Monday, September 15, 2014

An Unsung Hero of Publishing (with Bonus Small Business Idea)

You'll be hearing from me (probably repeatedly) in the next few weeks/months/rest-of-my-sentient life about my novel, An Exaggerated Murder, coming out in March. In general, I'm not a huge fan of publication stories. To me, though there can occasionally be interesting moments, connections, coincidences, and triumphs, the actual logistical path of the book from the writer's head to the reader's mind just isn't important in terms of appreciating and understanding the book. But, I do want to share one tiny little piece of mine, because it highlights an aspect of the publishing world that doesn't get nearly enough attention, given how important it is to both that boring logistical process and to the magic of discovery in bookstores.

Over the years after I became full-time at Porter Square Books, I would bump into the publisher sales reps visiting the buyers on a roughly quarterly basis. A publishing sales rep works for a specific publisher (or group, consortium, conglomerate of publishers) traveling to bookstores of all types and sizes, generally in a specific region, selling that publisher's forthcoming catalog to the bookstores. To do the job well, the rep not only must have expertise on the books they're representing, but also a personal understanding of every single bookstore and bookseller they visit. The job requires not just a rote recitation of publisher copy, but the building of (and then keeping track of) dozens of different relationships. Most of the time, sales reps also act as formal and informal liaisons between booksellers and publishers. Oh, and you've got to keep track of terms, deals, special promotions, events, dinners, galleys, comp copies, expense accounts, etc. To be a successful sales rep means you're part bookseller, part contract manager, part customer service, part publicist, and part account manager. (And it doesn't hurt to be able to figure out a way to lug a hundred pounds of galleys with you every where you go.)
Well, a pile not unlike this.

One day, I arrived in the store and Ron Koltnow, the store's Random House rep, had a pile of galleys for me. We had chatted a couple of times beforehand, enough that he had some sense of my reading taste. The pile was described to me as, “The weird books nobody but Josh would read,” which, I have to say, is an alarmingly accurate description. The pile included, among other things, several books from Melville House, fine purveyor of weird books nobody but Josh would read. My reader relationship, which lead directly to my writer relationship with Melville House, started with a pile of galleys from a sales rep.

One of the ideas that pops up whenever the role of Amazon and traditional publishers is debated that makes me turn my head a little sideways like a dog who's just heard an odd sound, is the argument that independent bookstores are boycotting self-published books. Forget the fact that many independent bookstores do carry self-published books (Porter Square does) and some even facilitate publication of self-published books (The Harvard Bookstore does) or that there is a difference between “boycott” and “deciding not to buy,” it is still something of an odd idea, especially since so many who espouse it also argue that traditional publishing and bookselling is dead and/or really, really dying. If indie bookstores are dying (they're not) why do you want your books in them any way. I mean, I always thought one of the reasons one chose to self-publish is to avoid the logistics, structures, and costs, that go into selling books in a physical bookstore.

There is a long and detailed post about why you don't see many self-published books in indie bookstores (a post that would also help explain why your particular indie bookstore might not have much manga, romance, sci fi, fantasy, or whatever genre as the reasons are very similar) and though, I'm generally a fan of long detailed posts about the book industry, I'm going to stick to one main point here. There aren't many self-published books in independent bookstores because self-published books don't have sales reps.

No bookstore buyer can read every book a publisher publishes, so they rely on sales reps to sort through the catalogs and buy the right books for the store. For a self-published writer, unless there is something immediately compelling, like you are a local author or something, the book buyer would have to read your book first to know if it would be a good fit, and no book buyer in the world, no matter how committed he or she might be to self-publishing can read every self-published book they might stock. In terms of return on investment, (bookstores are businesses by the way) it is almost never going to make sense for a bookstore to put in the required effort to sustainably stock a large number of self-published authors (or romance or manga or whatever if the store doesn't have a buyer who knows these genres.) This has nothing to do with perceived quality either. Buying for a bookstore isn't an act of sorting good books from bad books, but from selecting which of the shmillions of good books fit with the store. And that's what sales reps do; help sort the good from the good that's right for the store.

Whenever someone critiques publishing for its inefficiency, that is really code for saying “someone should lose their job because their job does not produce as much as it costs.” “Become more efficient,” is really just a slightly cowardly way of saying, “You should fire someone.” In terms of the specific critiques of traditional publishing, sales reps would be exactly the kind of position someone might think is inefficient. I mean, how much cost do the salaries, benefits, travel expenses, and more add to that bottom line that makes books so priced-well-below-what-they-would-be-if-price-kept-up-with-inflation-but-hey-30-bucks-or-18-or-whatever-is-still-kind-of-a-lot. Those critics forget that traditional publishing, in its modern incarnation, has been evolving for about a hundred years or so, and the evolution of a business model always involves new attempts (if not successes) towards efficiency. Sales reps, if not obviously, are vital to the efficiency of a publishers, because they not only create sales, by convincing stores to buy what they might not have, they also prevent returns by advising what books a store should NOT buy. Sales reps also save book buyers time, as rather than researching every single aspect of every single catalog, they can lean on the advice of sales reps to make some (if not many) of their decisions.

So here's the bonus small business idea promised in the title: self-published sales rep. For a fee (flat, percentage of sales, commission structure of some kind) you would essentially create a catalog and represent some reasonable number of self-published books/authors to book stores. You would have to curate your list, obviously, and essentially represent it in the exact same way that Ron represents Random House, knowing, not only your catalog, but getting to know the bookstores you meet so as to be able to sustainable guide them through it. You would also have to work out ordering/returning logistics and terms in a way that makes it easy for bookstores and authors to exchanges books and payment. I honestly don't know if the sales generated from this, either directly at the stores or through the exposure bookstores provide, would justify the cost to the authors or sustain the business and given the amount of predation there is of self-published authors, as an author, I would approach any business offering such a service with extreme caution, but the potential is there.

There are a lot of opinions about traditional publishing and a lot of critique, much of which is valid. But those most vociferous in their condemnation of the publishing structures that include the cost of sending Ron Koltnow around New England, tend to forget or ignore for the sake of their argument, a very important point about every permutation of the books industry, from the big five executive to the self-publisher of avant garde poetry. Love. Traditional publishing, flawed as all human enterprises are, is really a whole bunch of people who love books, trying to make their way in the world through books. Some of us by writing them, some of us by bringing them from the writer's head to the reading public, and some of us by selling the books to readers. They love different kinds of books and they love books for different reasons, but it all comes back to the love of books.

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