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Writers: What really happens in book marketing meetings (Plus: What sells books)

Books in the Douglasville, Georgia Borders store.

Image via Wikipedia

It’s interesting to see the profession of book sales rep disappear. I was a journalist first and that’s evaporated. Later I was a book rep and that’s on the way out, too.  Book sales was somewhat romanticized. From the inside of the industry, book marketing isn’t romantic at all. Occasionally I hung out with authors and going to book fairs and sales meeting in nice places was fun. Yes, there were a few cocktail parties. Most of the year, however, you’re hauling so many samples around in your car, the shocks go. You spend a lot of time trying to get to the next appointment on time and worry about finding a good place to park.

I met some really nice booksellers. I also met many awful book retailers. The crux of that problem was that the young booksellers were doing it as a joe job and the older booksellers got into the job for idealistic reasons. No one tells aspiring bookstore owners that, not only are the big chains going to force them out of business, they won’t spend near as much time reading as they planned. Instead, they’ll spend an inordinate amount of time calculating the GST, paying the GST and trying to assist book buyers who aren’t informed book readers. (e.g. “I want to buy a book for my daughter I heard about on the CBC last month. You know. That one…? It’s by that guy? With the thing…? Surely you know that one!”)

So I dealt with the bored and disillusioned. Not exclusively! It’s just that those negative people are the sales experiences I remember best. That miserable bookseller in Owen Sound was an impatient sort who, when I dared to use the word comedy, corrected me and told me the book was “humour.” I’m surprised she was familiar with either facet of the concept. Then there was the condescending one north of Toronto who thought I was stupid since I was still enthusiastic. She beat that out of me quick. “Okay,” I said. “For the remainder of this meeting, I’ll power through the list and act just as pissed off as you appear to be. Happy? Am I smarter now?”

It wasn’t all bad. The owner of the now-defunct Frog Hollow Books in Halifax has a special place in my heart. She was a sweetie, had a great store and she bought a lot of merchandise from me gladly, even in the press of the Christmas rush. I wish that bookstore was still around.

What I find interesting in other people’s reports of marketing meetings is they say sales rep opinions  are valued. I hear of book reps getting input into the list, commenting on the marketing challenges and the dubious appeal of certain covers and so forth. Book reps on some planet get to turn something down and require changes in order to make a book sell. I repped sixteen publishers of various sizes and I can tell you, my input didn’t carry any weight. It wasn’t asked for, either. I was their traveling salesman. If the book didn’t sell, they figured it was my fault.

At a sales conference, the editorial team is selling their enthusiasm for the list they built. In my experience, if we dared to mutter about a lousy cover, we did so among ourselves. Voicing any reservations would be met with derision. We weren’t graphic artists, so maybe the cover proved to be lousy and many booksellers would tell us so as we made our rounds. However, in the context of the sales conference,we were getting flown out to someplace nice for one reason. We were supposed to sit there, take notes, and listen. The graphic artist and the editor got to have opinions on anything creative. Our job was to sell their old ugly dogs with the same conviction as the cute puppies. If we didn’t believe the dogs with mange and pushed-in snouts would sell, obviously we were idiots or traitors to the cause.

It sure didn’t feel like the powerful position some portray. Lots of articles on the publishing process mention the input of the sales team on titles. Not so in my experience. I watched editors and their minions show covers, talk about the books and maybe pass out review copies. True, we’d worry over price points. We’d look at the page count and comment that the heft of the book was light for the expense. (“People buy books by weight,” was a common bit of wisdom. “Green covers don’t sell it’s a golf book,” was the other bit. That was true, I think.) However, the publisher and their editors had already committed their resources to the books by the time we came into the picture. By then, they would understandably be reluctant to make major changes in their plans for two reasons: expense and ego. We weren’t going to change a done deal.

In the hierarchy of the book industry, the editors and publicists put themselves above the salespeople, especially if anyone referred to books as “product.” (Only a few did that.) Sales reps weren’t creative. We just did the grotty part with the filthy lucre that allowed the creativity to continue.

Many editors idolized some authors. Privately though, many put the authors at the bottom of the hierarchy. Yes, writers are the engine of the industry who provide the art to sell and a reason for editor’s existence. Perhaps it’s envy or resentment. Maybe it’s because acquisition editors see themselves as gatekeepers so they feel they made the authors.

In a less complex analysis, everyone’s the star of his or her own movie and authors come and go like background extras.

And some, being arty and human, are a pain in the ass. For instance, I sold Matt Cohen‘s books. For some he was an icon as well as a somewhat famous Canadian author. However, there was a bookseller nearby who didn’t care for his books and refused to stock them. When the publisher took the author out for lunch, naturally they stopped in to see how his books were selling. I soon got a angry memo. “What’s going on?!”

What was going on was not every bookseller is obliged to carry every book and the publisher’s embarrassment wasn’t a factor in the decision. The bookstore owner simply didn’t like Matt Cohen’s books. The proximity of our house to the store didn’t convince the owner. I despised that bookstore owner (a notorious and cadaverous blowhard.) I agreed with his right to stock whatever he pleased, however. Personally, I found Cohen’s books neurotic, but not in a good way.

At first my territory was Toronto (and in the summer, Cottage Country, too.) Later on, I worked for a book distributor so I sold books wholesale across the country as well as in downtown Toronto, Ottawa and all points north and east. I can’t say I ever felt like more than a minion. It wasn’t that the editorial staff was particularly unkind. It was simply that we had no creative input. That’s why I wonder about these reports I’ve read about the publishing process. When in-house editors tell authors, “Marketing didn’t like this or that,” are they really hiding behind the closed doors of those marketing meetings? Is it just a ploy to bring down the author’s expectations from the sky-high hopes, dreams and promises that originated in the editorial department?

Blah, blah, blah. You’re an author. You want to know what sells books. I’ll tell you.

I sold hundreds of books at a time. Some I read, but there wasn’t enough time to read them all. Instead I recited the catalogue copy and gave my impressions for each book’s appeal. If there was any kind of marketing campaign, I’d talk about that. It’s a gift to a book’s potential (and the haggard sales rep reciting the same spiel for the 100th time) to be able to say, “We think this one has a shot at the Giller,” or, “We’re putting a lot of work into getting this one on that particular CBC show you like etc.,…”

What sells books is word of mouth for a book with good writing that tells a compelling story. It takes a lot of incompetence on the publishing team’s part to overcome that. The other thing that sells books is the human connection between the book sold and the person who wrote it. What helped me sell the most books was meeting the author. Booksellers are on the frontlines of retail, far from the cocktail party action. They want to hear a sales rep’s funny story about meeting That Author.

One of the better people on the planet? One the sweetest people you could ever meet? Amy Tan. I sold her books. I sold a ton of her books. Utterly charming and genuine. When I met with booksellers, I didn’t talk much about her book. I sold her to them instead. We push the people we like harder.

When you get invited to a sales conference (if you ever do) or go on a book signing (arrange your own if your publisher won’t), remember to treat the minions well. Be nice. Be fun and memorable. The sales reps will remember you. The booksellers will hand sell you book.

Extra tip:

That’s why it doesn’t matter so much if a lot of people don’t come to your bookstore signing.

The customers may come or not, but the bookstore staff are always there.

Make a good impression and they’ll hand sell your book.

And the next.

And the next.

What really sells your books?

You do, through the force of your creativity, the shimmer of your personality and audience you cultivate.

Filed under: Books, Editors, getting it done, links, Publicity & Promotion, publishing, Rant, Useful writing links, writing tips, , , , , , , , ,

2 Responses

  1. Glenys says:

    Good bookselling advice from someone who obviously knows what he’s talking about in this business! Thank you!

    • Chazz says:

      I hope this gives writers a useful view of what’s going on within publishing houses and what they can do to help themselves. Thanks for reading!

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