The Sell In
I ended last week’s post discussing “publishing meeting” Personae. As Steve’s manager/agent, one of my jobs is to secure the best possible sales campaign for THE PROFESSION. Easier said than done.
As Steve’s representative, I went to the Crown marketing meeting with an internal agenda. Just as a publisher needs to define the proceedings of a marketing meeting with an agenda, so does the manager/agent. If the manager/agent’s goal is to goose the meeting into breaking precedent and discussing new initiatives that could help sell your client’s book (which it should be) then he has to not only accept that he will need to play the agitator, he has to embrace that role.
Two outsiders (a writer and his manager/agent) walking into a sterile conference room in a skyscraper built by the largest English language publishing conglomerate in the world is intimidating. It’s crazy not to recognize that. Just Getting the Meeting was a huge coup and these very busy people have agreed to spend a lot of time outlining their plans to make your client’s book a success. They obviously care about the book and want to make it work or they wouldn’t be there.
The inclination for the agent/manager is to think “mission accomplished,” sit back and let the agenda flow.
The client doesn’t know the “inside baseball” that will be reviewed. The writer’s just happy to be there. The manager/agent knows that the plans that Crown’s marketing and publicity departments will lay out at the beginning of the meeting are “unsexy” and “traditional.” But he also knows that the “sell-in” plans are more crucial to the success of the book than any unique innovation he or the other members of the writer’s outside team can engineer. Without the ground work outlined in that first page and a half of the agenda, efforts to innovate marketing will have little to no effect on the ultimate sale of the book.
If books aren’t in stores and easily accessible, exciting promotions fail. For all of the hoopla about eBooks today, 90% of Steve’s audience will buy physical copies of THE PROFESSION at the tried and true distribution outlets.
What we need to happen at the start for THE PROFESSION is exactly what happened for GATES OF FIRE fourteen years ago. With concerted and dedicated efforts from every person at that conference table, THE PROFESSION will reach stores in critical masses with industry excitement and buzz.
The “sell-in” is the literal pre publication selling of the book to retailers and wholesalers. Retailers are the place where consumers can actually purchase the book…Barnes & Noble, Borders, Amazon.com, the independent bookstore that used to be in the center of town on Main Street or the fancy one that still hanging on at the mall etc. The retailers order the book from the publisher months before it goes on sale and then sell it to you directly.
Wholesalers are another intermediary between a publisher’s book and a consumer. They provide a service for big box retailers who have little interest in having an on staff book expert to pick and maintain its book departments.
Here’s how it works.
Wal-Mart, Costco, Albertson’s, Kmart, Target, mega-grocery stores like Fred Meyer, Albertsons, and Kroger hire third party companies to “service” their book racks. The wholesaler (Levy Home Entertainment, Ingram, Baker and Taylor, Hudson Group etc.) is responsible for a defined section of square footage of retail space in these big boxes. They pick the books from publishers and get an added discount because they order in bulk. Then they stock their big box client’s shelves and maintain the inventory.
When someone buys a book at a big box, the wholesaler gets the lion’s share of proceeds from that sale, and the actual retailer takes a fee/commission directly off the top. The higher the volume of sales in this square footage, the more the money the wholesaler and chain store make. If the volume is low, the big box will look for another wholesaler to take over the racks—one that can bring in better selling “product”—or it may discontinue books as a category to sell in their store entirely.
Wholesalers need big bestsellers to attract consumers to its section of the big box and ultimately for those readers to buy their books at Target instead of Barnes & Noble or Amazon.com. Just like Barnes & Noble, Wholesalers employ book “buyers” who are responsible for ordering the titles that will be distributed to the big boxes. The buyers are usually responsible for specific genres. They’ll be a science fiction and fantasy buyer, a mystery/crime buyer, a romance buyer, business book buyer etc.
One competitive advantage one wholesaler can gain over another is by employing savvy buyers. If they buy a big amount of a book that is not an obvious bestseller but ends up being a huge sensation, that wholesaler’s big box accounts will be flush with copies when they are scarce elsewhere. Their big boxes will reap the rewards of their smart ordering and the wholesaler and its client will be happy.
However, if the book ends up being a dud, the wholesaler will not only lose dollar volume of sale at their big boxes, but they’ll have to take on the added expense of sending the books back to the publisher for credit. Or in the case of unsold paperback editions, the wholesaler will have to pay to pulp unsold copies.
Depending on the number of blockbuster books in a given year (Twilight, The Da Vinci Code, The Help, etc.); wholesalers servicing the big boxes sell 30% to 40% of all books sold. Barnes & Noble has about 20% share and falling, Borders 10% and falling, Independents 10% and falling, and Amazon.com has 25% and rising.
Because their business model is to supply the most popular books at the lowest possible cost to the largest number of people, wholesalers for the big boxes are very conservative during “sell-in.” They’ll pre-order palette after palette of Dan Brown’s latest (tens of thousands of books at a time) to make sure they don’t run short, but won’t order a single copy of 95% of a publishers’ list.
Steve’s previous hardcover releases didn’t reach the big boxes in big quantities. They were brilliant novels that didn’t lend themselves to that sort of mass market sell. They sold through word of mouth and Steve hit a number of bestseller lists, but they skewed more toward the historical epic than the relentless “action driven thriller” kind of read.
What makes THE PROFESSION so wonderful is that Steve has done something quite remarkable. He still delivers the epic nature and historical gravitas from his previous works, but the reading experience is the same as an “action driven thriller.” It lends itself to those cheesy Hollywood one line sales pitches—SEVEN DAYS IN MAY meets THE THINGS THEY CARRIED—but it’s an authentic Pressfield experience. People who love The Afghan Campaign will still love THE PROFESSION but the book will also bring in readers of W.E.B Griffin and Tom Clancy.
Pushing big quantities of THE PROFESSION into wholesaler’s warehouses for the sell-in isn’t the answer. What we need to do is press Steve into his traditional markets (B&N, Borders, Amazon, etc.) in quantities that can generate enough sales velocity to get THE PROFESSION on the New York Times hardcover bestseller list in its first week on sale. Then the word of mouth and razzle dazzle that makes a book move to a higher sales plane can evolve. When extraordinary demand arises, the wholesalers will come in. They’ll recognize an opportunity to increase their sales by ordering THE PROFESSION and selling it to big box customers as a fresh VINCE FLYNN meets DAVID BALDACCI thriller.
Crown knows this. I know this. But it’s always worth repeating.
Last year I wrote a book with a friend about the rise of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s (shameless plug, The Ones Who Hit the Hardest). In our research, we discovered that one of the secrets to the Steelers success was that every year, at the beginning of training camp, head coach Chuck Noll began the season by reviewing the proper way a football player should stand…where he should place fingers…how he should line up against his opponent. He started each campaign with the basics.
Just as the marketing director began reviewing the “sell-in” plans, the publisher opened the door to the conference room, apologized for being late, and then shook Steve’s and my hand. She told Steve how much she LOVES THE BOOK and took her place at the head of the table.
I kept my mouth shut and waited for the right moment to play the agitator.
To be continued.