Sunday, September 20, 2015

Of Sales and Bookselling

Sales is not generally considered to be one of the top professions. Most people who go into it end up there due to extenuating circumstances. Something was missed or got bungled along the way and sales was the default career. I'm sorry, I know I just offended some readers, but even you know what I mean. Not many people go to a top college with the goal of becoming a salesperson.

I was at a block party a few years ago. The demographic of the block we lived on was heavily weighted toward the academic. CMU and U Pitt professors lived there, one of whom was an astrophysicist. I happened to be standing next to him at the block party when he said to me, "you're in sales?" I said yes and he turned and walked away, making it clear what he thought of me, though he knew absolutely nothing about me. This may or may not be typical, and he was displaying one of the lower behavior traits associated with nasty people, but it was a good illustration of how sales folk are perceived.

Being in book sales is a sort of hybrid. So many of us are here because our love of books is inextricably hooked into our need for food, clothing, shelter, and college tuition for the kids. There was no getting around the fact that we writers, painters, and readers were no good for anything outside of books, but that we had to provide for ourselves and often others, so we made the best of a low-paying industry. Average pay for a pharmaceutical sales rep is $64k, and I'm sure that average is severely dragged down by lots of entry level types who make somewhere between zero and minimum wage just to get in the door. Average starting pay at many publishers probably really is just zero, since their internship programs allow them to hire overqualified debtors to work for free.

But if you must support yourself and/or others, get a driver's license, pack your car with samples, and hit the road (see illustration, below). As long as books will be books (as opposed to electronic gizmos), there will be a need for this, and almost nobody expects you to do it for free. It is very hard work and there is no guarantee of success, but it can also be gratifying and interesting. It might help to have a working knowledge of books and literature, but one of the best sales reps I know in the business has a background in plumbing supply. He's just very good at developing great relationships with key customers.

A good car for going on the road selling books, not to mention picking up buyers at airports, the Mercury Grand Marquis can carry about 900 pounds of samples, plus one 225 pound sales rep. (Overweight sales rep and oversize Rizzoli coffee table book added for scale.) Photo by Mark Skinner

Booksellers know all about the relationship business. There is not another retail category more invested in social media, community outreach, schools, and the spirit of public service. Relationships between booksellers and their customers are deep, long lasting, and meaningful. The same can be said for the relationships between booksellers and other booksellers.

When you have author events, that is sales. Your cashier tells a customer you have another book by the author of the book the customer is buying; that's sales. Paying a full-time staff member to maintain your social media is sales, even when most of the content is not directly sales related. But how about when you have an author event for an author who is well known for controversial views, who receives death threats, whose event at your bookstore causes you and your staff to receive death threats, but you go ahead with the event because you feel it is the right thing to do? Is that sales? You announce you are going out of business and your community spontaneously generates a massive outpouring of support, including but not limited to financial. Is that sales? Books are a hybrid product, more than a product, perhaps the central and defining product of civilization. Some booksellers, feeling just this, remain poor all their lives just to keep their bookstores alive in their poor communities. 

Peter Drucker said that the purpose of a business is to create a customer. All of the above can create customers, whether intentional or not. I write this blog not just to promote my and my employers' business (which is a good thing since it does a terrible job of that), but to promote the bargain book industry overall. If I can't convince you to buy from me, but convince you to buy bargain books at all, and you buy from my competitors, your bookstore becomes more successful, your customer base grows, and I have helped create a customer. I have also done my bit to keep you in business for another day and maybe you end up hiring a buyer who gets serious about bargain and eventually starts ordering books from me. Stranger things have happened.

I received more than the usual amount of feedback regarding this post, much of it from those who felt a bit maligned by my seeming denigration of sales as a profession, but most of that relating to an interpretation lumping booksellers in with that perceived slight, something I did not intend to do.

I am sorry I made it seem I was negating sales as a good and honorable career. My words stopped short of expressing my feeling that sales is actually a core profession. Whether looked down upon or not, nothing happens anywhere without it. 

Sales careers comes in all shapes and sizes. Commission sales in a wholesale marketplace, such as selling remaindered books in bulk to large customers, is not quite the polar opposite of bookselling, but it's close. Its commodity trading aspect is closer to that of my customers who sell strictly online and process lists as data only, without looking at categories or authors, without caring about the look and feel of a book.

I have always tried, and sometimes succeeded, to treat my lists as a bookseller would want them treated, with emphasis on the actual subject category, not the weird mismatched ones our large databases come up with, and authors all with the same format so you don't have to look in five different spots on my lists for the same author. The big challenge is to do this in a short time span so that I get the list to you before warehouse shoppers get the best books. My M.O. is to get the list out within an hour of generation, which means I can never get it as fine tuned as I'd like.

So, yes there are big differences between you and me, but we do have the same goal, which is to get as many great books into the hands of your customers as possible, and make a living while doing it.


  1. This is very true and very interesting, Ben, even though we are in different aspects of the business. You write very well too. I think bookselling for those who love it and are serious about it is a choice rather than a default landing. But sadly there are lots of default sellers of books looking to make a fast buck. I try not to think about them though!

    1. Yes, bookselling is more of a choice. I was thinking more of the wholesale and commission jobs, and was not very clear about the distinction.