What Happens at Your Publisher's Sales Conference and Why it Matters Desperately to You

By Richard Curtis

Twice every year, around mid-May and mid-December, a curious lull befalls the frenzied lives of literary agents, like those abrupt silences that occasionally muffle a party when everybody, inexplicably, stops talking at exactly the same time. I've experienced enough of these semiannual brownouts that I ought to expect them by now. Yet they always take me by surprise, and I can predictably be heard at these times barking to my staff, "Is there something wrong with our phones? Is this a mail holiday or what?" At length it occurs to me: it's sales conference season. I then take advantage of this hiatus to catch up on paperwork.

Sales conference is the time when a publisher's list of forthcoming books is introduced to the company's staff and in particular to the its commissioned sales representatives, who then go forth to the stores in their territories and line up orders. Since this is the point where the editorial process interfaces with marketing and distribution processes, it may literally be said that the fate of your book, and possibly your career, is cast at sales conference.

For the people who work at publishing houses, these convocations are red-letter days, major events in their corporate lives. For the past six months they have been sweating, suffering, beating their breasts and rending their garments over the books they have acquired. Now they are going to pitch them to the folks who actually get them into the stores. This is a time of intense anxiety, for the presentation of the list is by no means a matter of handing the sales reps a set of proofs and saying, "Read it, it's terrific." Indeed, it's uncommon for the reps to read any but the most important books on their publishers' lists. Nor is it necessary.

If they don't need the book itself, however, they do need information about it, and in the weeks leading up to the conference editors scurry frantically about the halls of their companies, rounding up cover proofs, advertising copy, promotional notes, author-tour itineraries, and anything else that will make their books look and sound irresistibly tempting to sales people, store buyers and distributors, and ultimately to consumers.

The conferences are held in different locations around the country. Many companies hold their winter conferences in Florida, Puerto Rico, and other tropical climes, giving participants a chance to relax in the sun after work sessions and making the event in part a paid vacation. Other publishers hold conferences closer to home, in resort hotels within easy driving radius of New York City. Some publishers conduct them in the city itself. The more distant the conference, the fewer employees may be permitted to attend due to the costs of airfare and accommodations, and therefore the privilege of attendance is one of the ways an editor's status at a publishing company is determined. Conferences held in New York City enable all staff members to participate. From the viewpoint of sales reps these may be great fun, entitling them to a week in the Big Apple with a publisher picking up the tab. But for the publishers themselves, New York City-held conferences are harder work, as there is little letup from the grueling labors of conferring and ingratiating themselves with the sales representatives.

Each publisher has its own style, format and strategy for sales conferences, but typically the days are divided into morning and afternoon sessions. At these, the editors sponsoring the books, or perhaps the heads of editorial divisions, present each title with a brief description of the contents and salient sales features. What successes have the author's previous books enjoyed? Is the book tied into some trend or fad, some event such as an election, opening of the baseball season, a disaster, a war, a trial, a scandal? Is there a movie or television adaptation in the works? Are author appearances planned? Is the author engaging, promotable, famous?

The editor's spiel is fortified by a variety of supplementary material: cover proofs, bound proofs of the book itself or excerpts or condensed portions, inside illustrations, an agenda of the author's tour, posters or mock-ups of advertising copy, plugs by famous authors or other celebrities, trailers from movie or television tie-ins, slide shows, video and audio and Web presentations, and all manner of gimmicks such as buttons, pens and bookmarks. Sometimes the publisher will stage a real dog-and-pony show, with professional entertainment, elaborate skits written and performed by the publishing staff, and even cameo appearances by star authors.

If the publisher's list is a big and multifarious one, the work sessions may be broken down into specialized seminars in which the sales reps, distributors, or chain store buyers may educate themselves as to the nature of such categories as science fiction, travel, cook books, or romances, or focus on strategies for one or two blockbuster lead titles.

All of this activity is designed to impress and enlighten the sales reps, help them to understand the publisher's aims and problems, give them an opportunity to offer feedback garnered from experiences in their territories, and inspire them to get behind the publisher's list with every fiber of their being.

What makes these sessions so critical to the success or failure of your book is that they bear directly on the number of copies that will be printed and distributed and on the energy that will be expended on the marketing. Thus, sales conference is the week of reckoning for the list, during which time it is inscribed which books shall fly and which shall bomb, which shall be raised up to the bestseller list and which cast down to the remainder bins, which shall be stacked near the cash registers in pyramids of pharaohnic dimension, and which secreted spine-out in quantities of two or three in the wrong department of a bookstore.

Broadly speaking, there are two ways in which printings are determined by the activities at a sales conference. At the one extreme are those books for which printings and sales goals are somewhat nebulous in the publisher's mind. These books are presented as vigorously as possible in the hopes the sales reps will get turned on and bring in a surprisingly large number of orders. At the other end of the spectrum are those titles for which the publisher has set specific sales goals and the sales reps are expected to fill their quotas.

Most of the books on any given list fall somewhere between these two approaches, and not all the books get fair shrift. This is particularly true of first novels, midlist books, experimental works, and books that are part of a series. There is only so much you can say about a first novel, or about the latest Regency romance, or a book about costumes of Colonial Virginia, and there's no sense in trying to tell these highly sophisticated sales people that such books are going to leap off the shelves by the score. On the other hand, as there is a steady market for such books, it can be expected that a minimum number of copies will sell without undue effort on the publisher's part. Still, it's easy to see how the bestseller mentality can affect your book in a sales conference situation as it does in the editorial boardroom, the review media, and in the bookstores.

Armed with all this information, with press kits, cover proofs, promotional gimmicks, and inspiring editorial pep talks, the sales reps go forth to the stores and sell, sell, sell. Although the publisher may have outlined a sales strategy for the list, the handling of sales is largely left to the discretion of the reps. Conditions in each territory vary widely: Consumers may buy westerns by the truckload in the southwestern region, but the same books will lie in great untouched stacks like dead fish in the bookstores of the Northeast. They may adore Patterson in Cleveland and ignore him in Topeka. A book on the hottest new rock group may march out of California stores in regiment strength, but in Bible Belt bookstores will molder in unopened cartons.

The sales reps servicing these territories understand the tastes of the readers there, and know how to "play" the books in their sales kits like so many cards in a rummy game. Like authors, agents, and publishers, the salesman or woman makes the most profit on bestsellers, and so these titles may be expected to muscle out the rest of the list. The salesperson may make all sorts of bargains to induce store buyers to take that quota of the big book: special discounts, relaxation of strict return policies, a little coaxing here, a little coercing there, and some trading off of little books for big ones elsewhere. Among the little ones may be your book. Or maybe it's the other way around, and you're the lucky author whose big book will push the little ones off the boards. This is, you must realize, a jungle, however civilized the product being sold. Someone once said that the wise man never looks too closely at what goes into his laws or his sausages; perhaps bestselling books should be added to that list.

Although business is not conducted around the clock at sales conference, it is never far away at breakfast, lunch, or dinner, at cocktail time, out on the beach or the golf links, or in the evening at the theater or floor show. Sales conference is a time for everybody to get to know everybody else a little better, creating a sense of teamwork and harmony. Many editors tell me they come away from these occasions with an enhanced sense of "family" about the people they work and deal with. You may know next to nothing about someone in an office down the hall from you, but in the relaxed informality of a resort setting, that person may tell you something about himself or reveal aspects of his character that have been held in tight check by the requirements of office decorum and the hurly-burly of the business day.

Sales conference is the place where an editor can bestow a personal touch on a sales campaign, and that can make the difference to a book's success. "I know books like this don't ordinarily work in your region," an editor might say to a sales rep he or she has buttonholed at the bar, "but this particular novel has some aspects that will appeal to the stores you service." It works the other way around, too. Sales reps, knowing their particular market a lot better than the publishers do, will pull an editor or sales manager aside and say, "My customers can't keep science fiction in their stores; are you going to increase the number you publish?" Or, "Everybody in my territory wants to know when the next book in the Hieronymus Bosch detective series is coming out." Or, "St. Martins and Berkley are doing really well with a certain kind of romance, so how about our starting a similar line?" In short, sales conference is the time and place for important dialogues among staff members of publishing houses, among sales people, and between publishers and sales reps, distributors, or bookstore and chain store personnel.

Is there any place for authors at sales conference? Except for the very biggest names, authors are seldom invited to the ones held outside New York City, and because of the expense of bringing authors to New York, any that are invited to the conferences held in the city are usually people who live in or near the city to begin with. Invitations are not automatic, however, as few authors are dynamic, attractive, and promotable enough to make a strong positive impression on the sales reps. There is still much you can do, though, to cooperate with your editor in furnishing him or her with information and sales features about your book, anything and everything that will enable your editor to highlight your book when the presentation is made.

Maybe, then, you too should become aware of the onset of sales conference season, and instead of writing it off as a period of downtime in your calendar, get yourself involved in the preparations. It need not cost you a lot of money. One of my clients, the author of a tragic romance novel, bought a small carton of tissue packets for her editor and urged her to hand them to the sales reps with the other material in the promo kit for her book. "Tell them to have a good cry," the author said. It proved quite effective.

Perhaps you can think of something equally creative. After all, why on earth would you want to go to a tropical resort, all expenses paid by your publisher, anyway?

This article was originally written for Locus, The Newspaper of the Science Fiction Field. It's reprinted in Mastering the Business of Writing. Copyright © 1990 by Richard Curtis. All Rights Reserved.

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