The Winter Institute 12 education session “Bookselling 101: Working With Publisher Reps,” held on Saturday, January 28, provided both an overview of how publishers’ sales representatives work with independent bookstores and tips for establishing and growing mutually beneficial relationships.
The panel featured Hilary Gustafson of Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan; Holly Weinkauf of Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul, Minnesota; Jen Reynolds, director of field sales for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; and Jason Gobble, district sales manager at Penguin Random House. ABA Senior Program Officer Joy Dallanegra-Sanger served as the panel moderator.
A strong relationship between publishers’ sales reps and booksellers is fundamental, said Weinkauf, who bought Red Balloon in 2011 and found her store’s sales reps to be very helpful as she grew to know the store. “It is a partnership; the better we do, the better they do. So it’s in their best interest to help us make the wisest decisions,” she said.
Red Balloon’s sales reps understand what is happening in the store in terms of the books that sell, the types of events that are successful, and the school partnerships and community connections that are important to it, said Weinkauf. Reps are also key to helping the store navigate publishers’ co-op advertising systems.
“I’m amazed at how, any time I have an issue or a concern, I send an e-mail and our sales reps are on it,” she added. “They’re super responsive in a very timely way, and I’m so appreciative of that.”
At Literati, the best sales reps have gotten to know the staff, said Gustafson, who fosters relationships with reps by providing them with staffers’ reading preferences, as well as by providing sales reps’ contact information to staff so they can reach out and follow up directly. “Our bestsellers are always our staff picks, so it’s in [the sales reps’] best interest to connect with staff in that way, too,” she said.
Booksellers should also make sure that sales reps are signed up for store newsletters and are following their store on social media, Gustafson said. “It helps them get an idea of what your store is about — what you’re selling, what you’re promoting, and how you’re making use of co-op dollars.”
Gustafson noted that both booksellers and publisher reps need to prepare for sales meetings by looking at the upcoming season’s catalogs and reviewing sales figures. “It’s about both working together to be mutually beneficial, and a big part of that is just preparation and awareness,” she said.
Literati’s sales reps make suggestions in their publisher catalogs on Edelweiss ahead of each sales meeting, Gustafson said, adding that the service is free and allows booksellers to download digital galleys as well as request print advance readers copies. Above the Treeline, a paid service from Edelweiss, allows booksellers to upload data from their point-of-sale systems and track and analyze sales and inventory.
Gobble encouraged booksellers to embrace Edelweiss and Above the Treeline. “The more information you have, the better buyers you are,” he said. “It makes a huge difference.”
Booksellers have to be honest about their availability and schedule meetings at time when they can focus, noted Weinkauf. “Help [your sales reps] understand the ebb and flow of your store, and schedule what works best for both of you,” she said.
Scheduling is an art and a science, said Gobble, who books his appointments months ahead of time. Because field reps have such large territories and can be traveling to stores hundreds of miles apart, it’s important for booksellers to let them know if a scheduling conflict arises. “If you can tweak something to make it work, it’s appreciated more than you know,” he said. “It can have a domino effect if things don’t work.”
Gobble also asked that booksellers let their sales reps know what their expectations are in terms of meetings, especially whether they hope to go through the publisher’s catalogs at the meeting or whether they will be reviewed ahead of time. “If you’re not going to look at the catalogs ahead of time, then we can work that time into our appointment. If you are going to look at them ahead of time, that means the appointment can be tighter; we can talk about different things,” he said.
If a bookseller would like a rep to do a staff presentation during a sales call, it’s best to let them know when booking the appointment so time can be factored in, Gobble added.
Houghton Mifflin’s Reynolds encouraged booksellers to be forthcoming and honest with their sales reps. “Don’t assume we know everything about you and your staff. Feel free to share information with us. We want to get to know you,” she said.
Sales reps find it helpful to know if one of the publisher’s authors lives in the bookstore’s city or whether a certain author would be a great fit for a store event while another is not ideal. “We all benefit from that honesty,” said Reynolds.
Booksellers should let publishers’ sales departments know if they are getting too many e-mails, too few, or just the right amount, and if they’re not getting the right kind of information or galleys, she said, adding that “everybody has a different threshold.”
Booksellers should also feel free to share such good news as a boost in sales for a particular book or title nominations for the Indie Next List with their sales reps, Reynolds said.
Gustafson recommended that booksellers take pictures at their events and send them to their sales reps, along with attendance and sell-through numbers.
Telephone reps are just as valuable as field reps, said Gobble, and are often assigned simply because of geographical challenges. “You’re probably getting everything from them you’d get from me, you just don’t have to look at them,” he said.
Weinkauf said Red Balloon’s phone reps are just as responsive and helpful as the store’s field reps. “Our meetings on the phone can be just as productive. It’s nice to have someone come and see your store, see what you’re doing, but I don’t think it needs to happen every time,” she said.
Publishers use Edelweiss to feature titles in various ways that booksellers can take advantage of. For example, to encourage bookstores to make use of Houghton Mifflin’s stock offers, Reynolds said the company has created a list of its top 150 titles that booksellers can review on Edelweiss and use to stock up the next time an offer comes around.
Another tool booksellers should be taking more advantage of is co-op advertising dollars. “It breaks my heart to see how much co-op people leave on the table,” said Reynolds. “There are a lot of ways you can use that money.”
If booksellers are confused by a publisher’s co-op plan, sales reps can guide them through it, Gustafson said, while Weinkauf noted that some publishers have simplified their policies.
New or established booksellers looking to get set up with a publisher’s telephone or field sales reps should contact that publisher’s customer service team, said Dallanegra-Sanger.
She also recommended that booksellers take advantage of the many annual events that ABA has created to put booksellers face-to-face with publishers. These include the Rep Picks Speed Dating Lunches and Bookseller and Publisher Focus Groups at Winter Institute and Children’s Institute, and Meet the Editor and Publicists Speed Dating at BookExpo.