Simon & Schuster's decision in January to eliminate half of its field sales rep positions and replace them with telemarketers has not been well received by independent booksellers, who see the move as another indication of their lack of importance to publishers. Michael Croy, S&S's director of field sales, is quick to defend the company's move on the grounds that the publisher “has to meet the challenges of a changing marketplace, and to do that, telemarketing is more desirable for us with a flexible plan for meeting the needs of this indie channel.” While Croy points out that he disliked having to lay off longtime employees, he explains that the decision to do so was part of a “pragmatic approach” by S&S to make the entire company more efficient.
According to Croy, the four telemarketers hired to cover accounts that will no longer be visited by the eight laid-off field reps have the advantage of holding direct conversations with bookstores as often as necessary as well as having immediate communication with S&S's publicists, supply chains, and marketing groups in the office. “This provides direct access to the decision makers and the transfer of information on a very high level,” says Croy.
That rationale did not sit well with the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association, which earlier this month released a statement skewering the decision. “Without a doubt, we are not ordering as much through telemarketing,” the letter reads in part. “We are definitely not focusing on your backlist through telesales, and we definitely miss titles from the frontlist. You devalue our business because we aren't buying as much as we used to. As much as you would like to think a telesalesperson is doing the same job [as a field rep], you are sadly mistaken. A field sales rep is far more than a person filling in an order form.” NAIBA's letter includes suggestions for reducing sales expenses in lieu of laying off reps, such as sending fewer ARC mailings and promotional “gimmicks,” publishing fewer titles, and lowering advances on celebrity titles.
Croy replies to these statements: “It's like salting your food before you taste it. The telemarketers are highly trained people who will provide a level of service that meets the needs of booksellers today.” He adds that the telereps will attend regional trade shows and visit stores in person “when possible. They are a highly mobile, dynamic part of our company, and the level of service to these accounts will not drop off.” The four telemarketers will also be responsible for coordinating author events and maintaining backlist inventories via telephone.
“We have to adapt to the changes in the publishing industry,” Croy notes. “It's mired in tradition, and much of the ritualistic policies are ineffective for both booksellers and publishers.” He believes that the new telemarketing sales force will allow the indies more time to run their business rather than spending “an inordinate amount of time on administrative catalogue work.”
At the Bookies in Denver, owner Sue Lubek laments the loss of the two S&S reps—one for adult titles and the other for children's—who called on her store for decades. The Bookies will remain a field rep account, but they'll now be called on by a different rep who is based in Seattle and who will sell them titles from both divisions. “We feel terrible for the reps that were let go,” Lubek says. “They knew us, knew their books, and knew our store. How can reps cover such huge territories? My concern is that they might not be prepared. Simon's decision was very abrupt, and is hard to understand.”
Diana Van Vleck, Penguin's western regional sales manager, was in New York the day S&S announced the rep layoffs. “It came as a complete surprise to everybody I talked to,” she says. She emphasizes that Penguin is committed to keeping its field reps. “The best way to sell books is the personal way,” says Van Vleck. “Our field reps are face-to-face with people, they see the store and the marketplace, and they talk to customers about our books. Many of them also give presentations in front of book groups. You just get more when you have great people out there in the field.”
Random House echoes that sentiment. In a prepared statement to PW, spokesman Stuart Applebaum notes, “Random House's Adult and Children's field sales reps continue to make a big difference for us as the face and force of our in-valuable partnership with our independent bookstores. Our reps' infectious passion for a book they love can turn it into a hit that begins with their accounts and soon spreads to all channels.” He cites When You Reach Me, this year's Newbery winner, and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society as examples of two recent Random House successes in which their field reps “led the way,” adding, “We listen to them closely.”
Field reps have made similar contributions at HarperCollins. “They were very early and vocal fans of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, The Art of Racing in the Rain, and Christopher Moore's The Fool, to give just a few recent examples,” Carl Lennertz, v-p, retail marketing, says. “The nine regional trade shows are also a top priority for the reps, with hand-picked books, major display space, and a concerted author presence.”
The Book Loft in Solvang, Calif., is one of the many stores whose S&S field rep has been replaced by a telemarketer. Manager Ed Gregory did not mince words: “It's boring corporate behavior on the part of Simon & Schuster, wherein when business flags, a publisher cuts back on [its] sales force rather than trying to have them sell more. Nothing can replace a rep and a bookseller looking one another in the eye to go over a new list.” Gregory adds that the Book Loft will buy fewer frontlist titles from S&S as a result of the switch to a telemarketing rep because “the phone stuff is so cut and dried. Having my former rep here in the store really helped me to find the nuggets on the list, and it also made me feel supported by Simon. We won't be here when the support of the publishers stops.”
Many in the struggling indie bookstore community expressed similar dismay over the loss of field reps. John Evans, co-owner of Diesel Books in California, described his experience with telesales reps when HarperCollins accidentally switched his three-store chain over to that division a few years ago. “After one season, HarperCollins remedied the situation, and we began seeing a rep again, but during that time I can tell you that our sales with them dropped by 50%. Indies are sensitive to who cares, and the sales rep relationship is where that happens.”
At Maria's Books in Durango, Colo., buyer Joe Foster explains that while he has some “great” telesales reps, just as many communicate more like customer service agents than knowledgeable advocates for their publishers. “Indies always feel a little overlooked,” Foster says, “but now we feel like we've been uninvited to the party.”
Although there has been a trend in recent years for the “Big Six” publishers to cut back on expenses in their sales departments, including the consolidation of sales territories and some reductions in the number of field reps, Simon & Schuster is the first to turn the trend into a reality by eliminating more than half of its field sales force. Croy explains that Simon's intention is to continue to support the indies by giving them extended author tours, galleys, and the co-op advertising they're accustomed to. He adds, “None of those things will go away, but we all have to adapt to change.”
Ironically, former Simon & Schuster field rep Laura Webb, who covered the West Coast for the company for 17 years and was terminated along with the others as of February 12, was just nominated for PW's Rep of the Year—for the fifth time.