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:
- Writing in the Age of Distraction
- Why I Copyfight
- Nature's Daredevils: Writing for Young Audiences
- Think Like a Dandelion
- Put Not Your Faith in Ebook Readers
- Artist Rights
- Creative Commons
- Free(konomic) E-books
- The Progressive Apocalypse and Other Futurismic Delights
- In Praise of Fanfic
- You Do Like Reading Off a Computer
- Blogging Without the Blog
- The March of the Polygons: How High-Definition Is Bad News for SF Flicks
- How Copyright Broke
- Science Fiction is the Only Literature People Care Enough About to Steal on the Internet.
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