July 23, 2014

Trade Secrets: Penguin pro offers selling tips

Eric Boss

By: Cassidy Ritter

Trade Secrets is an ongoing blog where we ask professionals from the traditional publishing world to explain how they approach their jobs, in order to help self-publishers understand the intricacies of the publishing process and glean some tips.

Today, we talk to sales guru Eric Boss. Boss is the Paperback Field Sales Rep for Penguin. He represents all paperback division titles to independent booksellers in Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado, Arizona, Utah and New Mexico — and has been doing so for 14 years.

Boss has been in sales for 24 years. Prior to working with Penguin, he was the manager of a bookstore for 10 years, worked for the wholesaler Gordon’s selling to bookstores in the Rocky Mountain West region. He also worked for Richard Abel Company, a library jobber, selling to public and university libraries all over the United States and Canada.

In sum, he knows the sales territory, when it comes to books. “One way or another, I’ve been selling books since 1981,” he says.

Q: Can you take us through what you do?

A: The process really begins with a sales conference. We all (the sales force) gather for four or five days and are given presentations on the books (the company) will be publishing in the next six months or so. The publisher, editor-in-chief and some of the marketing and advertising people from each on of the imprints will come in and present their lists, title by title. So there will be a day when we do Penguin in the morning and another imprint group in the afternoon and so forth.

We work in three seasons: the winter list, which we call January through April; the summer list, May through August; and the fall list, September through December. Typically, it runs between 450 to 500 books per season, so we handle somewhere around 1,500 books for the year. That’s for trade. I also sell mass-market books, the small rack-size books. The presentations on those are less strenuous: We don’t talk about every title (because) most of these books have already been published in some other format or they’re formulaic.

Q: So that’s how you learn about each title that you will sell. How do you then approach the bookstores? Do you start by phone, email, in person?

A: I work in person with almost all my accounts. It’s been a tradition that way, and it works better. For one thing, being face to face with someone is a whole lot different than being on the phone or through email. There are accounts that I work by phone simply because they are so remote… (If it’s a new bookstore among your accounts) you kind of just have to walk in… Typically what I do with new booksellers is I’ll take a set of catalogs and some samples to give them… You cold call and make your best guess at what they would like. It’s mainly a meet and greet.

Q: How do you find the right balance between being aggressive and reserved?

A: There is not much aggression in this business… The aggressive impulse is more about enthusiasm than it is anything else. Somebody can tell the difference between a presentation where you say, “This is a new author; we paid a lot for this book; we are very high on this author, and we are going to put marketing money behind it, and we think it’s going to do really well,” and, “You’ve got to read this book! This is really good stuff!” They can tell the difference. It’s a very personal and subjective thing… So rather than aggression, it’s more enthusiasm.

Q: When you show up to a bookstore, what do the owners generally look for when deciding to take a book from you?

A: Well, it varies from store to store because each one has a particular character. Some stores are specialty — mystery or romance or sci-fi — so that’s pretty evident… Each store has it’s own means and it’s kind of a complex equation. Much of it is seat-of-the-pants: If it worked before, it’s likely to work again. You can really only get this from experience working with the store and seeing what they’ve sold previously. It’s very subjective.

Q: How do you convince the bookstores to take a new author?

A: It is one of the most difficult things (for the sales person), and it’s one of the most difficult things for the bookstore, as well, because an unknown author is always going to be harder to sell than a known quantity. That’s just the way it is. In some cases, if I had a chance to read the book ahead of time and if I actually liked it, I can then enthuse about that book to the buyer and say, “You know, this really is a good book. You should give it a chance because it’s an excellent work.”

Also, if we happen to know something about the author that is a compelling factor, it helps. For instance, if they are very well connected with media and they have their own lecture circuit, so there are lots and lots of people know this author, that will make the difference.

But if it’s just somebody completely out of the blue with nothing behind them, it is very hard to convince the bookstores to take it. Someone asked me years ago, “What do large publishers want?”… I told them they want what worked really well last week. Whatever it is that is successful right now, we will do again. We aren’t really in the business of pushing the envelope… We are in the business of selling what works…

You have to tell the bookstore, “Okay this is how you’re going to sell this book,” because that’s what they need to know. It’s again a matter of subjective judgment.

Q: Are bookstores generally receptive to new authors?

A: Again, it depends on what it is. If it’s a personal memoir of someone nobody knows about, well then forget it. If it is yet another biography, there has to be something there, something that piques the interest. It’s not unknown for a book to be bought because the book has a clever or evocative title, or one that is provocative. Even a cover and design of the spine is really important and can make a huge difference… There has to be some compelling matter.

Q: What marketing tools do you bring with you?

A: I have blads, which are sample pages of the book… and I use catalogs (generally there are 50 to 100 front list titles in one catalog).

Q: Do reviews help?

A:. Reviews certainly can help… The online world has made huge changes because someone can become known to thousands and tens of thousands of people via social media and other online methods, whereas before, it was almost impossible to reach that many people. If the author or, in the case of a self-publisher, publisher, can say “Well look, I had 40,000 hits on this review,” that makes a difference. It’s all about how high a profile this person has, how many people know about the book. That has always been the greatest difficulty to overcome. Someone may have a wonderful book, but if you can’t put it in front of people’s eyeballs, you won’t be able to sell it.

Q: How did you build these relationships with bookstore owners?

A: For me, it was easy, partly because I had already been in the business for a number of years and had known many of these people from trade associations. When I walked in, I wasn’t walking into a strange office. But, it certainly has happened that I’ve met with somebody I haven’t met before… It’s a business of relationships and familiarity, which makes it very difficult for someone new who hasn’t established any of those relationships to get going.

Q: So how would you suggest a self-publishing author go about and establishing relationships with bookstores?

A: The thing that we tell everybody is that the place to start is in the bookstore. Go to work for a bookstore. Meet the people there, learn the business and pay attention to the people that come into the bookstore… There are two kinds of books that book sellers like: good books that sell and bad books that sell…. So as you gain experience and talk to these people, you can see what sells and doesn’t. That’s the kind of experience you need to get.

Q: Do local authors have an advantage at their local bookstore?

A: Local makes a big difference. For one thing, assuming that the local author can convince the bookstore to do an event, it is easier to drive over than fly over and stay in a hotel. Most publishers are reluctant to do author tours unless they have a known quantity. So local authors do have an advantage in that sense because they can come in and, if it’s not a huge killer event, it’s not quite as big of a deal as compared to getting a plane ticket and staying in a hotel. Also, books of regional interest do well.

Q: Would you say there is a benefit to book signings?

A: Yes there is. If readers can meet the author, that author can establish the connection. Then when the next book comes, people will be likely to remember.

Q: What tips do you have for self- published authors trying to sell their books?

A: Well it’s tough. One of the things is you have to put your name and your book in front of as many eyes as you can. Before the advent of social media, this was almost impossible because you didn’t have a marketing budget. You couldn’t produce sell pieces and put ads in newspapers and so forth. These days, there are many sites where people review self-published books and that’s where people go to look for these things. For now, that’s probably the best piece of advice I can give is to use social media and the Net to get your name and the book out there.

Q: Pretend you’re a first-time self-publishing author who has no connections to the book world. You’ve written a nonfiction book about hikes in the Rocky Mountains. Take us, step-by-step, on how you would approach a bookstore, including the ice-breakers you would use and any other exact words and phrases that would be helpful, in order to catch the bookseller’s interest and attention.

A: If I’m taking a self-published book about hiking in the Rockies into a bookstore, I need to be able to tell the buyer that I have a marketing and advertising plan in place that will drive buyers to the store. Otherwise, the book will be perceived as one that will simply sit on the shelf and not be bought. Also, as I may have mentioned, while content and formats are important, the need to have the book recognized before the customer comes in is vital. Right now, social media seem to be the most effective method of getting the word out. There is another aspect I should mention, however, which is that, depending on the subject matter, it might be more productive to approach non-bookstore venues: outdoor shops, in the case of a hiking book, or gift shops in tourist areas, for instance. The bottom line is, bookstores want to know why they should stock the book, not so much that it’s a great one. Remember, it’s all about the commerce and not about the Nobel Prize potential.

1) Call first — people who just show up unannounced are usually not very welcome.

2) Have a sample of the book with you that you can leave with the buyer. Brochures are nice, but they need to see the finished product.

3) Have an organized marketing plan, on paper if possible, showing what local media you’re using to drive sales to bookstores or other kinds of stores.

4) Ask if the store has relationships with other retailers that could benefit everyone. A climbing store in the same mall as a bookstore would create synergy and possibility for cross merchandising. Even the possibility of events involving both stores could be proposed. As before, it’s a good idea to contact all parties ahead of time to see if this is workable.

5) Show the buyer what benefits are possible if they stock the book. It’s an old retail selling axiom that features don’t sell, but benefits do.

BlueInk Review offers credible and unbiased reviews of self-published books exclusively. Visit us at www.blueinkreview.com.

Cassidy Ritter is a junior at the University of Kansas, where she studies journalism, business and global studies and is a correspondent for the “University Daily Kansan.” She is BlueInk’s summer 2014 Intern.

 

 

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