Thursday, June 3, 2010

Selling Books to Book People: Sales Isn't the End of the World

So far in my series about How to Get a Job in Publishing, I've been mostly focused on the jobs that English majors usually target right away, but I thought I should maybe change tactics and do a post about the department I currently work in: Sales. I know it sounds terrifying to most of you, but I promise it’s not that difficult to sell books to book people.

There are both national sales reps, dealing with Barnes & Noble, Borders, and Books-a-Million, and local sales reps who sell to independents. There are also reps who deal with wholesalers, and with online retailers. If you like to travel, love bookstores, and are charming and a people person, this might be right for you. This is also one of the few jobs at the large publishers where you can live somewhere that isn’t New York. My company has reps in San Francisco, Denver, Chicago, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania, as well as International sales teams.

My second job in sales was the New England sales rep for my company. I drove around New England visiting 4-5 bookstores a day. Hm, doesn't sound quite so dreadful anymore, does it? A publisher rep would visit far fewer stores because their visits are longer. They sit down with the bookstore owner/manager/buyer, and the two of them page through the catalogs, discussing what is coming out next season from the publisher, and the bookstore tells the sales rep how many of each book they'll order. The sales rep tells the buyer what marketing is lined up, what publicity is in the works, if the book has gotten some great pre-publication reviews, if it's been sold wildly abroad, if there's any tie-in to media, and what the author's platform is. If that sounds scary, I assure you it's all in the tip sheets provided with the catalog for you. As a wholesaler rep, I was more about customer service, and making sure stores knew about all the various things we offer (DVDs! UK books! Online database! Next day shipping!) so I could do more strategic strikes and hit a larger number of stores in a day. Yes, I did once end up shoveling my car out of 2 feet of snow in Maine in heels in a skirt (in my defense, it was the end of April), and I now know what New Englanders mean by their joke about mud season (aka spring). I did justify buying a super-cute suitcase which Lorelei Gilmore was later spotted carrying on Gilmore Girls! (But I had it first!) But I also had (!) to go to Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket. Sure, not in season, but work paid! I finally got to fly first class, and I visited some very cool places. While sadly, I wasn't able to stop at Ben & Jerry's as they only give tours the same hours as bookstore managers make appointments (10-5, you don't have to get up early!), I did get to go to some great places! My favorites were probably the George Eastman House (I got a private tour including the attic which isn't open to the public!), and the Seward House (the author of Manhunt, James Swanson, happened to be there that night and I got a private tour with him, and he knew more about a few items than the curators! Thankfully, coincidentally, I'd listened to the audio book just a couple of weeks earlier.) The Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk, Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center, Fort Ticonderoga, the Mark Twain House, the Louisa May Alcott House, and others were also neat but nothing beats a personal, behind-the-scenes tour. Obviously, my accounts weren't just bookstores - they were any independent store that sells books. I had a yarn store, a cookery store, a gardening store, and even a dog bakery (oh, I wish I were kidding about the last one) on my list. They might have been a little unusual, but they did keep my day interesting! Being a road rep is really time consuming, but it was fun for me.

Now I work in National Accounts. This job, while more prestigious, is a little less exciting. It's a lot more meetings and spreadsheets and analyzing data. But I get to stay home, my hours are more reasonable, and I don't have to drive in Boston (NEVER AGAIN.) I like the challenge of developing personal relationships with a handful of people at each company, instead of pretending to remember a buyer who I'd seen once, six months earlier. I don't get to spend my days in bookstores anymore, but I also won't blow my whole paycheck on sidelines. (For more of my favorite indie bookstores in New England, check out this post and this one.)
On the other side of the table, there is also the job of Buyer at bookstore chains and larger stores, which goes hand-in-hand with Sales. They determine which books will be featured prominently at their stores, which will have big displays, and which ones from a few months ago just aren’t selling and need to be returned. This was my first Real Job in the industry, after working in a bookstore. As a junior buyer, I bought all the backlist (any book more than 6 months old) for my publishers. I also did returns, maintained the title information in our systems, and prepped for the new title buying sessions with the Senior buyers.

Sales may be the most vital department of all. If the books don’t sell, then everything else is fruitless. According to Publishers Weekly's last salary survey, sales reps earn on average $68K (not starting salary), as opposed to an average salary of $45K for an editor. It pays so well because Sales is generally looked down upon by the rest of the publishing industry. In addition to a salary you can earn a commission and bonuses. Sales assistant can earn more too. A good rule of thumb: the less desirable a job is, the easier it is to get, the better it pays, and the better you are treated by your higher-ups. So please don't dismiss Sales out of hand just because you think you're not the sales type.

*yes, I have visited every bookstore in these pictures. Aren't they beautiful?
**and yes, I do miss it sometimes, cooped up in my cubicle with no windows in sight, but then I remember bad directions and bad hotels and DRIVING IN BOSTON and I like my current job again.
***seriously, I have driven in New York City and Los Angeles, and they don't hold a candle to the frustrations of Boston. Bostonians, I do like your city, but driving in it is a nightmare. On future trips I will stick to public transportation and taxis.


bibliophiliac said...

Carin, I lived in Boston for many years, and public transportation is the way to go! I didn't even own a car while I lived there. Boston is not a good city for driving, but it is the most walkable city!

Carin Siegfried said...

yes, but the bookstores aren't all downtown, and I had a bunch of (heavy!) catalogs and brochures and sadly just wasn't practical. The funny thing was I rarely had trouble parking - just driving (usually cities with bad driving also have bad parking, like New York. ) Except once when I went to get my car from the parking lot under Harvard Bookstore, and I was PARKED IN! Luckily the attendent was able to move the car but I thought I was going to miss my flight home! It was always a challenge.

B said...

Carin, thanks for sharing this! I always thought editorial was the only way I wanted to go but sales does sound quite interesting.m

Marianne said...

Hi, I just discovered your blog and started perusing the posts about getting into publishing - this one was good and I wanted to comment (very late, I know). If I wanted to be a sales rep in FL (where I live now), do you suggest simply doing a search for sales assistant positions on a pub industry website? Should I go to the websites for individual publishers and check that way? I don't have much experience, but I'd love to work in publishing without having to intern in New York (I'm poor). Thanks a bunch!

Carin Siegfried said...

Hi Marianne, I'd certainly check out Health Communications and the various University presses in FLA. To be a sales rep you generally do need to have some experience first (it's not exactly entry level. A Sales Assistant is, but those jobs are all in the corporate headquarters.) Non-book sales experience will actually work, too. If you have that, then I'd keep an eye on the job listings for the top 20-30 publishers and distributors, as well as Publishers Lunch and the usual online job listing places like Mediabistro. Keep an eye open for jobs selling to libraries and/or schools. There are about 10 libraries for every bookstore and 40 schools, so you'll see a lot more listings for those jobs, and they will usually cover a slightly smaller region. Those jobs do usually want some experience in teaching, but apply anyway! Also check out my post from last week - Jobs Not in NYC. Good luck!