A Geek’s Insider View of the Publishing Industry Pt. 1

Since I’ve been doing my job as a sales representative for a year and a half now, and I continue to get to explain what it is I do, I thought I’d do a series of posts here about my view of the publishing industry, centered on the ‘what I do in my job’ aspects, but also covering things like eReaders, agents/copyright/publication, and so on. For this series I will rapidly switch between my professional hat and my writer hat.

Item the first: Who I’m talking about — I sell to independent bookstores, museum stores, book wholesalers, and some specialty accounts (in a category we call ‘special sales’). My accounts range from online-only children’s bookstores to local mom and pop bookstores to small chain bookstores. My business is, these days, a very small percentage of the overall book business. Independent bookstores (as in not Borders, Barnes & Noble, Amazon or the chain Books-a-Million) comprise only 8-15% of the book business these days. The big money is in fact in the chains and Amazon/online retailers, and more and more in eReaders and the electronic book market. What is important about the independent bookstores is both the local business aspect and the fact that the indies have a strong effect on award recognition and reviews.

What this means, though, is the fact that the people who do my job for Amazon, B&N and Borders are incredibly important and can have a strong effect on a book’s potential. In the book biz, we call these accounts the ‘major accounts’ or ‘national accounts’ — and therefore one can be a ‘major account rep’ which grants a large degree of cache because your company has trusted you with handling a crucial part of the business.

Given that I’m still relatively new (especially compared to people who have been reps for 20+ years), I’m not yet selling to the major accounts, but I do have my own specialties which I have developed to help push our business the best I can. One of the ways I do this is by assisting buyers with social media — this will deserve to be its own post, later on. The other thing I do is take the lead for our Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror publishers, which will also be its own post.

So who are the people at these bookstores? Many of my accounts have been in business for 20+ or 30+ years, and some have become inter-generational now, with the business being handed down or partially run by the younger generation within their family. Some stores are newer, open for a handful of years and one account that opened just this fall — proving that there is more than one trajectory for indies. Most of my buyers are women between the ages of 30 and 65. I have some male buyers but I’d say they are less than 1/3 of my account’s buyers. As a rule, my buyers are tremendously bright, very well-educated, and left-leaning (sometimes notably left-leaning compared to their area). It’s been fantastic to get to know these people who are on the ground-level, selling books in the trenches and doing their best to get good books in people’s hands. They’ve got a combined cache of experience that would fill the Library of Alexandria, and I’ve really enjoyed learning from them.

Many of my accounts are also closely connected to their local school districts, buying children’s books and/or educational materials to sell to educators as a group or individually. This means that my children’s books are an essential part of my business and by selling them, I know that I’m part of enriching the education of kids across the midwest (which warms my heart).

My independent bookstores range in size from hole-in-the-wall to old houses filled with books, bookstores in malls, and bookstore/specialty stores in tourist towns, and more. Each store has its own demographic based on their location and based on the readership which they court. Two bookstores across the town from one another can have wholly different readerships based on their focus as a store as well as their location within a town.

In addition to the indies, I also sell to some museum stores, which is fun because then I get to hang out in the museums/gardens/exhibits. I also sell to some wholesalers — wholesalers buy the books on a higher discount and then re-sell to their own list of retail customers. Some wholesalers are the clearing house for a set of bookstores, some are notably different (one account is a re-binder, that buys paperback children’s books, re-binds them into hardcovers and sells them to libraries), and each of them requires a different approach for selling.

One of the things I had to learn most quickly about this job is how important flexibility and adaptation are to my success. I can have my general strategy, but to get the best orders I can and most effectively serve my accounts, I try to filter the material to present the books with the best potential for the market while also probing to see where there is other demand or where there have been difficulties that are facing a category (‘travel books don’t sell for me anymore’).

Many people are in a gloom-and-doom mode about independent booksellers, but I think that it’s premature at worst and mere anxiety at best. But that’s a whole other can of worms.

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