Friday, January 15, 2010

Seattle Sales Calls: face vs. phone

This month Simon & Schuster became the latest publisher to cut its field rep force in the name of cost-savings. Granted, the retail bookstore landscape is changing. But really S&S, is it in your best interests to trade in a regular, personal invitation to meet with your customers in their premises for telemarketing?

I don’t mean to minimize the challenge. Every season as I construct my schedule of calls on bookstores, I ask myself whether this or that trip is still worth the time, travel hassle, and expense. There are some accounts I called on every season faithfully that I now see only every other season, with phone appointments in between.

But to see visits to booksellers only as costs, and not as investments, makes no sense. The sprawling network of small independent stores, museum stores and specialty shops, are taste-makers in a way the mega online retailers haven’t mastered. Calling on them takes a certain commitment, but what would the book retail landscape look like if publishers simply saw two or three customers? Some companies are already there.

This week I had a chance to measure the difference between virtual and actual appointments when my week in Seattle got cancelled. This is always one of the highpoints of the travel season, and the northwest is one of the most robust bookselling regions in the country. But I finally had to surrender to a perfect storm of scheduling snafus and decided, reluctantly, to work by phone with the booksellers I’d normally see live.

We had perfectly decent phone meetings this week but here's what I missed:

- Getting to the store early enough to case the joint. Can’t do that by phone.

- Staying awhile after the appointment, “playing customer,” rarely leaving without a book or two. No browsing by phone.

- Take in a reading or a bookshop event? Forget it.

- Drop in on a couple smaller neighborhood stores? Nope.

- Saying hello. Chatting with the floor booksellers about what they’re reading or selling can be priceless reconnaissance for a rep (especially if the buyer subsequently contradicts it. “But Myra said you’re selling loads of cognitive science!”)

- Perusing Staff Rec shelves, a goldmine of information and reading suggestions.

- Overhearing chat and requests from live, actual customers can be a revelation, and can tell you a lot more anecdotally than you’ll ever learn from Book Scan.

- Spot-checking the shelves for my books, sometimes making sure they are properly shelved and faced out if possible. (Sorry, it’s true. But I also compulsively tidy up, even when not my books.) How to do this by phone?

- Noticing the changes in section arrangements and positioning, the early warning system for evolving trends in book tastes. My local bookshop is instituting a “Steampunk” section because it’s such a hot area of science fiction. (I have no idea what this means.) Publishers are desperate for feedback about trends, but we are their eyes and ears.

- I sometimes meet with the other components of the bookstore operation that make the place work: marketing and advertising staff, events coordinators, receiving folks. It’s possible to do by phone, but these encounters are often more serendipitous so best done in person.

- The “show” part of my show and tell- page proofs, book jackets, samples, interior art, sometimes finished books, and galleys- is tricky or impossible by phone.

- Seeing what other reps have left in their wake scattered around the buyer’s desk is always of interest.

- There’s a reason it’s called “face time.” Watching reactions to catalog images and my presentations can be way more revealing than ambiguous grunts on the phone.

- Distractions, which are intrinsic to a bookseller’s life but can be maddening to a rep thinking about getting to the next appointment on time, seemed harder to manage by phone than they are in person. It’s possible for a live human being across the desk to ambush a hyper-caffeinated buyer, at least in theory. But there’s no fighting the hold button.

- It’s physically uncomfortable to keep a hot piece of plastic next to an ear for a couple hours. When I complained about this my partner said why don’t I get a headset. This was not helpful.

- Some buyers imagine that phone appointments mean I can somehow let down my professionalism because we’re separated by a couple thousand miles. “What are you wearing? I bet you’re in your PJ’s drinking a glass of wine,” a buyer said to me last night. I was immediately defensive, though eerily, in truth, I was drinking a glass of wine.

- I hear the bookshop’s espresso machine blasting away in the background, but I can’t offer to get us some.

- The heavenly teriyaki at Tokyo Garden on University Way will have to wait.

There’s probably a lot more. As a temporary solution to a short-term complication, the phone is a wonderful thing. And I had the benefit this week of working with booksellers I know well. I’m even open to promising new technologies like Edelweiss, which will immeasurably improve the quality of a virtual appointment.

But we should remember that a meeting between a bookseller and a publisher’s representative to decide which new books would be appropriate for their store is essentially the first crucial move in a conversation with the marketplace. With luck, the conversation moves forward until it encompasses floor booksellers, customers, books clubs, media and word of mouth. Buzz! This process really begins best with face time.

I won’t say that a bookseller-vendor phone relationship is always bad. How sad I was when Ingram began accepting orders electronically many years ago. Part of my job as a bookseller was to read order quantities and ISBN’s into the phone for a couple hours every Monday morning.

You couldn’t argue with the efficiency of the new computer to computer system. But I still remember the music that Helen Hawkins made of those numbers as she read them back to me from Nashville. Oh to have met with her each week in person.


  1. It sounds like you were going through your own version of "Up in the Air."

    I'm also aware of the trends that you mention which are an example of our overall societal trend towards digital networking, not alongside but instead of face-to-face interaction.

    I mean, what about everything psychologists have taught us about the importance of body language? Just this simple act of learning how to read another human being is vital to our understanding of humanity. What happens when all of humanity is understood purely through the screen of a computer or handheld device?

    Of course, the digital networking should be supplementary to, or complimentary to, our regular human interactions. And even though I'm saying this on your blog instead of in person, I know I'll be seeing you soon and we can chat about other books!

  2. When you're in town next time, we'll have dinner. We never get to do that.