Reading you under the table since 2012

A closer look at Life as a Publishing Sales Rep

by

Vanessa Di Gregorio

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

Catalogues

Just a handful of catalogues that I use as a rep (I go through about 50 though)

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!

Vanessa Di Gregorio works in publishing as a sales rep at Ampersand, a book and gift sales agency. She is also a former literary agency intern. When she isn’t out selling books and talking to bookstores, Vanessa can be found over at Something Geeky, GoodreadsTwitter, or writing for Paper Droids.


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16 Comments

  1. An author
    Posted December 11, 2013 at 7:55 am | Permalink

    Vanessa- thanks so much for this post! My debut is just hitting catalogues so I was very curious about what happens from here. My question is this: Looking at this from an author perspective, is there anything we can do (no, I’m not talking bribery!!) to help put our stories on our sales reps radars or would help them when presenting our books to bookstores? For instance, letting a sales rep know where we grew up and are likely to have a “fan base” seeking out the book, or things along those lines…

    • Posted December 11, 2013 at 10:00 am | Permalink

      Oooh, how very exciting! Congrats on your debut!

      Reps tend to gather their base information during sales conference, which happens at the start of every season. For example, I’m just finishing up our sales conference for Spring 2014 titles – and, come January, I’ll be hitting the ground running and sell to my account for the upcoming Spring releases.

      Since there are so many reps, covering a huge span of territories, I think your best bet to share information like that would be to talk to your editor / publicist. Sales reps receive a huge amount of publicity & marketing updates throughout the season, and so we’re constantly updating our notes. We’re always keen to find out about local authors in our territories, and we encourage knowing where an author grew up – so if you could pass that on to someone in-house, they can send the reps that info (along with any other additional bits we should know – and there is always more info being sent our way!).

      I would also highly recommend that authors take initiative with their local independent bookstores and talk to the booksellers. If they know who you are (and that you live there / close by / still have family & friends around), they’ll usually make a note to stock your book in their store. In fact, from my experience, indie bookstores love having a personal connection to their local authors. And sometimes, by the time I get to my bookstores for our seasonal appointment, we’ll come across a title and they’ll stop me and say, “Oh! I already spoke to the author & we’re planning on doing his/her launch!” or “This author is a regular in the store!” – or something along those lines. As much as us reps can push a book on a store, I think authors can have a much bigger impact by taking the time to introduce themselves to their local bookstores.

      I hope that helps!

      • An author
        Posted December 11, 2013 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

        It does, so much! Relieved to know I’m already doing the things you suggested- phew!!! Thanks for such a detailed response and a great post!

        • Posted December 12, 2013 at 9:56 am | Permalink

          You’re very welcome! Glad I could share some insight :) And at conference, if an author is out there promoting as well and being very active in social media and whatnot, we’re always told that – because it does make a difference. :)

  2. Posted December 11, 2013 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    Vanessa, this post is brilliant! Sales reps are SUCH an important part of the process of getting the book into readers hands, I the general public doesn’t even know it. Off to tweet the heck out of this informative post.

    You rock, lady.

    • Posted December 12, 2013 at 9:58 am | Permalink

      Awwww, thanks Jo! <3 It means a lot, hearing that from a kick-ass agent like yourself! Getting a book to succeed is really such a team effort.

  3. Sandy
    Posted December 11, 2013 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    This is a great post ^_^. I am confidant you got at least a few of those kids considering sales rep as a job option now.

  4. Posted December 11, 2013 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    Ahhhh, Vanessa, every post you write on being a sales rep makes me that much more inclined to become one myself :D It’s really good to know you don’t have to be an extrovert! I consider myself an introvert as well, but I think that I can make myself personable and social, so maybe I have some hope, haha. I would love to know some of the more technical skills needed — should we take sales/marketing courses? Is the career path apprenticeship-based like the rest of publishing?

    • Posted December 12, 2013 at 10:10 am | Permalink

      Thanks Yahong! :D

      A lot of booksellers are introverts as well. Sure, we can be a rowdy and loud bunch at times, but we’re pretty low-key and mellow, even when we party together. ;)

      And you can absolutely be social when you need to be! Just because something doesn’t come naturally doesn’t mean you can’t practice and improve and be as good as the next person.

      As for technical skills, I always recommend that people interested in sales (or the publishing industry in general) should work at a bookstore. Having knowledge of the market and being in a position where you can hand-sell books to people is pretty key, and will put you a step above others. I actually credit my experience in retail as what got me to overcome a lot of the nervousness that comes from being shy.

      I got my job in sales before I had taken the sales course in the Publishing program I was in (but I still took it afterwards). I don’t think it’s necessary, but I do believe that taking any publishing courses or programs are super beneficial – it shows that you are serious, and you make a lot of connections – and networking is probably the most important thing. Who you know can definitely help when it comes time to job hunt. And, all the publishing programs I know offer internship opportunities (either as a credit towards your program [like co-op], or as part of an internal job/internship posting offered only to students).

      And you never know what skills will get you jobs. For both my internship and my current job, I stood out because of my (albeit brief) background in graphic / web design. (Go figure, right?)

  5. Posted December 11, 2013 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    How interesting and inspiring!! As an introvert, what I fear is publicly talking in front of audiences, but I know someday this may be called for as I’m an writer. It’s nice to hear others have the same problems and persevere!! Thank you for the encouragement!!

    • Posted December 12, 2013 at 10:19 am | Permalink

      Thank you! :) I’m so happy you found it inspiring.

      And you know, I don’t think being an introvert or shy is a negative thing. I think it’s great that we’re internal and thoughtful. I know I have a habit of over-thinking things, though, which adds to my nervousness. But the more you put yourself out there, the easier it becomes to handle. Might not always be the most pleasant (haha!), but there’s a great feeling of satisfaction when you’ve done something you always thought you couldn’t!

  6. Posted December 11, 2013 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

    Vanessa, this post is quite fascinating! I loved hearing a little more about what it’s like to be a sales rep in publishing. I’ll admit to being guilty of a couple of assumptions on this list, but I love that you were able to share personal examples and debunk these assumptions here! While I’m still not certain I’d make a good sales rep, I definitely think I’m more open to that as a job possibility. Thank YOU for sharing!

    • Posted December 12, 2013 at 10:33 am | Permalink

      Thanks Alexa! You know what – I’ll admit to being guilty of some of these assumptions, too!

      I think if you’re able to ask a person what they like reading, and can recommend them books, you can be a sales rep. That’s sorta what it’s like – except instead of a person’s reading tastes, you’re dealing with a bookstore and the type of books that sell well for them. If you write a book blog and gush about the books you’ve read and loved, well… you get to do that, but in person. Multiple times, too – and with multiple people! You get to share your excitement, and you can get a buyer a copy of a book and say, “Read this, cause you will LOVE it”. And then you can BOTH gush!

  7. Posted December 11, 2013 at 9:46 pm | Permalink

    I used to be in sales! Salesperson by day, writer/hermit by night. I’ve always been an introvert; but I loved getting out of my PJ’s, dropping the pen and chatting with my clients. It made picking up the pen that night all the more pleasant.*

    *Okay. I might have picked up the pen during the day. But only when we were slow. Promise.

    • Posted December 12, 2013 at 10:37 am | Permalink

      Yay for us salespeople! :D

      And you know, sometimes you just get a great idea in the middle of the day and you HAVE to write it down. I keep a writing notebook at my office, so I can jot down the random bits of dialogue or new story ideas that pop in. And if I’m on the road, I’ll enter it into my notes on my phone (which I later transfer to paper, because I find physically writing things down helpful).

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