While publishers have been reorganizing their sales forces for years, the shifting marketplace—one without Borders and with a lot fewer print books—is forcing publishers to rethink more than ever how they sell. Hachette Book Group’s elimination of 11 sales rep positions earlier this fall sent chills through the independent bookselling community. This was followed a few weeks later by news of a major restructuring at Simon & Schuster, which cut eight reps and created a new retail sales unit combining field, national sales, and telemarketing. S&S said that it plans to hire back the same number of people for marketing programs and selected spots in sales. Then, right before Thanksgiving, Macmillan announced that it, too, is eliminating several sales positions, but adding heads to its children’s sales group and a position in merchandise sales. And when Borders closed, publishers across the board reduced their sales force numbers by one.

“It’s not exactly reinventing the wheel,” said Amer­i­can Booksellers As­so­ciation pres­ident Becky Ander­son, co-owner of Anderson’s Bookshops in Na­perville, Ill., about the change in sales reps’ responsibilities. Her store, like many, has benefited during the past few years from reps doing more merchandising, like giving talks to staff along with some of her best customers and local librarians. Over the same time, reps for trade houses and university presses alike have also begun actively blogging and using other social media tools to promote titles. Nine children’s reps at Random House elected to blog together and launched Random Acts of Reading (www.RandomActsOfReading.WordPress.com) last year to provide behind-the-book information. On the other hand, noted Anderson, “Reps are our #1 partners. They know us the best. They know our communities. We don’t want to lose any of them.”

“We are still very committed to having a sales force for the physical world,” said Alison Lazarus, president of the sales division at Macmillan. “Our recent changes were prompted by the decline this year in physical sales due to e-books. Our goal in the reorganization was to respond to these changes and make sure we have resources where we need them most.” For Josh Marwell, president of sales at HarperCollins, adaptation is essential. Although layoffs at Harper, one of the few publishers that is unionized, could be problematic, Marwell said, “We’re always looking at adapting the structure of our departments to meet the needs of the business.”

“How books get merchandised in an increasingly digital world is a critical question, and our reps are front and center in the discussion,” said David Steinberger, president and CEO of the Perseus Books Group, adding that experimentation is underway. “Our vision for Perseus is for everyone in our company to increasingly become ‘bilingual.’ Digital is so transformative that we all need to speak both ‘p’ and ‘e,’ and that very much applies to sales reps.”

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt began its transition in 2008, when Houghton and Harcourt merged and needed to revise territories. The company made additional changes last year and has no intention of reducing head count further in 2012. “We expect an increase in both physical and digital sales volume due to some key projects,” said Laurie Brown, senior v-p of sales and marketing at HMH Trade and Reference. Like many sales directors, Brown sees the change in reps’ jobs as one of emphasis, from getting initial orders to making sure that books sell through. “Sales reps have evolved into publisher reps,” she said. “[There is] more focus brought to sell-through and the good communication on promotion and media coverage that leads to reorders and desirable continued in-store, or on-site, placement that puts books in front of readers.”

Nor does Random House have plans for a major re-org of either field or home-office sales staff, according to spokesman Stuart Applebaum. “Our field reps’ value to our accounts and to our authors is more vital and wide-ranging than ever,” he said. “They are working more frequently and directly with buyers and staff on merchandising and display, making popular in-store presentations about new titles, even helping out with holiday gift-wrapping. They are more collaborative with local libraries, and they are putting together meetings with local businesses and social and religious organizations to talk up our books and good reading.” Their goal and that of the home-office, he said, is to drive sell-through for the end consumer.

To reflect a similar change, Penguin is planning to retitle its reps. On January 1, they will go from being “district sales manager” to “district sales and marketing manager.” They will be tasked with developing local marketing campaigns for bricks-and-mortar retailers and online campaigns that focus the conversation so that people discover a particular book and buy it in-store or online. “[Sales people] have been great at getting people to buy our books, but sales forces need to change, given the retail realities,” said Penguin Group (USA) CEO David Shanks.

Ironically, commission reps could fare better if large and midsize houses reorganize, especially since reduced shelf space in bricks-and-mortar stores will become even more valuable. “Although there are likely to be many partial answers to the riddle of the most effective path to market, face-to-face selling based on long-term relationships will remain the premiere solution. Publishers that can do this at a reduced cost via independent commission representatives along with tele-sales and Skype sales will be at a competitive advantage,” said Robert Rooney, executive director of the National Association of Independent Publishers Representatives.

Of course, the reorganizations and transitions in duties planned for 2012 are predicated on sales reps helping to stabilize the bricks-and-mortar channel. Just how much e-books continue to erode retail sales could determine whether publishers are forced to recalculate their plans.