When to Canvass Booksellers, Or, Listen to Your Sales Reps!

Elizabeth Bluemle -- February 12th, 2016

Let’s face it: publishing folks don’t have time or resources to consult booksellers on every book jacket or marketing idea, or to conduct post-mortems about why some books expected to do well instead flopped – but if they could, they might save a lot of money and sell more books. At the very least, they would gather fascinating intel on consumer book preferences all over the country.

I was meeting with a sales rep yesterday, and we were talking about a new YA title from a debut author. It has a great cover and a promising premise, but doesn’t stand out quite enough that teens or their parents will be likely to shell out $17.99. It’s one of those books about which buyers say to reps, “I could really sell this in paperback.” But because sales will lag in hardcover, the book risks not even making it to paper. And if it does, the house might change the cover art, mistakenly thinking that was the reason the book didn’t sell.

(Note to those outside the industry: Part of the reason books come out in hardcover first is that many review sources won’t review paperback originals. This standard seems to have relaxed somewhat in recent years, but it is still true that if a book from a major publisher comes out in paperback instead of hardcover, it can be seen – perhaps wrongly – as a signal that a publisher is less committed to the book, or doesn’t believe its potential is as lofty.)

This is where sales reps are invaluable to their publishers; not only do they do yeoman’s work presenting their lists to booksellers, but they gather responses from buyers in every region. Some publishers and sales reps are better about harvesting this data than others, but this is information gold!

I also often think that if publishers, editors, art directors, and marketing folks fanned out across the country and spent a week in a variety of bookstores, watching indie booksellers do their handselling magic, recommending books themselves, and – most importantly – paying attention to how customers choose and respond to books, the industry would change.

This also holds true for the schoolyard: if publishing people from CEOs and COOs to acquisitions, editorial, and design staff spent a day or two in schools and on playgrounds around the country, their view on what is published for children would undergo a radical blossoming. There is nothing as instantly eye-opening as visiting a classroom to booktalk a bunch of books to dozens of hopeful faces to make you realize where the gaps in your list lie.

I think these kinds of field trips would return a galvanized publishing group, with fresh and useful ideas about which approaches to jettison and with all kinds of energy for new directions.

So, to recap:

  • Canvassing indie booksellers from around the country can yield some really good feedback. A lot of this happens at Winter Institute, and we all benefit from that!
  • As you already know, sales reps are gold mines of information. They work hard enough as it is, and this is an impractical idea, but if there were a second sales conference after buyers’ meetings for spring and fall titles, where all of your reps were gathered and you went through your catalogs doing a post-mortem of the titles with poor pre-orders, you might get some really useful feedback that will help save money, avoid future expensive missteps, and create better lists.
  • No feedback is more valuable than going out into communities and watching how people respond to and select books.

5 thoughts on “When to Canvass Booksellers, Or, Listen to Your Sales Reps!

  1. Vicki Palmquist

    What a great, heartfelt set of ideas, Elizabeth. When we sit at Chapter & Verse and hear educators and librarians talk about the books that are read, the way they use those books, and where the problems lie, it is mind-expanding. Kudos to your suggestions.

  2. Tom Luce

    My go-to poster child to refute the ‘trade paper originals don’t get taken seriously’ argument is The Interpreter of Maladies. This was a trade paper original (the hardcover was published after the trade paper became remarkably successful) and it won the Pulitzer. Of course, when I mention this to a sales rep, I might get a polite nod and a smile. Still, it’s a shaky argument for a 1950s business model that a book needs to be published in hardcover to be taken seriously or to garner noteworthy reviews.

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