Sales reps took on an unprecedented workload during the past 16 months, adapting to the needs of booksellers amid pressing demand for children’s and YA titles—all while working remotely. The question of which pandemic-era innovations are effective, and which should go by the wayside, is one that many are considering as they return to in-person appointments, in an industry that has undergone substantial change in a short period of time.
“Every single account is doing something just a little bit differently in terms of how they are buying, how they are ordering, and how they are paying attention to books,” says Scholastic senior manager for field brand marketing Nikki Mutch. In many ways, Mutch adds, the diversity of approaches taken by booksellers has created opportunities for her to develop deeper relationships with stores.
For instance, with buyers, managers, and owners pressed for time during the pandemic, they have had to rely more on frontline booksellers, Mutch says. For the first time, those booksellers—with approval from managers—have been calling to talk about forthcoming titles, which provides her with a better sense of what the employees who deal most frequently with customers are seeing and hearing.
“They’re the gatekeepers to the customer,” Mutch notes. “They’re the ones who recommend books to them. They’re the ones who stock the shelves. And it is also coming from younger booksellers, who I love to hear. They have new ideas, and their owners and booksellers are letting them run with those ideas. It’s been a very exciting thing to see.”
With increased digital communication, Chronicle sales representative Emily Cervone says that remote sales calls are also here to stay. “I love my stores that are far away,” Cervone says. “But sometimes I spend four hours in the car, and the way that everything is on Edelweiss now, it’s hard to want to drive for hours when you’re going to talk to them for 40 minutes.”
Cervone believes that a generational divide among sales reps will have a lot to do with which publisher accounts go back to all in-person meetings and which take a more hybrid approach. “There are a lot of old-school, traditional reps,” she says, “who are going to say, ‘I still need to go see this teeny tiny account in Vermont.’ ”
But instead of driving, Cervone says she has been able to take the time she saves to prepare digital tools that enhance her conversations with booksellers. For example, French publisher Twirl, which is distributed by Chronicle, has highly interactive books that children’s booksellers need to see, but the cost of creating advance reader’s copies is prohibitive. Instead, Twirl has created videos for its titles that Cervone’s customers can watch.
Since Cervone also handles much of the Edelweiss catalog information for Chronicle and its affiliates, she embeds the videos in the Edelweiss listings and goes through them with booksellers, using the digital catalog as a guide for their meetings. Going forward, she says, “I feel like you’re going to see a lot more of that kind of marketing.”
Chesapeake & Hudson sales rep Keith Arsenault says social media has also been a new space for conversations with booksellers who post about books they’re interested in. He notes that it has been exciting to engage booksellers in what feels like a sustained and ongoing dialogue about books during a time when he could not see them face-to-face. But, he adds, publishers will need to make print material available for in-person sales calls, especially for children’s books, and he worries that many publishers are moving away from providing them.
For children’s books, some of Arsenault’s biggest accounts still rely heavily on blads and f&g’s. Prior to the pandemic, he would occasionally even leave his entire sales kit with a store in advance of a meeting so its buyers had time to review everything closely. He worries that publishers will try to find short-term cost savings by ceasing the production of advance print material, but warns that it poses “a real problem.”
“There’s a lot of screen fatigue out there,” Arsenault says, “and a lot of the buyers whom I’ve talked to, old and young, are saying, ‘Okay, if I have to, I will use the digital format. But I am tired of staring at the screen, and I really want to hold a book, especially a picture book. I want to be immersed in the text and see the interplay of the texts and the images. And I don’t get that from flipping through them on my laptop or my iPad.’ ”
As with Mutch and Cervone, Arsenault sees the coexistence of traditional and digital approaches as the way forward, with careful consideration about how to balance them in the interest of getting new children’s books into the hands of booksellers and, ultimately, young readers. As he navigates the uncertainties that are likely to continue in the trade for some time, Arsenault’s decisions are focused on using both approaches. “These kids are going to become the next generation of adults who are going to have kids,” he says. “You want to nurture their love of reading.”