One of our field sales reps was in the office last week, and I thought it a perfect opportunity to get the scoop on how a real, live sales call actually works. Every week, we get reports from our sales staff saying stuff like “this account loved this cover so it’s an Impact Buy,” “previous sales were weak, so they’re revising their order,” and “they’re making this a Sidekick Title.” But what the heck does all that mean?
It sounds as though prepping for a sales call is a lot like getting ready to send a manuscript on submission. Each account wants the information presented in a very specific way. One person wants everything rubber-banded and color coded, another takes paperclips, and yet another doesn’t want anything bound at all. Gee, people are so picky. 😉
The first thing the reps have to do is research. On the back of all the cover flats that are taken into the sales presentation are marketing notes from the publisher with comparison titles. The sales rep has to look figures on the comparison titles that are specific to the individual account, and quite often secures it right to the cover in one of the aforementioned manners. It seems as though most accounts are looking to base their buys on previous sales at the 8-week mark.
For 90% of the accounts, this presentation is the first time the buyers are hearing about the books. Though setting can make a difference (especially with historical romance), for the most part, the buyers aren’t too concerned about the book’s plot. They like to see quotes, marketing plans, and most importantly of all, a strong cover. This is especially true for a debut, but even an author with a strong sales record can fall short with a weak cover.
At Dorchester, we generally present 6 original romances, 4 Westerns, 2 horrors, 1 thriller, 1 sci-fi/adventure, and 1 Hard Case Crime book. Buyers for chain stores (Barnes & Noble, WaldenBooks/Borders, BooksAMillion) and accounts that service libraries and independents (Baker & Taylor, Ingram) usually order everything on the list at varying levels. But only some of the titles are chosen for display on front tables, ladders, or spin racks. Usually that’s determined by how many copies the buyer wants to order and how much co-op money the publisher has available to pay for the placement.
Wholesale accounts (servicing Wal-Mart, Target, Kmart, drug stores, grocery stores, etc.) tend to have much more limited buys. And this is where it gets fun. Because they all have a different system. For example, one account takes approximately 70 titles every month. That’s of all the fiction that’s being published that month. A general breakdown is:
20 bestsellers (this would be your Nora Roberts, John Grisham, Dan Brown type)
15 new romances, 10 or so backlist on bestsellers
The bestsellers generally get the largest buys, and the categories the smaller ones. So anything we can do to bump a bigger-name romance author up to the bestseller category works for everyone’s benefit – it means there’s more left in romance for other authors, and we’ve secured a top distribution.
Each wholesaler has its own hierarchy of buy levels. Generally, the reps push a couple of the top romances, and shuffle things around to see if we can get a horror and western in the fiction section and a thriller as a mystery buy. This is where the salesmanship, knowing the area marketplace, and wisely choosing which books to use as a comparison title really comes into play. Every now and then, the buyers go out on a limb and really push a debut because they like the cover or the marketing plans. And that’s fantastic because it really makes the books visible, but then the book also has to sell through well (which can be difficult for a new author) or the big buy won’t be there next time.
This is why scheduling is so important—we don’t want to end up competing against our own books any more than we already are.
One surprise to me was that in months where there’s a huge release—a Harry Potter or a Stephanie Meyer—accounts are less willing to take big orders on other books because they’ve got so much cash tied up in the mega-bestseller. I hadn’t really considered that before. On the other hand, I’ve also heard that because of discounting, most stores take a loss on those mega-bestsellers, and count on the readers flocking into the stores to pick up a few more books or merchandising materials to make up for it. Sue Grimshaw has previously mentioned that romance sales go up across the board in the month of a Nora Roberts or J.D. Robb release (isn’t that just about every month?) because customers come into the store for the latest, then stay for some impulse buys.
I think a book could be written on the sales process alone, and clearly every house works differently and every account has its own purchase process. But I’m hoping this serves as a basic primer.