Earlier this year, I was asked by my former boss, a literary agent who moonlights as a teacher, to talk to his Publishing Trade Overview class about my job as a sales rep. My first reaction, of course, was to panic. I mean…ME, speak in front of a class? Oh no. What if I messed up? What if I didn’t explain things clearly, or just started repeating myself in circles, or went off on a tangent and couldn’t come back to my original point?
Of course, once my intial panic subsided, I was a bit excited (and sure, that excitement was laced with a strong dose of FEAR – but I like to think I managed it). I mean, I talk to people all the time for work! And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I had been that very same student in that very same Publishing Trade Overview class, back when I had begun the Publishing program a few years ago. I remembered how sales had seemed like the least likely path for me. Hah!
I’d also never imagined myself speaking to a class ever again after finishing school, either – so it just goes to show you, right? Never say never. So, there I found myself, in front of a class, talking about my job to a group of students who (for the most part) all wanted to be red-pen wielding editors – and there they were, stuck listening to some boring sales person* who drives around a lot and has to deal with people! But I wanted them to WANT to be reps. Or at least consider it. I found myself trying to win the class over.
So, in the hopes of inspiring more people to become reps (or just to give people who are curious a better look into what sales reps do), I put together some of the things I talked about / was asked about.
*I’m assuming this is what they thought BEFORE they met me, cause I’m, like, totes awesome.**
**(At least, this is what I will tell myself to keep from panicking and over-thinking the whole talk.)
You don’t have to be an extrovert
I might be overgeneralizing when I say this, but I think most people think sales people are extroverts. You know, the super confident, never sweaty, small talk champions ready to charm your pants off (or… super pushy people wearing suits who make you uncomfortable – but who nevertheless are confident, even if it’s a negative thing).
Here’s the thing, though. I’m an introvert – and I used to be painfully shy. And most of the other reps I know identify as introverts – which doesn’t necessarily equate to being shy (I was just extra unfortunate!). It just means that we need quiet, alone time to recharge our batteries. It means that at the end of sales conference, or a sales meeting, or a book fair, I want nothing more than to go home and huddle under some covers with a book. But that doesn’t mean I can’t be personable and social when I need to be.
And sure, being shy meant that I put myself out there (much to my horror), but the more I worked at it, the better I became at seeming… well… the complete opposite of shy. I told myself to fake it – and I did. But it’s more than that now – I think I’ve gone past the point of faking it and have become more outgoing. But that doesn’t mean I’m not having a slight panic attack internally. You just can’t see it on my face, and I’m a bit more used to it.
So, don’t think that because you’re an introvert or shy you can’t do a job that requires you to be social. Because you can. And when you’re a publishing rep, you basically talk about books all day, every day. Which is pretty damn awesome. Book people are some of the nicest people I’ve met – and having a common interest (books!) makes the small talk easy!
You don’t have to love every book
I was asked if I had ever had to sell a book I didn’t personally like. And of course – I can’t possibly like every book. But books are subjective, so my taste in books might not match a buyer’s taste. When selling, if I love a book, I gush about it. If I like a book, I mention it. If I didn’t care for a book, well… it’s simple. I give the bookseller the run-down, and will only be honest about my feelings on the book if I’m asked directly. And I’ll say, “You know, personally it wasn’t for me, but…”, and I sell that poor little book I less than liked harder than I would the ones I love, because my tastes are often different from the person I’m sitting in front of. Sometimes the buyer takes it. Sometimes they don’t. Ultimately, I’m dealing with another person’s subjective tastes as well – and they know their customers.
There’s pressure, but it varies
I can’t speak for all publishers out there, but sales is perceived as very goals / numbers oriented. And to an extent, it is. Each of the publishers I rep have goals they want to meet, and my company does as well. But I certainly don’t feel as though it weighs me down. Plus, marketing and publicity help with sales. And I never forget the fact that books are returnable. Lying through my teeth means a buyer might take my word, get stuck with stock that doesn’t move, and then will return it. And then they might not listen the next time I tell them that this book will be the next Hunger Games. It’s really about building a relationship, and being able to listen to what works for them, and pointing out the books that might work for them. I can push a book all I want, but ultimately I need to get the right books into their hands so they can hand sell them. The more I sell to a buyer, the more I come to know what works for them – which means I sell them the right books, and we build a relationship that works. Once a good relationship is there, I can ask buyers to take risks on books – and they might, just for me. But marketing and publicity have a big impact, so if those things fall through, book sales can as well. It’s not just about having stock at a store – someone still needs to walk in, pick it up, and buy it. They need to hear about that book somewhere. So sure, numbers are important, but you can only do what you can when things are returnable – and so long as I look for new places to sell books (at, say, a gift or specialty store), I’m covered on that end.
Yes, there are road trips all year round
I’m on the road quite a bit, so my car does become my secondary office, in a way. Covering my territory means that I sometimes spend nights away from home, but it really doesn’t happen that often. And when it does, I often find myself in the company of fellow booksellers, or other reps (and this is especially true of the regional book fairs, where booksellers and book reps come together for a few days to a week at a time – which is different than the books fairs JJ talked about here). The regional book fairs allow reps and booksellers to meet in the middle, so to speak – so instead of driving 5 hours to a store (which can be costly), the rep and bookseller both drive 2 and a half hours to the closest book fair (so that the expenses are split between everyone who attends and the publishers who sponsor). And I’m not expected to visit every single store in my territory every season. There is only so much I can do, so some appointments happen over the phone instead of in person.
No, I don’t have every book memorized
That’s what catalogues and my notes are for! That isn’t to say that I don’t know a lot of them off the top of my head. As the season progresses, I’m able to talk about a large number of books without my notes in front of me. But I don’t mention every book to every buyer (that would take me days!). I curate my list. The booksellers don’t want to hear about every book, because some books won’t work for them. But they want to know which books to pay attention to, and that’s where my job comes in. I cherry pick through the massive list of books down into something manageable. But when I start a season, I rely on my notes and my catalogues. I study the list for a few weeks before I hop in my car and start driving around to see people, so that I do have a good grasp on the list.
So… what do you think? Think sales is daunting? Did this give you a better understanding of the industry? Hit me up in the comments!