Sales Reps and Sales Conferences: Improving Process and Performance

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vitrocc4tol Tony Sanfilippo, Penn State Press

Sales Conferences

First I think it’s important to recognize that the system is broken, Sales reps used to be depended upon to inform a vast array of independent bookstores spanning the country about the new titles for a single press or a consortium of presses. Now, with fewer accounts and each rep handling an ever growing number of publishers is it realistic to expect them to offer the same kind of service to the same kind of accounts? I would contend that it isn’t, and the sales conference should evolve to better serve the changing retail landscape. As a former bookstore owner and buyer myself, I hope to bring that perspective to my sales conferences.

Because of this new landscape, my presentations tend to be rather brief and to the point. Because our reps are now working for an even greater number of publishers, a couple of thing I consider when making my presentation are first, make it memorable and second, make it short. Focus on the books that can practically be expected to be carried in a modern indie and use the tools the rep will have when they are working with buyers. In other words, make the catalog the focus of the presentation. Frankly, I don’t really use tip sheets. While they may be useful to some, I’d rather the reps have the tool they will be expected to use while presenting to buyers and focusing and imprinting on that, rather than growing dependent on a Xerox probably back at their office.

During my presentations I encourage my reps to use two things, a highlighter and a pen, supplying them myself if necessary and I encourage them to take notes in the actual catalog, again encouraging familiarity with their best tool. When I was in school, I remember that I found the act of taking the note greatly improved my retention of the information being noted. Eventually I discovered I didn’t usually need the note, only to take the note to retain the information. I hope that works for my reps the same way.

When presenting the two or three key books to our reps, I try to have a memorable anecdote. For example we publish a English translation of a Buddhist scripture titled The Holy Teaching of Vimalakirti by F. Robert Thurman, one of the world's most respected scholars and translators of Tibetan and Sanskrit. Thurman was ordained a Buddhist monk in 1964 by Tenzin Gyatso, the current Dalai Lama, is the current director of Tibet House in New York City. All of that relevant information. But, he is also the father of the leather clad ass kicking ninja star of the Kill Bill films, Uma Thurman, and that information is for some reason slightly more memorable. I don’t have such an anecdote for every book, but usually I can come up with something that while not necessarily relevant to the content, will hopefully be memorable enough to help the reps remember that title among the 600 other titles they will be presented that week.

As an ex-buyer, I believe time is a buyer’s most valuable asset. So from that experience comes pragmatism.

How is that belief manifested in my sales presentations, well, you’ll probably find this a bit heretical but one of the most effective ways is by skipping books. Priced over $65, no illustrations, esoteric monograph or a collection of essays, short discount? Skip it. Sometimes that seems like half the catalog but you need to make a choice, do you want your key titles that have half a chance at a brick and mortar to have a legitimate chance, sacrifice those that don’t belong there. If you don’t offer a rep discount on your short titles, skip all the short discount titles. In today’s market, an indie carrying a book they only make 20-30% on won’t be in business much longer so it’s unlikely you’ll get paid for that book anyway.

Also let you’re reps know about the dogs. If you don’t know what they are, then of course present all the titles with equal enthusiasm, but if you went to the editorial committee meeting and heard a lot of doubt, if you asked the editor and they expressed doubt, if, god forbid, you sampled the book and you have doubts, pass that information on to your reps. We can’t read them all, but we can be proactive about finding out which of our books are the best of what we do, and those which are the, not so much. Do your reps and their accounts a favor, clue them in. Your reps probably won’t pass that info on, as if they’re commissioned reps, it’s not necessarily in their best interest, but for their key accounts, the relationship between the buyer and the reps is one of trust, and it’s in the interest of indie booksellers and your reps that they are honest and we protect those booksellers from a bad investment. Don’t worry about the book, a library somewhere will buy that book. And make sure your suggestion for printrun reflects these doubts you’ve perceived.

Another issue I think is important to consider is synergy. Sure it’s a tired phrase, but I can’t think of a better one. Have a book tied to an exhibition that’s traveling? know where it’s going and tell the reps in those territories in advance. Your regional titles should be targeted to the reps those titles subjects cover. Come to the conference with suggestions and do a little research. This book about this patch of wilderness has two bookstores within 50 miles, tell that rep in that territory which stores those are. Also, who are the other presses your reps rep for? Are there synergies there? Do they rep gay and lesbian publishers or art publishers or travel publishers? Then they will probably be visiting those niche stores. If you have an appropriate title on your list, make that suggestion to those particular reps. And think creatively. For example, we did a regional book on the history of York barbell founded in York Pennsylvania, and the culture of bodybuilding the company helped to promote. Since two of our reps also rep for Consortium and thus a few of the gay and lesbian publisher’s they represent, that title was also sold to those stores. Piggyback on the rest of their lists when possible, and make suggestions and ask if they’d like you to help with research. We did a train book, for example, and offered our reps a list of gift shops at train museums in their territories.

After the front list is presented, and since I did them a favor by keeping it brief I also do a quick backlist review. Got a book that’s found a second wind because of a current event, pass that info on. Three years ago we published congressman John Murtha’s book about his career in the military and his service on the house intelligence committee and the defense appropriations sub-committee, when he came out against the war in November, that book suddenly had a new life. Needless to say we’ve discussed it at the last two sales conferences.

My conferences usually end with what I call the “Word on the street" session. What have they heard? What’s the health of their key stores? Anything I should be aware of? Anyway I can help? This feedback has proved invaluable. It has helped me help key stores like the Gothic, Shaman Drum, and Labyrinth, and has given us a heads up about things like the health of Koen or Cody’s, long before they were in the trade rags.

Finally, each conference is followed up with a spreadsheet. Since I haven’t given them a tip sheet, a spreadsheet is usually pretty helpful. Accounts with websites or the need for bibliographic and marketing information in an exportable electronic form, can then receive it from their rep. This is also an easier way for me to be able to pass on information like institutional affiliations and author home towns in a way reps can easily sort and incorporate into their trip planning. That’s all I have, I hope it was helpful.

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