These are also mixed with the Technical Geek kind of books I buy for myself to advance my IT career.

    I buy my sf at local bookstores (like the Other Change of Hobbit) and at cons (like the Potlatch I attended last weekend).

    So no, Amazon’s recommendation engine doesn’t always work the way it’s intended.

    • Antinous / Moderator says:

      I often use Amazon for purchasing gifts for relatives, and my mom is a big mystery and chicklit fan, so now Amazon thinks that I’ve got a hard on for every Nicholas Sparks book and every Mary Higgins Clark that comes out, based on my previous purchases.

      I check links in anonymous comments, so Amazon thinks that I’m interested in everything that I look up.

  16. JZwoopwoop says:

    I think you’re all missing the larger point here. Namely, that Snow Crash is a really, really great book.

  17. Apreche says:

    This is true, but the sales people are only necessary as long as there are brick and mortar stores to sell to. You don’t need salespeople to sell to Amazon.com.

  18. jjasper says:

    This is fine if you’re Cory Doctorow, but if you’re a new author without a huge pre-existing fan base, your pool of the “Sales Force” shrank a lot just now. There are fewer PR, sales and marketing people looking out for your book, senior staff who’s salaries were deemed too big were laid off because younger less experienced people could be paid less for the same position, and the young recent intern (or in many cases actual intern) handling your new book, your one chance to “make it” is overburdened, and has no clue what to do.

    It is a bad time to be a pro author, and depend on the publisher to do anything for you.

    I’m sorry, locus, but the “longitudinal, deep, expensive expertise ” is getting shashed and burned. Publishers are trying to buy only big names and sure things that don’t require expensive work by people who they just laid off anyway.

    There’s a way around this, for readers and writers, and it still involves getting your book published by a major house (because face it, you’re not going to make money the other way) but it involves deciding to market your own work. ARCs will probably still go out to reviewers, but don’t expect much more.

    Authors need “street crews” of dedicated fans who can hand out ARCs to bookstore clerks, because people like Eric don’t exist anymore.

  19. Eadwacer says:

    Sounds like there’s a niche for a reputation-based, sales-clerk-targeted, new-book recommendation system. The problem being, how do you draw that type of eyeball? A magazine like Locus might do it, but it’s genre-limited. Is there something else out there that the store buyers have already opted into?

    Another problem is that the old purchasing sales clerk is going the way of the book salesman. Every time I complain about the limited selection (NYT best sellers, and Torn Bodice romances), they tell me, “it’s the computer.” I don’t know about you, but my computer has lousy taste in books, and theirs is even worse.

  20. poptart says:

    Spot on, Cory.

    I’m hugely grateful to my South African publisher for taking on a dystopian sci-fi in a market that has traditionally lent itself more to semi-fictionalised autobiographies of growing up under apartheid. And to my genius editor. And the hard-working marketing department.

    But the guy who really made the difference was Pete van der Woude in sales, who worked unbelievable magic with the bookstores, convincing one of the biggest in Cape Town to take on 60 copies in a market where 10 is considered a big order. And ran around getting ridiculous things for the book launch like syringes and spraypaint (don’t ask) and hand carved rubber stamps himself in the shape of a pacman ghost for the door.

    And he helped me fix my 1940s Corona Junior typewriter because he’s an old-school geek like that.

    So, thanks for the shout out to the Petes of the world. They deserve it.

  21. foobar says:

    How many salespeople do you need delivering ARCs to Chapters, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon? Do the independent bookshops even draw attention?

    Amazon recommendations is my clerk, and it knows my tastes far better than the wetware type would.

  22. jennidy says:

    I disagree, although I can relate to the pleasures of working at a bookstore .(I’m in libraries now…)

    Readers spread the word ourselves through social networking, and advertisers use viral marketing.

    I imagine these days Eric would have a blog, with a feed, and he might email you ARCs.

    Of course it’s this cutting out of the middle man that is leaving the middle man out of work.

  23. bililoquy says:

    There’s a way around this, for readers and writers, and it still involves getting your book published by a major house (because face it, you’re not going to make money the other way) but it involves deciding to market your own work. ARCs will probably still go out to reviewers, but don’t expect much more.

    This is spot-bloody-on. And for that kind of work, the internet is crucial, not secondary.

    To my mind, the two essential functions of a major publisher are 1) direct line to chain booksellers and 2) peer review. For middle or bottom tier authors (ie the vast majority), the sales force is, um, you.

  24. chicagojohn says:


    This is how you sell a book… (clip from “Isn’t she great” the Jacqueline Suzanne biopic)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kF2WvS88yrg&feature=related

  25. echonomist says:

    Cory Doctorow is the ultimate reputation based bookseller.

    This past Christmas, I published my wishlist for family and friends and I must have had 10 books recommended by boingboing. 10 books x even a 10th of boingboing readers might make for a few unstarving authors.

    I’d like to take this opportunity to plug Joe Abercrombie and Scott Lynch’s fantasy books. BB is a bit skewed towards futuristic fantasy and these guys deserve a massive shoutout for brilliant books. Shit tons more fun to read than anything written by DF Wallace and his wanker drug addict friends.

  26. Brandon Stout says:

    The way boingboing and a good portion of its readership champion Amazon and e-readers of all kinds, I’m surprised to hear such passion for the role of book reps. After all, if many a techno-enthusiast’s most ardent publishing wish comes true (every “text” for free, on every conceivable platform, all the time), there won’t be any brick-and-mortar stores for sales reps to service anyway.

  27. peterbruells says:

    @foobar: well, I think it’s more of a case of the software placing you (and me, of course, I’m woefully predictable in my tastes) into one comfort zone shared by people with similar interest.

    While that *is* a nifty thing, it doesn’t allow for the insightful recommendation by a third party, who doesn’t simply point you to a book while you belong to a specific set.

    Of course, for that to work a person has to know you very well. Hard to accomplish with a bookseller these days.

    So the truly seemingly off-key recommendations outside the neat little Venn diagrams employed by software still have to come from wetware.

    Besides, Amazon doesn’t always work that well. I just bought a baby book for my sister in law and now I’m getting swamped with recommendations of things that don’t interest me at all. Based on the last time, when I bought two religiously themed books for my, it’ll take a couple of months before it stops recommending this stuff. Yeah, I know I could probably fine-tune this in a setting, but the point of invisible man-servants is that they do they stuff without being told.

  28. Jeff says:

    #19 said, “This is fine if you’re Cory Doctorow, but if you’re a new author without a huge pre-existing fan base,…”

    I think Cory is “suffering” from being inside the box. He’s doing well as an author, and it’s nice that he wants to spread the credit for his (or others’) success to the kind of book reps he remembers. But I don’t think that’s the case. Product reps are a dying breed because the web does it better and more efficiently. BoingBoing does it better. His publisher is so fracking lucky to have an author who works his career as hard as Cory Doctorow does. He works the network like a PR pro. He works the cons and works the blog. He’s a marketing machine the likes of which no publisher can or would provide for its other writers. Cory Doctorow doesn’t need reps to push his stuff because he pushes it himself. Besides, he’s cool and charismatic and the fans know it.

  29. Jeff says:

    Product reps are a dying breed because the web does it better and more efficiently.

    #28 said, “Nonsense. The “web” doesn’t do it better”

    Nonesense? You want me to start listing the product lines that I know of that no longer have on site reps? What the buyers get now is nice neat emails with vid attachments. Medical reps are out there, but alas, even their profits are down. Books don’t need reps. But buyers need good numbers and reasonable expectations. If reps could tell a buyers what books Opra is gong to pick, that would be worth listening to.

  30. minamisan says:

    what are these ‘bookstore’ things you speak of lobbying? every new writer I’ve discovered in the past couple of years has been via Escape Artists or StarShipSofa, and the books of theirs I buy come through Amazon or from the author directly.

  31. Anonymous says:

    Sales reps do influnece book sales, they dircetly affect the quantity ordered by stores, they influence what is read in the stores by staff, they influence where the book is placed in that store, they influence reorders,they influence returns whether a store should give the book another go or return it post haste, they organise instore competions to promote new works and backlist, they influnece the big faceless corporations by taking part in staff sales meetings promoting new titles, the all important backlist and sharing their vast product knowledge, sales reps can also if a author peeves them off (by being a knob and failing to acknowledge their worth) destroy the authors career by not promoting that authors work (it does happen)- tip for writers when travelling take 15 mins of your time and meet your local reps and be nice it goes a long way.
    Yes I am an employed sales rep in this changing market and as all good sales people know you change and adapt with the market.

    on online booksellers
    if i believed that on line purchasing will replace the bookstore then i would also have to believe that all retail outlets of all products will disappear, the majority of book buyers are the same as every other consumer they enjoy the shopping experience, the human interaction, online booksellers have created sales for tradional booksellers many browse the net then when out shopping buy or order from a local outlet.

    final observation – independant booksellers ARE making a comeback

  32. Anonymous says:

    These same arguments apply to libraries. A computer can tell you where the books are. A librarian who has read widely can tell you where the lovely books are.

    • Antinous / Moderator says:

      Anonymous @ above me,

      If you sign up for an account, you can put your URL on your profile page.

  33. phoomp says:

    I don’t know. Scott Sigler’s fans seem to at least as effective as any sales force. Of course, not all good authors are as charismatic as Scott.

  34. DaveMc says:

    Yes, how could the internet possibly handle something as tricky as *recommending books*? Waaay too hard. Sure.

  35. Tigerbomb says:

    The same model used to work in record stores – at least here in the UK. Sadly, we barely have any independent outlets left. Only this week, Selectadisc in Nottingham – believed to be one of the 3 biggest indies in the country – announced it was closing, noting “people under 25 just get their music for free from the internet.”

  36. zuzu says:

    what are these ‘bookstore’ things you speak of lobbying? every new writer I’ve discovered in the past couple of years has been via Escape Artists or StarShipSofa, and the books of theirs I buy come through Amazon or from the author directly.

    This is true, but the sales people are only necessary as long as there are brick and mortar stores to sell to. You don’t need salespeople to sell to Amazon.com.

    This is basically my thought as well…

    a look at the things that publishers can do for authors that the Internet can’t replace (yet, anyway!).

    Which only seems to hinge on brick and motar bookstores. The last one near me is in liquidation to close up shop. Except for clothes and groceries, I’ve been buying everything through Amazon, eBay, NewEgg, or Craigslist for anything heavy. Zappos is well on its way to being the Amazon of all clothing, not just shoes. And for those of us unserved by Fresh Direct, it seems that Amazon Grocery is steadily gaining ground. Not to mention that local grocery stores near me are also closing up.

    Seems to me like the sales force has been replaced with the Amazon Recommendation system.

  37. foobar says:

    @peterbruells

    There are two checkboxes on every entry in Amazon’s recommendations: “I own it” and “Not Interested”. Check the latter when it throws up things you’re not interested in. Their system really does work quite well when you feed it.

    It’s not my only source of recommendations. Blogs (including BoingBoing and those of my favourite authors) and meatspace friends also help. But Amazon usually does a better job.

  38. DaveMc says:

    Edit-but-I-can’t-edit: Whoops, I see now that this isn’t what you’re actually saying, quite. You’re saying that having the books exist in a catalogue in order to be potentially recommended is a weak link in the chain of selling physical books over the network. I can see that.

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