One sign that Wendy Armstrong, the new special markets manager at Consortium Book Sales & Distribution, is seasoned in special sales: she is quick to judge a book by its cover.
Especially in the gift market, whose "major forces" are Urban Outfitters and Restoration Hardware, "covers are so important," she said. "Many times customers say they need books with buttery yellow and moss green on the cover." This approach has led Armstrong to look at book publishing in ways that would make many traditionalists shudder. She readily calls books "product" and, at sales conference, while "reps and editors talk about books' contents," she said, "I'm like, 'I need moss green!' "
Consortium's decision to create the special markets manager position reflects the fact that nowadays more books are sold outside traditional bookstores than in them. Consortium president Julie Schaper noted that the company has "made a lot of headway working with current staff" to sell titles from its 80-plus client publishers outside of traditional channels, "but we clearly need somebody devoted to it."
Armstrong's first order of business is scouring the Consortium lists for suitable titles for special market sales. Among the most likely candidates, she said, are cookbooks; health and New Age titles; "small gift-sized nonfiction"; some children's and parenting titles; as well as photography books. (In special sales, photography titles are usually bought not as photography but by subject. They also are strong contenders for corporate gift sales, an area Armstrong wants to develop eventually.)
For now, Armstrong is focusing on the gift and catalogue markets. She predicted that Consortium's gift market sales will be particularly strong on the East and West Coasts, making for a kind of blue-state special selling.
A veteran of special sales at Holtzbrinck, Abbeville, Troll Communications and Penguin, Armstrong said she enjoys the field because special sales are "fun, creative sales. Each sale is a little different." Often, she can sell the same book to different customers on different merits. "My favorite example is a wine book that has a nice directory, is detailed and has a well-known editor," she said. Such a book can easily find a place in wine stores, Williams-Sonoma and "little cook stores."
Special sales is also different from traditional selling in that it's not frontlist-dependent and a big marketing budget is not important. Of course, the payoffs can be big. When accounts like Urban Outfitters, Restoration Hardware, Pottery Barn, Crate and Barrel and, to a lesser extent, Pier One and Banana Republic get behind a book, "We can sell tens of thousands of books over several seasons," Armstrong said. "We can pull a book from backlist and give it new life."
Armstrong deals with large gift accounts mainly on the phone, and sends "lots of samples." Smaller, mom-and-pop gift stores are best served by reps who visit in person. Still, all the stores have the same aim: "Gift stores want something that will set them apart from other gift stores," Armstrong observed.
The other main focus for Armstrong is mail order, where major accounts include Edward R. Hamilton, Bas Bleu, ChildCraft, Signals and Wireless. As in gift shops, covers are important. "There is some descriptive copy in mail order," she said. "But the cover has to grab." In addition, the publisher has to be able to back up the sale with adequate inventory. These outlets usually supply detailed projected buys that are reliable and fine tuned.