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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20 Responses

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  1. Interesting. The comparison may not be politically correct, but the job of a sales rep rather reminds me of that of a hunting guide.
    * The guide has to have an intimate knowledge of the terrain and weather, and of where game is likely to be (which isn’t consistent). This seems to correlate to an overall knowledge of the publisher’s catalogue, and both market and territory conditions and trends.
    * The guide also has to know his (very few lady guides, sorry) client’s wishes and capabilities. Everyone wants to shoot a lion in heavy bush, but some clients should be steered away from that because they could end up a meal. ‘Steering away’ means, “No, my friend, no lions here today; they’ve all gone up-country” when one can feel the feline eyes marking, as it were, one’s cuts of meat. I assume this would be similar to the rep’s knowledge of the individual outlets, and of the havoc that, say, a new buyer can wreak with an uninformed and unrestrained enthusiasm.
    * And I thank you for your indulgence in reading this; I’m not up to writing much any more, but this was fun.

  2. Pat Iacuzzi says:

    Thank you Janet, for this timely information. I didn’t realize the full extent of a sales rep’s job! They more or less have to sell art in literary form.
    And art periods are constantly changing, depending on an artist’s (fickle) creative sense.
    Since it goes in so many directions, the rep needs to keep up with new publication styles, decide what might go over well for the seller, and what appeals to the buyer, too.
    I can see why they’d want authors to have “brands” to keep their “herds” in line!
    p.s. Andrew: Love the ref. to “No, my friend, no lions here today; they’ve all gone up-country”–great lyrics for a song.

  3. If someone said, “God is calling me to get books into the hands of readers,” I’d be thinking, “Be a librarian.” Thanks, Janet, for broadening my perspective.

  4. The sales rep is a very important person. And their job seems so dreamy for those who love books. Are they ever given grief over their guidance?

    • Janet Grant says:

      I’m sure they do get grief periodically, especially is their advice turns out to be misguided for store’s or chain’s buyer–as in, “You told me this book would be heavily promoted, and I should order big. But readers didn’t seem to be aware of the book’s existence.”

  5. I admit, I had never thought about book reps beyond those home sellers like Usborne Books. I find it really fascinating and admire those book reps, they must have really good people skills. I kind of envision them as incredible smart, perceptive people like my husband. The idea of that job makes my head hurt, but I am certainly glad for them! Thanks for sharing about this bit of marketing I’d never thought of.

    • Janet Grant says:

      The sales reps I’ve known do have great people skills, and they love books. They seem very invested in their jobs. I’m sure there are slackers in their midst, but I’ve never met them and recognized them as such.

  6. Mary Kay Moody says:

    I had no idea what a book sales rep does. They’re a linchpin in the process of getting the books from inside the publisher to the public. I’d always assumed more of that was done on paper than face-to-face. So grateful, Janet, that you’re always enlightening us to the bigger story of publishing. It helps so much. And I love hearing that editors sometimes look at the “conversation society has” or needs to have with itself. Thanks!

  7. Rachel McRae says:

    Great article, Janet, and spot on. As a book buyer for 15 years I had to rely heavily on the sales reps. I would always ask them, especially if they had a long list, “What are your A and A+ titles?” I wanted to know what the key books were for their publisher so I could support them well if they fit us. I also loved it when a rep would tell me to star ones that they felt were sleepers. Those were always fun to see if they turned out to be hits that no one really thought they’d be.

    There are sales reps whose personal opinion / taste I would trust more than others. I could easily tell who were the readers and not just the “book pushers.” Those that had a personal love of reading made books and authors that much more exciting for me. If I knew that a book had made a strong impact on a sales rep then I would tend to note those, too. This was especially true for debut writers (fiction and non). I would catch their excitement and the excitement of their publisher and would many times find myself eager to get the book out to our customers to experience.

    There are amazing sales reps throughout the Christian publishing industry. I’m sure authors are grateful for the way they carefully and joyfully steward their books throughout the industry.