Saturday, November 9, 2013

preparing to rep a new season: in defense of “down time”

When friends note that this is “down time” and that it must be nice, I’m apt to snap their heads off.  I imagine them imagining me relaxing on a beach, or reading fat novels, or re-working self-improvement lists until January, when bookstore appointments for the new season begin in earnest.  Many people seem to think that a book rep’s job consists solely of appointments with booksellers, as if we punch in at the start of the meeting and punch out at the end.

True, road warrior mode is another level of intensity, and it is a relief to have a break from roaming North America.  But here’s what I’m up to in my so-called down time between the last Fall appointment in mid-October and the first winter one in mid-December.

Book rep is an on-call, 24/7 job.  There’s a certain amount of ongoing rep work that never really stops.  Orders have to be taken and processed, email answered, special offers pitched, bookseller newsletters read, galleys sent, “rep night” presentations prepared and executed, regional shows attended, feedback requests replied to, and marketing alerts shared.  (An MIT author booked for Colbert Report, stop the presses!)

Wrangling appointments with 100-ish booksellers who have to be seen in some semblance of order before books start shipping is a time consuming process.  My buyers are amiable and accommodating as to dates and times (yes, especially the Canadians) but all it takes are a few holdouts to monkey wrench the process.

Once appointments are more or less aligned, it’s on to travel logistics.  Making hotel, plane, train, bus and miscellaneous reservations for January through March is much easier in the digital age but still laced with minefields.  “Don’t you have an in-house travel agent who can do that?” someone recently asked me.  Um, yes- me and Kayak.

As for the new upcoming lists, down time is when we get to know the books we’ll be selling.  Reading manuscript pages, excerpts, author questionnaires, readers reports, marketing plans, and whatever else we can get our hands on to warm up to the new, unfamiliar titles is another time-gobbling challenge.  But it’s hard to complain when I can spend a morning at my favorite coffee shop poring over the latest in A-list academic scholarship.  Yes, we get paid for this!

Our presses are inclusive to a fault, and rep opinions are solicited on all manner of subjects.  We proof catalog copy and make suggestions about category designations, positioning, jacket art (oh lord can we opine on jacket art), discount incentives, and how to present our books in the best light to booksellers.

Down time is when we attend sales conferences at each of the three presses, where editors present their books and add to the information payload which, by this point, is beginning to weigh heavily.  Granted, sales conferences in Cambridge and New Haven also typically involve at least one very nice dinner and lots of excellent conversation, and we reps are sometimes treated like visiting royalty.  So no complaints there.

Arriving home from these meetings exhausted and swamped, I’m temporarily immobilized by a feeling of not knowing where to start.  Did I mention the thick binder of title information sheets, with comparable books, author sales track, and additional selling points that one sales manager used to call “gee whiz facts?”  (Examples: John F Kennedy was a committed reader of Churchill’s writings, which helped him navigate the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Mozart went to Pompeii at age 15.  Gee whiz!)  These invaluable “tip sheets” are prepared by our ace sales departments, and add more information to integrate.

Procrastination is not an option, the clock is ticking. I pick a Press and get to work writing up my final notes into my selling catalog.  This is the point where the wheat is culled from the chaff. 
At the beginning of the process of making friends with a new title, there can never be enough information.  But at some point we have to translate this cornucopia into concise sales handles that are useful to booksellers in understanding the book and explaining it to their customers.  One buyer refers to my marked up catalog as “the teacher’s manual with all the answers.”  To me it feels more like the ragged blanket I chewed on and carried everywhere until I was five years old.  Though by the end of the season I can pitch the books in my sleep, at the beginning my catalog is my security.  To mislay it in January would be as unthinkable as was losing track of blankie.  

It’s a little tragic that we are almost over-prepared by the time we go out selling.  With buyers’ busy schedules, I’m lucky to get thirty seconds on a catalog page, and I’m mentally saying “but wait, there’s more!”  throughout many appointments.  I try to remember that this is approximately the time they’ll have to convey the book’s essence to a customer.  Doing triage on all the info we’ve absorbed is the hardest part of the job, but probably the most useful value we bring to booksellers.

Write-ups done, it’s on to Edelweiss.  An interactive catalog and ordering system that is rapidly becoming a routine booksellers’ tool, Edelweiss is also a hungry time hog for reps.  My colleagues and I individually labor over personalizing our digital presentations for each title, adding relevant links to other books and information our customers might find helpful, and- within the limits of the somewhat clunky Edelweiss interface- making sure each title gets the presentation it deserves.  It can take a couple weeks to get it right, and is always a work in progress.

By this point we can begin to assemble a selling kit, which includes show and tell, digital page spreads, recommended backlist ideas, and the answers to every conceivable question a bookseller may ask- although you will never anticipate all the questions a clever bookseller may spring on you.  (“Poiesis and Enchantment in Topological Matter, huh!  Tell me more.”)

Can we talk about mailings during down time?  By November enough cartons of new catalogs have landed on our doorsteps that our offices look like a bookstore receiving room three weeks before Christmas.  After doing our customary seasonal battle with our label-printing program, these are carefully re-batched into individual mailings to dozens of customers, along with reminders about appointment times, notes about titles particular booksellers might like, rights restrictions, and sometimes an early galley or two.   Ideally, the buyer will have perused the three catalogs before our appointment, though I’ve learned to keep a smile plastered on my face even when I find my package unopened on their desks when I arrive.

And after all this “down time” it’s usually early December before I’m well and truly ready to start selling, just in time for my first couple important pre-Holiday appointments.  I don't know how my three-season rep colleagues do it.  Yes I do: fewer time zones.

It’s true that down time affords a bit more scope for novel reading (I may actually finish The Goldfinch), dog walking, and dinner cooking than on the road season.  But in some ways I only start to feel really liberated and relaxed when we finally start moving.  Once I have an itinerary and am armed with what I need, seeing the bookstores and focusing on the books is a kind of freedom.  The end of March feels like the end of a marathon, but there’s usually a sense of satisfaction and anticipation.

Because the whole thing cranks up again.