Reflections of a Sales Rep

John Lee, author of a forthcoming book on the Churchill family, looks back on some of the changes he has seen during his forty years in the book trade.

Where to begin? Once all the main publishers kept a sales force of twenty, thirty, forty or more reps, organised under Area Sales Managers. The Net Book Agreement (NBA) was in place and every bookseller, be they chain (which meant W. H. Smith and John Menzies) or independent, sold books at the same price – the ‘level playing field’ of blessed memory. Along came the new chains – Words and Music that morphed into Books Etc, Waterstones, Ottakars and so on. In a fit of doctrinaire Toryism, out went the NBA and anarchy rode forth on its fiery steed. Prices crashed; everyone sold lots more books and made less and less money in the process.

This put terrible pressure on editors, who were not as free as they once were to buy a book because they felt it should be published, but now had to answer to accountants who only wanted to know what it would contribute to the bottom line. The chains now purchased more and more books centrally, thus increasing their pressure on the publishers for higher terms, to allow further discounting. The result is books are now priced up so that they can be discounted down to the price they would probably have been sold at in the first place!

The supermarkets woke up to the possibilities of selling books cheaply and the volume of sales they achieve is very remarkable. Now a few books sell enormous quantities, and a lot of books struggle to keep their place on the publishers’ lists. So much trade was now being done at Head Office level that sales forces began to shrink dramatically.

Large sales forces are history; one has to wonder how long the individual, informed and useful sales rep will last. Ten years ago, I would have advised every author to try and get invited to a publisher’s sales conference or meeting, and to go out of his or her way to ‘sell themselves’ to the sales reps. Getting the sales force ‘on side’ gives every book a good start in life. Now the advice is probably to try and get a quiet lunch with the Key Account Managers, as these are the powers that negotiate with the big chains what books get those front-of-shop promotions. Be prepared to give up discount in return for volume sales.

A word here about the relationship between the author and the people selling his/her book. Booksellers do like to meet nice authors. Take the trouble to introduce yourself to shops you frequent, be they local branch of a chain or independent. Try to avoid any time when the shop is obviously very busy. Those independents that have survived the harsh impact of competition from chains and supermarkets are particularly valuable outlets, who just try harder to please their loyal customer base.

With the best will in the world, that is so much harder in the centrally controlled chains. You would be astonished at the number of authors who seem to make a point of making themselves unwelcome in shops. Complaints about their books not being available or not being well enough displayed are not the way to win the support of a bookseller. I can personally remember hearing authors (mercifully none of them ‘mine’) berating shop staff because their books were not in the window!

It is legitimate to draw perceived shortcomings to the attention of your publisher, either through your agent or directly with the sales/publicity/marketing department. Do it patiently and politely. They will follow the matter up, usually via the sales rep. This is where the good personal relationship between sales rep and shop is (or should that be ‘was?) so useful.

A word of warning about bookshop staff. Do not take at face value any reply you receive to an enquiry about your book. If a book is not in stock the classic response is, “Oh, the rep didn’t show that to me”. This is invariably not true and is a shorthand reply to cover the situation. I speak from bitter experience!

This should not cause authors to despair. There are bookshop systems in place now that are a benefit. It only needs a single copy of your book to be on the shelf and it will be locked into a stock-control system that will see it automatically re-ordered as it sells. The demand for new books is insatiable; the number of outlets selling them continues to grow. The arrival of television was supposed to spell the doom of the printed book. It has stimulated reading beyond reckoning. Every survey of leisure spending shows that books would be almost the last item given up if things get too tight. The growth of reading groups, literary events in shops, and talks at local libraries are all creating more opportunities for writers to engage with their readers. Seize the time! Keep writing! There are readers out there waiting for more!