Saturday, May 10, 2014

a sales rep's two cents on Thomas Piketty

I’m reluctant to add one more word to the infosphere about Thomas Piketty.  But for all the coverage and meta-coverage Capital in theTwenty-first Century has garnered, we haven’t heard from the sales force that had a small role to play in chaperoning the book into the world.

I have to say that I’ve reacted a little defensively to some of the coverage about how well Harvard University Press has kept up with demand.  “Clearly caught off-guard” quickly became the reigning meme.    Let’s look at that. 
Contemporary book publishing, despite all the big data tools, is about as wildly unpredictable as it was the day I cashiered my first book in the 1970s.  But publishers can and do position books to market, and are often pretty good at it.  Authors who have succumbed to the self-publishing racket quickly learn that printing a book has little to do with visibility or sales.

Thomas Piketty was brought to HUP by a whip-smart editor, who convinced his rigorous colleagues that it was a book worth publishing, and a board of Syndics that it was a book worthy of Harvard’s name.  He solicited and got peer review reports that lauded the book.  From early on, there was a sense that this would be a hugely important book with significant sales.

By the time the spring 2014 list was shared with reps in a launch meeting at the press last September, enthusiasm was high and unanimous.  It was made the lead title in our catalog.   The ace marketing team was mobilized, an ad campaign designed, and an author tour planned.
Then it was our turn.   

Field reps hit the road to bookstores brimming with commitment.  During sales meetings, I talked about the timeliness of the issue, about Piketty’s star economist stature, about the outstanding scholarship.  I reminded people that Harvard’s big, serious lead titles often outsell expectations.  I noted that the French edition hovered in the top five of the French bestseller list among various editions of Cinquante nuances de grey.

The book advanced well but there were some headwinds.  “It sounds important, I’m sympathetic with the argument, but I can’t sell a $40 economics book” was a typical example.  There were a few stores who immediately got it, but for the most part I needed to apply a little arm-twisting.  (This is where the relationship- knowing the store and the buyer- pays off.  I don’t use the “trust me” card often so people tend to listen when I do.) 
My most serious scholarly store changed its advance number from 20 to 30; more typically, good general booksellers and college stores changed a two to a five; and a few of the doubters who wanted to skip it entirely were convinced to try a couple.  (At one store I did promise to buy one back personally if I was wrong.  Boy I should have structured that bet differently!)

I will stipulate that this is a university press brand of upselling, which is to say it's polite.  And, for those who know me, the idea of Eklund arm-twisting must seem hilarious.  If we had been a trade house I suppose we’d have gone into accounts with massive (and bogus) announced print runs, pie in the sky media plans, and Thomas Piketty social inequality espresso cups.  

So yes, the phenomenon has surpassed even our most optimistic forecasts, but it’s only the velocity that’s taken us by surprise.  I suppose in retrospect one could say that our initial print run could have been more aggressive.  But booksellers have to share a little blame on that one too.   

HUP makes very careful print run decisions by paying attention to advance orders from booksellers and to comments on titles we pass along from them.  Advances were solid but not extraordinary, and the notes I forwarded all season had plenty of caveats about the price, the subject, the risk.

While it’s little consolation to booksellers who have fielded hundreds of phone calls while holding only sketchy information about when they might have the book again, it’s my totally unbiased opinion that HUP has done a stellar job keeping reprints rolling.  These books are coming from several printers on two continents, and being dispersed globally.  Our warehouse folks have pulled 24 hour shifts getting them out, while still attending to all the other books from three big presses.  And, though I’ve heard uninformed assumptions to the contrary, our decision-makers have been scrupulous about making sure stock is distributed fairly.

Once the phenomenon was clearly underway- which I trace to Paul Krugman’s first call out, in which he christened Capital the “book of the decade”- the booksellers responded with equal aplomb.  They have a lot more experience chasing bestsellers than we do publishing them, and I saw some very savvy order wrangling.  Booksellers are great at selling what’s selling.  Occasionally I wondered why they weren’t ordering more aggressively- can’t you get a couple cases and be done with it?  But it’s for the same reason publishers have to be judicious with reprints- fear of having too many when the wave subsides.  The wave isn’t subsiding. 
We are deep into the era of the just-in-time inventory.  Sometimes it works well, but sometimes it seems a bit like a ponzi scheme.  At the end of the day, somebody has to have possession of  the pile of books.  But that’s another subject.

A few other takeaways from the past month:

In the digital age, customers expect that detailed information will be instantly available.  UPS can track a package with mind-blowing specificity, and online retailers are really selling their ability to forecast availability.  So it’s maddening when a bookseller can’t have a simple answer when the customer asks “when will you have it,” and it’s maddening to me when we sometimes can’t provide that info.  In this case, the backlog of orders ballooned so dramatically last month that it caused temporary info havoc.  Now we have a much better handle on when reprints will arrive, who is in the queue for them, and when your customer can expect them.  Transparency and information are powerful.

One of the reservations booksellers often have about our books is a doubt about our marketing muscle.  “If Knopf were doing that book I know we’d see reviews and media, but Harvard?”  Can we put that one to rest now?  Piketty didn’t happen spontaneously.  The very talented HUP marketing and publicity team worked night and day, before during and after publication, to spark and then extend the media blitz.  This was a marketing campaign for the record books.  Buyers, be prepared to have Thomas Piketty thrown at you if you want to doubt our marketing finesse in future.

Has anyone noticed that the sale of thousands of copies of the e-book edition- which, after all, was available instantly and never out of stock- does not seem to have hurt demand for print copies?  I read this as a good sign for my friends selling print.

Finally, I wonder whether we- publishers, booksellers, reviewers, and writers- are underestimating the appetite for serious nonfiction.  Time will tell whether Piketty is a freakish one-off.  But it seems striking to me that indie booksellers, who rightfully boast about their close to the ground knowledge of their customer’s tastes, often missed this one.

If I were still a buyer and one of my rock solid truisms- say, “I can’t sell a $40 book on economic inequality”- were challenged so dramatically by my own customers, I’d wonder whether I know them as well as I think I do.  Granted, when a serious book becomes a celebrity sensation, it brings out the whole “must have” bandwagon, many of whom you won’t see in the store until the next one comes along.  But some of them are potential regular new customers.

I used to think that great academic bookstores like Seminary Coop, Harvard Book Store, and Book Culture were lucky anomalies.  Sure, you can sell serious academic books in Hyde Park or Princeton.  But Piketty shows us that there’s a hunger for big idea nonfiction, even in general bookstores.  People like a reading challenge, it makes them feel smarter. 
Aside from sharing the financial success that Capital in the Twenty-first Century has brought us this season, let’s also savor the chance to spread its message.  My old boss and mentor David Schwartz was a big believer in books as change agents, and spoke about the “social profit” in bookselling as a kind of fringe benefit.  Influencing public discourse by getting out a couple hundred thousand copies of a book like Capital is what he meant.

As Thomas Piketty himself said, “I wrote this book not for policymakers, but for people who read books.  In the end, they are the people who’ll decide what politicians do, and it’s more important to convince them.”