One of the functions of this blog is to predict important changes in the business just a bit before they happen. We think we were a bit ahead of the curve in seeing the ebook acceleration and in seeing the likely pressure on bookstore shelf space. Today it would seem that the next great pressure point in publishing houses is going to be the sales departments. In the next couple of years they will probably change more than they have in the last half-century.
When I first became aware of how the publishing business worked in the 1960s, the field reps (referred to frequently then as “the men”) were the key connection between the publishers and the market. The closest thing there were to national chains in the early 1960s were department store buying groups who seemed to all be clustered in tiny little offices on 42nd Street in the block just west of 5th Avenue. The local department stores — Marshall Fields in Chicago, Rich’s in Atlanta, Halle Brothers in Cleveland, were big and important accounts.
Because the reps were the key to getting books into the hands of readers, everything revolved around passing information and excitement to them and through them. Thus were publishing “seasons” necessary to group the books, organize them into catalogs, and to prepare sales materials (tip sheets, jackets, blads for illustrated books) in an orderly way. This pretty much required that publishing lists be frozen some weeks before the sales conferences which themselves were a couple of months before the first books on the list would ship.
Today the field reps are probably responsible for anywhere from 5-to-15 percent of a house’s sales. The major accounts: Amazon, Baker & Taylor, Barnes & Noble, Borders, and Ingram for everybody (and the mass merchants like Costco, Target, and Wal-mart for the biggest players) are now at least 70% of the business, often more. These customers are almost always covered by national account staffs, not by field reps.
National account sales almost never work with catalogs or seasons; they work by months. Each national account has its own rules and regulations governing when they need to know about a particular month’s books. Whether sales calls occur monthly or less frequently, the structure of the presentation is around each month’s deliveries, not around seasonal catalogs.
It seems transparent that the shift in sales resources has not kept pace with the shift in sales channels. The ratio of national account business versus field business has gone from what was probably about 50-50 20 years ago to 80-20 now. But field forces haven’t shrunk by anything like that proportion. The fact that 80% of the business is now season- and catalog-free hasn’t changed the procedure in most houses of building marketing around seasons and catalogs.
I checked in with a couple of veteran salespeople to confirm my notion that the structure of publishers’ sales organizations hasn’t changed as much as the structure of the account base. One of them made a couple of important points. He posited that field sales force reductions had been slow to happen because the field reps are highly visible in the industry. Outspoken independent stores, which have a public profile larger than their sales, want to be called on and complain if they’re not. Publishers in the houses who are fighting for attention for their books don’t like to see fewer reps selling more and more titles.
This same sales veteran also underscored that both marketing and publicity are living in a similarly restructured world and haven’t changed as much as they should either. He points out that Amazon coverage really calls for marketing talent and thinking, not sales talent and thinking. Sales, as this person sees it, is often about talking an account into taking a chance on stocking a book. Amazon works by algorithms and you can’t talk them into anything. (Furthermore, it doesn’t really cost you any sales if Amazon is out of stock; they’ll source the book from a wholesaler to satisfy the customer. If you’re not on the bookstore shelf, on the other hand, you aren’t going to make a sale.) So the Amazon coverage needs to be about keywords, marketing programs, and metadata. It isn’t about salesmanship, as it is in an independent account, or about navigating a complex supply chain, as it is at a chain or mass merchant.
Experiments have been tried. Ten years ago, Random House tried putting reps into the field specifically to call on the branches of bookstore chains. That has always seemed like a good idea to me: store managers and clerks affect sales; being faced out affects sales; and there’s a lot of display opportunity that is locally controlled. Only a rep calling on a chain branch can affect those things and good merchandising of the books in the store will mean fewer returns. Different chain managements (and some chains have changed their managements the way some people change their shoes) have different attitudes about those calls. Very few actually see the benefit and encourage it. Some quietly discourage it; some try to forbid it. Whether or not Random House continued that effort, it certainly didn’t become widespread.
But as independent bookstores continue to diminish in size and number, publishers need to come up with other things for reps to do to keep them in the field. Calling on chain stores would be one productive thing. Calling on local newspapers to push books or calling on special market (non-bookstore) accounts would be two others. We know of one major publisher that was trying things like that three or four years ago but it apparently didn’t work for them. That same publisher fired a bunch of reps a couple of years ago and shifted a lot of sales coverage to telemarketers.
Catalogs are slowly moving to electronic. Harper started the movement with their own initiative a couple of years ago; now Edelweiss from Above the Treeline is providing an industry solution. But seasonal list planning is still the predominant go-to-market mechanism in our industry.
I just don’t believe the status quo can hold a lot longer. Selling by seasons in the digital age is nutty. Preparing printed catalogs that are out of date before the ink on them dries in the digital age is nutty. And making the entire publishing house’s marketing staff work around sales conferences and list preparation when most of its customers don’t buy that way is beyond nutty. There needs to be a complete re-think of how publishers put books into the marketplace. The divisions of responsibility among national account reps, field reps, telesales reps, marketers, and publicists need to be rethought.
With a new step-increment drop in print book sales almost certain following what we all expect to be an ereader Christmas (and our new biggest sales day: December 25), I think we can expect some very hard thinking around this subject at many publishing houses in the first six months of 2011.
I belatedly realized that this was a very important topic that hadn’t been covered at Digital Book World. It is now. We have a great panel: Rich Freese of National Book Network, Alison Lazarus of Macmillan, and Michael Selleck of Simon & Schuster will discuss the changing role of the publishers’ sales department on a panel moderated by David Wilk, a veteran of trade book sales and distribution. I consider this a prime example of what I’ve tried to make DBW’s distinguishing proposition: discussion of business challenges caused by technology even if the topic itself isn’t primarily about technology.