House Tour: Sales

This month as we continue our Publishing House Tour we are diving into the wonderful world of Sales. You may be asking, “What’s so great about Sales?” The simple answer is that Sales is the lifeblood of the publishing industry. As much as we love to think about literature as an art form, at the end of the day, publishing is still a business where the ultimate goal is to sell books. As a publisher you could acquire the greatest novel ever written, but without the Marketing and Sales teams, that book isn’t going to fly off the shelves. 

Sales plays an integral role in getting books from the hands of the author to the hands of the reader as early as the acquisition stage. A member of the sales team—typically the SVP of Sales or Director of Sales depending on the size of the publisher—will be on the acquisition team and provide input on a manuscript when it is presented by the acquiring editor. In those acquisition meetings, the Sales Director is going to present data gathered from Nielsen BookScan to help determine if the manuscript is saleable based on the sales numbers of comparable titles. In the event that the manuscript is up for auction with several publishers bidding for the right to acquire it, editors rely on their sales colleagues to demonstrate to authors and agents why they are the best possible team to sell the book based on experience, buyer relationships, etc.

Once the book is acquired, Sales is actively involved in the process of creating the Profit & Loss, which we discussed at length here. P&Ls start off in Editorial, where the general number of pages and book format are determined. Editorial will then pass the P&L off to Sales who will look at the sales figures in BookScan for comparable titles and suggest a price based on the current marketplace. Sales reps have their finger on the pulse of the industry and because of their relationships with booksellers and other buyers, they typically know before their in-house colleagues what is trending up and what is fading out both in regards to book content and design.

After the book has been added to a list, both Sales and Marketing will begin making their plans. While Marketing typically assigns one member of their team to a book, each member of the Sales team will work with all books on a list to some degree. A typical mid-sized publisher will be split into two teams: Trade and Special Markets. 

The Trade department will be further split into Retail and Wholesale. On the Retail side you will have a Director of National Accounts that oversees a team of approximately five reps who work with Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million (RIP Borders). Also on the Retail side is the Director of Field Sales who will oversee a team of field reps that sell to independent bookstores. Typically, these field reps reside in their sales territory. On the Wholesale side you will have approximately two sales reps working with accounts such as Ingram and Follett.

The Special Markets department is further split into Mass Merch, Club stores, QVC/HSN, School Supply, Proprietary sales, and Gift. There are typically two sales reps assigned to Mass Merch stores such as Walmart, Target, Kohls, grocery chains, etc. Another two reps are assigned to the Club stores such as Sam’s Club and Costco. One rep will be assigned to Proprietary sales, which cuts deals with companies to sell custom editions–picture the Kohls Cares editions of picture books. Another two reps will work with the Special Retail market (Cracker Barrel, Urban Outfitters, Hallmark, etc.) and the School Supply Market. Lastly, the Gift market is generally outsourced to territory-based commission reps who sell books to independent gift shops, museum stores, Mom & Pop shops, etc.

With such a wide breadth of markets to cover, the Sales department can grow to be quite large and decentralized. However, even with team members scattered across the country, all members work toward the same goal: sell more books. It is also vitally important that the right sales rep is matched with the correct account or territory since relationships are key. A good sales rep doesn’t want to get just one big sale with an account, they want to foster a good relationship so that their buyer will continue purchasing books from their lists year after year. 

Understanding a buyer’s market and taste is a key component in relationship building and selling books. This is especially important because a sales rep’s relationship with their books doesn’t end once the book is published. Not every title published has longevity, however, many publishers continue to thrive off of their backlist. A sales rep’s job is not just to sell the newest titles on a list, but to continue cultivating sales for backlist titles as well.

Sales is involved with a book from the moment it is scheduled on a list all the way through to publication and beyond. They are book connoisseurs, cultivators, and champions. And while Sales might not be the most interesting aspect of publishing, in my humble opinion, it is one of the most important. Take a look at the last book you bought. Was it recommended to you by a bookseller, did it catch your eye on an end cap, or did Amazon’s algorithm recommend it to you? Whatever the case, the reason that book was visible to you at all is because a Sales rep worked hard to put it there. Sales works to connect books with readers and I think that’s a pretty wonderful thing indeed.