Should I go into Sales?
Updated: Mar 24
Here’s what you can expect from a sales role in publishing and the skills you’ll need to hone to be successful.
More often than not, you don’t get much time with a book buyer. They’re busy people and can usually spare an hour once a month to catch up on upcoming titles. After checking in on how things are going with the bookshop and a chat about what’s performing well, you probably have about 40-45 minutes left to share information about your books. Logic dictates if you have 20 books publishing that month that gives you 2 minutes to discuss each one. But not every title is likely to be suitable for the shop. Moreover, this egalitarian approach suggests all books are created equal and we know that some titles by brand name authors will have more going for them from a marketing and publicity perspective which takes more time to explain. Plus the rights to your very big books probably cost a lot more to acquire than some of the other titles on your list so from an investment perspective there’s more riding on you communicating to a bookseller that your leads are important books you really need their support on - these ones have to sell. In reality that ‘two minutes a book’ looks more like 5-10 minutes for the leads and then the rest need to duke it out for attention in 30-60 second increments.
All this means you need to prepare by reading up on the books so you can deliver the most important information quickly and efficiently. Your elevator pitch needs to be convincing and pique the book buyer’s interest and you need to know when to move on because there’s unfortunately never enough time. Practice in the office, at home, or wherever you can get a minute to time yourself in your pitch and if it’s running long then make sure you’ve got it down to the essential sales points.
Knowing your audience
What will help you with time management is pairing down your list to the essentials based on the retailer. If you have a big, beautifully illustrated book featuring the works of Picasso, it might be a fine book but you don’t want to waste precious time presenting it to a bookshop that specialises exclusively on children’s titles. They’re unlikely to stock copies no matter how convincing you are. Furthermore, the buyer might be a bit annoyed that you didn’t take the time to learn the kinds of books they sell - their time is precious! So it’s paramount that you do research ahead of time by reviewing their website to see which books they feature and which events they’re running. Once you’ve looked into things then there’s no harm in saying ‘I noticed X is featured on your website, what other titles have been popular lately?’ After the meeting, write down what you’ve learned and then the next time you visit them you’ll have a cheat sheet to quickly get you up to speed and select the books you’re going to show them. Over time you’ll know their bookshop well and they’ll be happy to see you because you’ll be the salesperson who always brings them the right kinds of books.
There are many kinds of salespeople but in my experience the ones that are the most appreciated by booksellers are the ones who actually read the books they’re presenting on (shocking, I know!). While you can’t read every single book on your list, you should at least be reading the leads and those selected for the shop’s attention so that you can respond knowledgeably to their questions.
You should also stay in touch and update booksellers on what kind of marketing and publicity support the books will be receiving as that’s always an essential component to encourage bookseller buy-in as they’ll be more confident customers will come into the shop looking for that book. Another point which seems obvious is: keep your promises. If you tell a bookseller you can offer extra discount on top of base terms on a book should they take X many copies or offer a window display then you better be prepared to follow through.
Once you’ve had these conversations, take notes of what has been discussed and even better get it all down in a recap email as it helps for future accounting and to keep track of what deals you’ve worked in the past. Try not to cancel appointments too often and remember that booksellers, while gatekeepers, are some of the loveliest people you’ll ever meet. They may not have a lot of time but when you have them in front of you, make a personal connection! It’s not always all about business.
Understanding the market
Although it’s important for everyone in a publishing house to know the state of the market and which books are creating genre trends, salespeople are often called on for their expertise and feedback in the shaping of a book. After all, they’re the ones out in the field speaking to booksellers about what’s selling, what isn’t and why. If they learn that books around a certain subject are trending, then it’s useful to share this info with the team as they might then formulate a promotion around back and frontlist books that are suddenly very timely and in-demand. Or an editor might value this information in their commissioning of new books. A publisher might also want feedback from retailers on whether or not a cover design is appropriate for a genre and whether it's likely to 'speak' to customers. Salespeople are the communication bridge between the market and the publisher so they can really impact the success of a book from planning to publication date and beyond.
Just as important as learning about the market is learning from one’s successes and failings. It’s useful to schedule in regular post mortems to evaluate what worked and what didn’t and what lessons can be learned from the publishing cycle. Was a book widely and positively reviewed? What was it about that book that made people pay attention? Was a book brilliantly written but the cover reportedly lacklustre? If so, then you might want to make changes for the paperback edition. If an author’s first book was perfect for 'special sales' then it’s wise to remember these things for their second book as this sales channel might be a part of building greater sales. Or maybe a book performed really well because of regional interest and that’s something the salesperson can draw on for comparable titles in the future. Whatever the lessons, data analysis makes the salesperson more knowledgeable and able to make wiser decisions in the future. So chat with booksellers, learn from reviews in the broadsheets and listen to what readers are saying.
What kind of person should work in Sales?
There’s no one personality type for any role in our industry, but from what I’ve gathered in meeting salespeople and speaking about which ones booksellers love meeting with the most, here’s what I’ve gleaned:
Personable: you need to be a people person who enjoys talking books with people from many walks of life. Communicating your excitement and passion for a book is key! Extroverted people might excel in this way, but introverted people who can ‘turn on the charm’ when they need to will also manage well.
Organised: you’ll be catering to a number of differing retailers so keep lots of notes and reference your diary often for meetings with booksellers.
Responsive: there’s nothing worse than a bookseller trying to get their hands on a hot selling title only to receive a reply days after the fact. Get back to retailers ASAP!
Knowledgeable: read far and wide and be prepared to answer queries. A knowledge of comparable titles and authors that give the same vibe as the book you’re selling is always helpful to anchor your discussions s is a knowledge of supporting marketing activity for the book you're pitching. I personally love a one-page cheat sheet featuring the full marketing plan that I can leave with the bookseller.
Reliable: Always follow-through and keep your promises. This is a small business and people talk. Plus you might be working with the same bookseller for the next 30 years so keep the relationship warm by being professional and trustworthy.
All of these hard and soft skills will serve you well no matter what job you land in publishing, so if a role in the Sales department isn't your first choice you'll still be developing in-demand skills that can be applied to other departments.