Friday, April 9, 2010

next up: sales conference 25

(Erika Valenti and Laurel Oakes enjoy a moment at MIT sales conference dinner Oct 2009)

I’m about to head to Cambridge and New Haven for my 25th round of sales conferences. How is this possible?

How can it be nearly twelve years since I was lured from bookselling to “the other side?” My status as new kid around the table expired long ago, though let it be said I have colleagues who have been at it far longer. I’m reminded of a remark wise man Rick Simonson made at a Book Expo a couple years ago as a group of once idealistic young book people stood around chatting: “How did the young turks get to be the old farts so fast?”

Still, I look forward to the 25th sales conferences as eagerly as I awaited the first. These rituals are maybe the closest thing the secular publishing world has to a sacrament, the launch of a new season’s offerings upon the world. A twice a year (three times for some presses) gathering of the tribe, it’s a chance to reconnect with colleagues and make friends with the fresh titles on the new lists. (With luck only a few of these young turks will seem like old farts by the time the selling season is over).

As a bookseller, I had an intense curiosity about the sales conferences my reps attended. Even though some of them complained about them as if they were a chore, there was no missing the fact that it was sacrosanct. You had to be there.

And when I pressed a little for details about what went on, it sometimes sounded more like a vacation than work. The major publishers would often gather at nice resorts in sunny places, and the food and entertainment always sounded pretty lavish.

Convinced that these meetings involved some secret, extra special information about the books my rep was trying to sell me on, I pestered them about every detail, trying to crack the code. When longtime Random House rep Jim Masiakowski once mentioned that they had videotaped their meeting (this was in the digital dark ages, i.e. late 80’s), I badgered him about sharing it. “Not for booksellers, it wouldn’t be helpful,” he said. I took this to mean that it probably contained too many devious plans for how to get us to take stacks of his books.

Though my experience with sales conferences is limited to three presses- Harvard, MIT and Yale- the mystique I created around them as a bookseller has long worn off. These are working meetings with barely a moment to take a breath. The scheduling and running of them is a logistical nightmare, as doing justice to both book and clock is a thankless challenge for sales managers.

Fabulous dinners, yes I’ll concede that. Later this summer, when I’m munching the chips, sub sandwich and diet coke I’ve purchased at a KwikTrip on I-80, the memory of sales conference dinners will keep me going.

Our presses hold their meetings in their offices on the university campuses, not in Boca. The gist of the meeting involves each of the editors making a short pitch for each of their books. By this time, we’ve had an early look at the catalog and supplemental title information sheets; we’ve seen jackets and sometimes interior art; we’ve read through massive bound binders of book excerpts, and usually one or two complete manuscripts. So it’s not like we’re completely unfamiliar with the new titles.

But we reps are really always looking for that one additional angle from the editor. For me it’s usually “what made you to want to publish this book in the first place?” If we’re lucky, an editor will let slip an authentic, disarming, clear cut, witty, conversational phrase that we can make use of throughout the season. You can’t force it, but it’s great when it happens.

In some ways, this reminds me of meeting with booksellers. By the time I see them, the buyers have often read the catalog copy, checked their sales on comparable titles, and are looking at the supplemental material and galleys I’m throwing at them. But what they need from a rep is a concise, cogent, perfect synopsis that will make them say “oh, I get it.” And that they can then use with their customers.

This process works the other way as well. Despite the volumes of notes we take from our sales meetings, the really great lines on books often don’t turn up until we begin selling. Sometimes one booksellers’ clever comment will get incorporated into my shtick on a book for the rest of the season.

The other thing I love about the sales meetings is the academic environment. These editors are sometimes actual or potential intellectual superstars in their own right. To sit in a room with them discussing dozens of erudite new books is like atwo-day graduate seminar. On occasion, authors themselves join us for lunch presentations. Imagine sharing pizza with the likes of Harold Bloom, William Mitchell and Stephen J. Gould.

It was a surprise to me to find out how much these meetings revolve around the content of the books, around making sure we understand the ideas, and around how the book’s argument fits in with others on the same topic. There is actually very little (some might say too little) time devoted to marketing strategies. There’s room for input from reps on prices, discounts, print runs, and sometimes bigger issues like book title. We spend lots of time on jackets and it’s probably the area where bookseller feedback has made itself heard most directly.

MIT starts Monday, followed by Harvard and then Yale at the end of the week. Now back to packing. Did I mention that we dress up for sales conferences? I have a whole world of colleagues in Cambridge and New Haven who have almost never seen me out of a jacket and tie. And then there’s everyone else in my world who have never seen me in one.

1 comment:

  1. I have actually never seen you out of a jacket and tie, it's true. But you have never seen me in knee-high rubber gardening wellies, either. . . . Alas! - MK