03 March 2009

Cory Doctorow: In Praise of the Sales Force

from Locus Magazine, March 2009

Hardly a day goes by that I don't get an e-mail from someone who's ready to reinvent publishing using the Internet, and the ideas are often good ones, but they lack a key element: a sales force. That is, a small army of motivated, personable, committed salespeople who are on a first-name basis with every single bookstore owner/buyer in the country, people who lay down a lot of shoe-leather as they slog from one shop to the next, clutching a case filled with advance reader copies, cover-flats, and catalogs. When I worked in bookstores, we had exceptional local reps, like Eric, the Bantam guy who knew that I was exactly the right clerk to give an advance copy of Snow Crash to if he wanted to ensure a big order and lots of hand-selling when the book came in (He also made sure that I got ARCs of every Kathe Koja and Ian McDonald novel — Eric, if you're reading this, thanks!).

This matters. This is the kind of longitudinal, deep, expensive expertise that gets books onto shelves, into the minds of the clerks, onto the recommended tables at the front of the store. It's labor-intensive and highly specialized, and without it, your book's sales only come from people who've already heard of it (through word of mouth, advertising, a review, etc.) and who are either motivated enough to order it direct, or lucky enough to chance on a copy on a shelf at a store that ordered it based on reputation or sales literature alone, without any hand-holding or cajoling.

The best definition I've heard of "publishing" comes from my editor, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, who says, "publishing is making a work public." That is, identifying a work and an audience, and taking whatever steps are necessary to get the two together (you'll note that by this definition, Google is a fantastic publisher). Publishing is not printing, or marketing, or editorial, or copy-editing, or typesetting. It may comprise some or all of these things, but you could have the world's best-edited, most beautiful, well-bound book in the world, and without a strategy for getting it into the hands of readers, all it's good for is insulating the attic. (This is the unfortunate discovery made by many customers of vanity publishers.)

Today, many of the key functions that we think of as publishing are actually done by outsource firms, consultants, and freelancers. It's a rare publisher that runs its own printing presses. "Consulting editors" (freelancers) outnumber salaried staff at some houses, and every house has a few kicking around. Many copyeditors and typesetters have long worked on a freelance basis, flitting from publisher to publisher, getting paid by the page. PR departments are not adverse to hiring specialist consultants or to tapping into a nationwide network of local freelance media reps who act as shepherds and crying shoulders for touring authors. Art departments commission paintings from freelancers, art students, promising designers, and all manner of creatives, expanding the aesthetic range of the house beyond a few in-house illustrators.

So, if big publishers can hire all these people to work for them, can't writers, co-ops, and scrappy indies? Just as the record industry is delaminating into a bunch of boutique outfits that offer a-la-carte services to musicians (for example, the concert promoter that's taken over Madonna's career), it's entirely plausible that publishers could offer a comparable model to their authors. On the other hard, the record industry is accustomed to charging musicians for the services they provide, deducting such costs as breakage, studio time, and producers from bands' royalties, so musicians, as a class, have a better sense of what these services cost and how much they're worth.

It's easy to imagine a web-based discount printer, web-based copyeditors and proofreaders (the Distributed Proofreader Project, which cleans up the typos in the public domain books in Project Gutenberg, is a proof-of-concept here), web-based marketing and advertising firms ("web-based" may be redundant here — are there any marketers and advertising agencies left who aren't primarily Internet-based?), web-based PR (ditto), and even web-based editors who serve as book-doctor, rabbi, producer, confessor, and exalted doler-out-of-blessings, gracing a book with their imprimatur, a la Oprah.

The mid-21st-century writer, then, might hire a "producer" (or agent, or manager) to source all these things and tie them together, negotiating a split or upfront payment (either the producer fronting money to the writer or the writer fronting money to the producer) or some combination thereof. And that writer would sell some books: with the right PR and marketing, you can inspire a hell of a lot of people to go to Amazon (or some other direct retailer — possibly one that will cut the writer-producer team in for a bigger slice of the pie) and part with their money. All the pieces necessary are already extant, thanks to the drive to outsource in mainstream publishing houses that want to run lean and mean. And they'll take your money just as readily as they'll take Rupert Murdoch's or Disney/Hyperion's.

This vision has captured the imagination of many of my fellow techno-utopians: a stake through the heart of the Big, Lumbering Entertainment Dinosaurs Who Put Short-Sighted Profits Ahead of Art. And there's plenty of short-term thinking in the recent history of publishing and the rise of the mega-publishers. There are plenty of "little" publishers out there, dotted around the country, figuring out how to fill in the gaps that the big guys won't stoop to conquer: short story collections, quirky titles, books of essays, art books, experimental titles, and anthologies. These are often fabulous books with somewhat respectable numbers, but they lag the majors in one key area: physical distribution.

For though it's easy to find an outsource firm that'll get your books from Warehouse (A) to Store (B), it's a lot harder to find the cost-effective firm that will convince Store (B) to order the book from You (C). That's shoe-leather business, the slow, messy human-factor business of getting to know thousands of key people around the country, people who will introduce your book to readers who haven't heard of you and don't know why they should be reading you (good bookselling is fractal: the sales rep knows what the clerk will like, and the clerk knows what the reader will like). Even better, the right salespeople will carry your books to non-bookstore venues where people who come from the vast majority of non-readers might discover you and reading in the same transaction.

There are plenty of distributors who might take a scrappy individual writer under their wings. These aren't particularly Internet-ified businesses, and as the catastrophic bankruptcies in indie distribution in 2007 showed us, these outfits aren't necessarily well managed (or even honest). Getting in bed with a distributor is no guarantee that their sales-force will pay you any attention — it may be that your distributor's entire contribution to your sales effort is a thumbnail of the book cover and paragraph of sell-copy in the quarterly catalog.

Here, then, is the major challenge and opportunity of networked, author-driven, revolutionary publishing for this century: how do you turn the Internet into a machine for introducing books to physical, real-world stores? How do you use the Internet to introduce books to online stores that don't specialize in books, like ThinkGeek?

I don't have the answer. But it probably won't involve convincing customers to pester stores with hosannas about your book — clerks and buyers don't have infinite time, and having every book individually promoted by impromptu pitchmen who turn up unannounced just doesn't scale. Nor can it involve sending the writer around to every store: first, because that won't leave any time to write, and second, because writers are usually too emotionally involved in their books to admit that, yes, this store is not going to sell more than two copies no matter how many they order.

It will also need scalable accounting. Every new supplier account on a retailer's list adds bookkeeping overhead.

Finally, it will need to do more than the current sales force does. It will have to open doors to new, non-traditional book-sales venues, from the corner store to the local cafe, so that it captures a new generation of readers and feeds them back to the specialist retailers. It's a tall order, but if it were easy, someone would have done it already.

Cory Doctorow's website is Craphound.com, and he is co-editor of Boing Boing: A Directory of Wonderful Things.

Cory Doctorow is one of a dozen Locus columnists and reviewers. Every issue, we review dozens of books and magazines, most before they appear in print. A subscription will get you all those as well as the rest of the magazine -- news, People & Publishing, commentary, reports on events, and a list of all books and magazines published that month.

Previous Cory Doctorow columns posted on Locus Online:

Comments are welcome, but are moderated.


At Wednesday, March 04, 2009 5:39:00 AM, Blogger Ann Burlingham said...

I am always looking for good ways to talk to authors about why *not* to self-publish: the publishing industry exists for a reason - you don't make better books and better money by "cutting out the middleman", you just take all the work on yourself, and do it without their experience, expertise, or, as you write, distribution network. Let alone their budget.

Listening yesterday to Daniel Shorr on NPR getting exposed to Twitter, he, as a long-term journalist, said the one thing he thought was being lost was: editing. It's one of the things I try to gently, politely, remind would-be self-published authors they will miss out on - _improving_ their work. I finally found my whole "don't, for the love of god, self-publish!" rant boiled down extremely well at the swfa.org site.

And now I have your excellent piece to add. I own a bookstore and I care passionately about getting good writing connected with its audience; to me, this mean both finding good books for my customers _and_ encouraging writers to produce the best possible version of their work. Perhaps the fact that some fairly bad writing does make it into print and sells big-time makes people think "I can do better than _that_", but I think they fail to realize how much work was likely put into getting those books into as readable a format as they are (and bad writing doesn't mean some of those books aren't quite readable. Yes, I'm talking about you, Dan Brown.)

Thank you so much, Cory, from the front line of bookselling.

At Wednesday, March 04, 2009 6:55:00 AM, Blogger Sean Craven said...

Forgive me for running on about a tangential subject -- I hope there's enough of a connection to make this interesting rather than intrusive. I'm talking about the way the new wave of small press publishers interacts with booksellers and what it has to do with your comments on the importance of sales staff.

Given the shifts in the industry, I think the time may have come for the return of an operation run along the Book People model -- with one great big caveat.

Book People was an employee-owned book distribution company who went under a number of years ago. What makes them relevant to this subject is that during their heyday they made their bones by acting as a liaison between the small press publishers and the independent bookstores.

Our operation did well when it was doing well because we had an absolutely top-flight warehouse crew (typically, we knew exactly where ninety-six or ninety-seven percent of our inventory was at any given time -- this is unheard of in warehousing) and a sales staff of comparable quality.

We had people on the road, we showed up for the various conventions, local booksellers were allowed to shop directly from the warehouse and booksellers in other areas could always contact someone who knew both their names and their business -- and who could make informed recommendations.

Of course half of this mechanism is broken -- the independent bookstore is an endangered species right now and there is currently no healthy method for a small-press publisher to interact with the chain bookstores.

Over and over again I saw small press publishers put out of business by Barnes & Noble and Borders. Here's how it worked -- a buyer from a chain sees a book, likes a book, buys a book. Every store in the chain buys one or two copies.

The publisher is thrilled -- until almost all of those copies are returned by the various branches of the chain so shelf-worn as to be unsaleable.

This is where the personal touch of which you speak is absolutely crucial. An independent bookseller wouldn't have ordered those copies unless they had good reason to know they were going to sell them.

The chains could afford to order books just to fill shelves and look cute, knowing that when they start getting mangy they can be returned at little or no cost to themselves. I haven't been near the industry for years; maybe this situation has changed.

Perhaps these observations don't have much to do with the way the market works now -- I hope so. But in a world where chain stores are dominating the landscape and big publishers are trying to eschew publishing anything aside from bestsellers, the resurgent small press faces some very real issues in the retail world.

There are two things happening in conjunction that might make things better. First, the development of a business devoted to the kind of sales activity that you speak of, one that could act as a gun for hire for its small-press clients.

And second, the encouragement of chain bookstores to establish their own identity, so that an individual branch wouldn't carry the same stock as all other branches and would instead carry books that reflected the interest of both the community and their staff -- in other words, to model themselves after the independent bookstores.

Sorry for the ramble -- you just got me thinking.

At Thursday, March 05, 2009 4:51:00 AM, Blogger Made in DNA said...

Wow, good for you, you got "a small army of motivated, personable, committed salespeople who are" ready to schlep your book for you and giant machine that is the publishing industry. Great. Don't we all wish we could have that? Reality check: everything is good and fine if you can get a book deal; not all of us have. So how about a little consideration for those of us busting ass to sell a single copy beyond our dear sweet mothers, huh? You should be pumping the little guys, not the crushing industry. What's the matter with you?

At Friday, March 06, 2009 3:30:00 AM, Blogger Lee said...

'It may comprise some or all of these things, but you could have the world's best-edited, most beautiful, well-bound book in the world, and without a strategy for getting it into the hands of readers, all it's good for is insulating the attic.'

This is an attitude that I find thoroughly disturbing. Writing is first and foremost not not about producing a commodity - or shouldn't be. And all too often the books that get into the hands of readers, thanks to those who are expert at marketing, are in fact only good for insulating the attic.

At Friday, March 06, 2009 12:09:00 PM, Anonymous Johan said...

Made in DNA: err. Cory discusses the problems of "networked, author-driven, revolutionary publishing" and what it has to face, which might be a good thing to know if you for some reason (I don't: as a reader, I value it immensely) dislike the "crushing industry". You might want to reread the last four paragraphs.


At Thursday, March 12, 2009 2:01:00 AM, Anonymous Richard Quinn said...

Hmm, but what if...

bookshops become irrelevant, as they are in most parts of the rural US. Consumers of SF in those areas are not affeceted by the "Sales Force on Foot".

I can envision a world in which bookshop become a place of rest, culture and entertainment. Admittance will cost a small amount. Books will be celebrated for their haptic properties.

The actual business of publishing is not tied to the experience of the wood-book.


At Friday, March 13, 2009 10:21:00 PM, Anonymous Joshua Berlow said...

You're right, Prof. Doctorow! And in the post-industrial age, there's even people getting hired by universities that didn't even graduate college! ;-)

I'm the blogger for Mid-Atlantic Horror Professionals. If you have a horror book, or a scary sci-fi book, or a fantasy book with hideous monsters in it, or a paranormal romance that has a frightening scene or two, please send me a hard copy to review. I might review it on my blog. If I review it on my blog, it might sell a copy or two. If I don't review it on my blog, it will sell that many fewer copies!

At Monday, May 11, 2009 12:36:00 PM, Blogger BillSeitz said...

Helen DeWitt had an interesting post about trying to get non-bookstore outlets served by her publisher.


At Sunday, September 27, 2009 12:18:00 PM, Anonymous Mark Barrett said...

It seems to me that this --

"Getting in bed with a distributor is no guarantee that their sales-force will pay you any attention — it may be that your distributor's entire contribution to your sales effort is a thumbnail of the book cover and paragraph of sell-copy in the quarterly catalog."

-- pretty much negates the rest of the post.

Yes: face-to-face contact is important when you're talking about selling any book into a bookstore, and/or convincing a bookstore to sell any book to a customer. But the picture this creates -- two people lounging on leather under a halogen can, talking about the merits of author x through the caffeine buzz of their choice -- is a false one.

Even if you make it to a published book; even if your distributor isn't an outright crook; even if you get pitched; your moment in the sun is measured in noisy seconds filled with competing authors and conflicting needs. And that's only going to get worse as the internet-enabled distribution pipeline competes with the brick and mortar world.


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