In the past few years everything about the book business has changed, and with it the role of the rep, or district manager, as many are now known. In part that’s a reflection of how ordering has changed, especially with the increasing adoption of Edelweiss, the interactive publishers’ catalogue service.
“I used to buy everything and see what stuck,” says Terribeth Smith, who left her job as children’s buyer for Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Cincinnati two and a half years ago to become district manager in the Midwest for Scholastic. “Buyers want things more tailored now. There are fewer people [working] in stores, and my job is finding the next big book.”
In conjunction with the change in how booksellers buy, notes Kathy Faber, director of sales for HarperCollins Children’s Books, “for a number of years there’s been a shift toward using the sales call for a much larger role, to sell through.” Reps have a variety of techniques to do just that.
Tried and True
“There’s nothing as effective as a rep saying, ‘You have to read this book,’ and putting it in someone’s hand,” says Jeanette Zwart, v-p of sales at HarperCollins. Harper’s sales reps, like those of other houses, tweet about favorite titles and can even create custom catalogues on Edelweiss based on the buyer’s orders to hand out at presentations for store staff, or at rep nights, which might be attended by librarians, reviewers, and local bloggers. With Edelweiss, reps also can create sell sheets of key titles that stores can post in their break rooms or circulate so staff can see what books are coming up.
Even before Twitter came on the scene, Zwart notes, “Reps were expert at capturing the spirit of a book in very few words.” But it’s not just the meaning of a book that has to be distilled nowadays. “There’s so much information and it’s hard to prioritize. Even with digital catalogues, they prioritize the information,” says Zwart, referring to the electronic notes that both field reps and telephone sales reps place for their buyers on Edelweiss.
The reps may be just one piece in a national push that includes special mailings and kits, and pre-pub dinners to highlight new authors, such as the ones HarperCollins held for Lauren Oliver (Liesl & Po), Veronica Roth (Divergent), and Colin Meloy (Wildwood). But they are an important one. As Zwart points out, “Reps are the ones who know the right person to read the galleys. They can advocate with publicity and say, ‘My market is not on your tour and it should be.’ ”
If reps act as “buzz agents” (Zwart’s term), then booksellers are responsible for translating the buzz into sales. While independent bookstores represent a relatively small slice of the book market, roughly 6%, Faber says that for individual titles getting this kind of major indie push, their share is northward of 25%.
Like many of her colleagues, Susan McConnell, director of children’s sales and marketing for Publishers Group West, finds that personalized selling has become even more valuable in the digital age. “All the new bells and whistles are great,” she says, alluding to Twitter and Facebook. “Frankly I think the tried-and-true works. When you get down to it, it’s about the books and getting kids to read.”
McConnell encourages PGW’s publishers to host breakfasts, lunches, and dinners with booksellers, librarians, and reps, and is planning one of her own at PGW’s offices in Berkeley later this summer. “We’re always looking for new ways to sell books,” says McConnell, who works with stores on author visits, teen reading programs, and co-op, to name just a few promotions.
That’s not to say that sales calls aren’t effective. “I use Edelweiss to tag my books and put in notes, and I send my f&gs ahead of time,” says Holly Ruck, a field sales rep in the northeast for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. If booksellers also do their homework in advance of her appointment, that frees her to talk about how to sell the books. One of her pet peeves is when buyers don’t take notes when she’s trying to give them ideas based on successful strategies at other stores. “As a rep, you want to be used for the knowledge you have. Your rep is seeing on average 40–80 stores,” she says.
‘Our Eyes and Ears’
For reps to be effective, information between reps and booksellers has to be a two-way street. “Reps are our eyes and ears on the ground,” says Beth Ineson, director of field sales and distribution clients for HMH. “It’s important to us to keep reps on the road to bring that information back to us. Numbers don’t tell the whole story.” She relies on rep feedback from booksellers for everything from sales strategy to jacket images. Sometimes it can be as simple as a rep passing on the comments in a call report, like the ones the staff at Children’s Book World in Haverford, Pa., put on Post-its on the f&gs they read before the sales call.
“I very much believe in the rep-store relationship,” says former Random House adult rep Rebecca Fitting, who co-owns and does most of the buying for Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn, N.Y. “You do what you can to help them know your store, and then you listen to their recommendations. The more valuable information you give to your reps, the more likely you are to get in their call reports. The more your store is talked about, the more you’re on publishers’ radar.” Two recent rep suggestions that she’s adopted are to hold an educators’ night and to add staff picks to the store’s e-newsletter. At newly opened Parnassus Books in Nashville, bookseller Karen Hayes, former national accounts manager for Random House, says that what she appreciated most from reps was getting the store ready by helping with the painting. Over the holidays many came in and helped wrap books for customers.
Many Heads Better Than One
At most publishing houses the field reps stay in touch with each other by phone and e-mail. The seven children’s reps at Scholastic work closely with each other and with publicity and marketing. Reps are also encouraged to run with their own ideas. New England district manager Nikki Mutch promoted her fall 2011 favorite, Pie by Sarah Weeks, by offering to throw a pie party for the store that hand-sold the most books during the first two weeks of October. RJ Julia in Madison, Conn., won the party, which has since been expanded to include pie for customers as well as store staff. For Mutch, who especially enjoys creating events, planning for how best to promote the season’s books begins the moment she sees the list. “When I look at our list,” she says, “I think about which accounts are going to love each book.”
Collectively, Scholastic reps are also behind promotions like the Readers Roundtable, which enables two buyers per area to attend a conference call with the author of a newly released title. Two weeks ago, debut novelist Augusta Scattergood described the backstory for Glory Be to 14 buyers, who wouldn’t have been able to meet her in person. Reps also collaborated on a Hunger for More prepack promotion with books for readers who liked the Hunger Games trilogy and want to know what to read next.
Social media obviously plays a key role in how reps interact with booksellers. Kate Sullivan, a children’s rep in New England for Random House for the past 25 years, credits Twitter and Facebook for “enhancing” her job. “One thing I noticed is that I could tweet with authors, publishers, librarians, and teachers, people I don’t normally talk to, and subtly talk about our books. You can create a buzz,” she says.
“As much as we talk about books, there’s always more to know,” adds Sullivan, who enjoys the immediacy of Twitter. Twitter helps her pick up on trends by seeing what authors talk about with each other. She can then pass this information on to her buyers. She also sees booksellers in her area, like Suzanna Hermans, co-owner of Oblong Books & Music in Rhinebeck, N.Y., use Twitter and Facebook not just to announce author appearances but to sell signed books. “If a bookstore puts out something interesting,” she says, “I’ll retweet it. There are a lot of really cool YA bloggers out there. That’s where the conversation happens.”
Part of the conversation also takes place on blogs like Random Acts of Reading, which is administrated by Sullivan and two other Random House children’s field reps. All nine Random reps contribute to the blog, which is heavily weighted toward Random House. Every Monday, it runs a feature on the new books that will be out from Random the next day. But Sullivan says that it is not a corporate blog. A recent post on bullying, for example, included books from other houses.
No matter how much selling has changed, “people still have to fall in love with a book,” says Harper’s Zwart. Sales efforts are designed to increase the odds of booksellers and book readers doing exactly that.