What Does a Book Sales Rep Really Do?

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

Most publishers maintain a sales team (or hire a team other publishers are using as well), with each member responsible for calling on his or her accounts. “Calling on” can mean making phone calls or physically visiting the account. A sales rep generally is assigned a geographic area, a chain of stores, or special sales outlets such as Cracker Barrel, Target, Costco, Walmart, Michael’s, hospital gift shops, or other stores that don’t specialize in books but place orders when a book is just right for them.

It Starts with a Sales Conference

Sales meetings are held every quarter at the publishing house. During this day-long or multi-day session, the editor, marketing manager, or–and this is rare–the author him or herself will talk about a title. Every book releasing that quarter will receive individual attention. The book’s concept, its intended audience, and the sales points (especially the author’s platform, expertise, or recognizable name), and how the book is adding to society’s conversation on a topic.

In the case of a novel, why readers would want to burrow into it and which famous author the novelist writes like. In other words, “If you like Francine Rivers’ books, you’ll like Jane Doe’s book.” By the way, it would be overselling to equate a fantasy novelist’s release to Francine Rivers’ writing, since the two would bear no resemblance to each other. The comparison must be honest.

Reputation is Everything

Part of the reason the comparison must be honest is because the sales representative’s reputation is in jeopardy. The sales rep won’t have time to read many of the books he presents to buyers; some publishers will release a thousand titles in a quarter. He must be confident of what he is told at the sales conference–and be able to give a sound byte about any of the titles in the catalog that the buyer wants to know more about.

As is true for any good sales person, the rep will have developed rapport and trust among buyers. The buyer and the rep might share many decades of being in the book biz. The rep knows what types of books work for a given store, and the buyer listens hard when a rep says, “Pay special attention to this book.” Or “I think this is one that would work well for you.”

Sometimes the rep will even say, “Skip the next title; that’s not for you….Actually, skip the next 20.” The buyer will follow that advise. Because the rep knows.

But the rep also must be agile, and if the buyer pauses over a surprise title, the representative needs to be ready to talk up that book. The rep knows that the buyer has her own instincts about what’s working with her shoppers.

Bye, Bye, Catalogs

Book buyers used to receive chunky printed catalogs from every publishing house. The buyer’s job was to prepare for her meeting with a publishing house’s sales rep by looking through the pages and having a sense of which titles interested her most.

Nowadays, the available new titles are visible to buyers on a site called Edelweiss. Buyers can request from Edelweiss galleys to preview a book.

But, these are book people, and some buyers can’t envision spending time skimming computer screen after screen to figure out what to order. They tend to rely on the advice of the sales rep. The rep knows which buyers will be prepared for the sales meeting and which will not.

Finger on the Pulse

Because sales reps act, in a way, as a intermediary between buyers and publishing houses, the reps have a sense of what types of books are working in various outlets. And the reps can convey those insights back to the editorial and marketing teams.

This feedback is invaluable–but also dangerous. Because a publishing team can end up reacting to what is selling now. But that short-sighted approach can result in not recognizing when one trend is about to end and a new one begin. Or the publishing house staff won’t intentionally look for titles they believe need to be part of the conversation society has with itself via books.

Finger Not on the Pulse

Say, for example, in our unstable and touchy political climate, an editorial team can decide to produce titles that encourage kindness and civility. The sales reps might view that as not on-trend and ballyhoo the concept. But the editors might be in touch with society’s zeitgeist, and they could be foretelling a trend in the making.

I personally, as a former editor, am of the mindset that looking at what is selling never gets us to what needs to be selling. And looking only at the present can render a publisher vulnerable to a hot trend suddenly dying. Or at least significantly slowing down. (Think about Amish fiction in the Christian market, which still does decently but isn’t the rage it was a few years ago.) Sales reps are among the last to realize a trend is waning. But sometimes editorial will sense that too much is being produced by too many publishers to find sales slots for all of them.

What Does a Book Sale Rep Really Do?

As you can see, the sales rep is an important player on the publishing team, connecting books to buyers and thus conveying our books to each of us. When we discover a book we just have to have in an airport bookstore, on a rack at the drugstore, or in the greeting cards aisle in the grocery store, we have a sales rep to thank.

What about the sales rep’s job surprises you and makes you appreciate all the more the work he/she does?

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