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Anatomy of a Book Distribution Sales Meeting

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by Deb Vanasse, Reporter, IBPA Independent magazine —

Deb Vanasse

By understanding the anatomy of distribution sales meetings, publishers—even those who handle their own distribution—can improve the discoverability and reach of their lists.

Article Synopsis:

  • Sales meetings give publishers an opportunity to present new titles and get feedback from the distributor.
  • A compelling presentation, including a detailed sales packet, is an important part of these meetings.
  • Sales meetings are a good opportunity for publishers to improve their business practices and receive advice and suggestions.

If distribution is the backbone of print sales success in brick-and-mortar markets, sales meetings are the heart of that success. By understanding the anatomy of distribution sales meetings, even publishers who handle their own distribution can improve the discoverability and reach of their lists.

Mel Corrigan

The information that circulates at sales meetings—from publisher to sales team and sales team to publisher— can make all the difference in a book’s ultimate success. “We know the title and the author so well, and it’s obvious to us why it’s attractive to readers, librarians, and booksellers,” says Mel Corrigan, business and visibility director at Scribe Publishing Company. “It’s really critical to step outside of that space and consider the industry—how it works and how its individual players consume content and make decisions.”

A Beneficial Exchange

The format and timing of sales meetings (also called sales conferences) may vary among distributors but, overall, these gatherings give publishers an opportunity to present new titles and get feedback from the distributor’s sales team. This exchange benefits publishers and distributors alike.

Richard T. Williams

“Distributors typically depend on a percentage of sales revenue, so the more we know about titles and strategize about selling them, the greater that revenue will be,” says Richard Williams, vice president of publisher development at Independent Publishers Group (IPG). “And by getting acquainted with our publishers, the sales team is able to better represent them and their titles to accounts.”

A distributor’s sales representatives take the pulse of the retail, educational, and library markets. They know what information buyers need, what catches their eye, and what sells. Accordingly, they can suggest how each of these markets may respond to a book and what factors may improve that response.

“Part of the goal [of the sales meeting] is to set the expectations for titles—and communicate that back to publishers—as well as address potential challenges in selling the products,” Williams says. “Occasionally, publishers leave our sales conference with changes they want to make to the products that were presented, such as cover tweaks and pricing adjustments.”

Making the Most of the Meeting

In some ways, the sales meeting replicates the crowded marketplace, with many titles vying for attention. “It’s important for publishers to make compelling presentations that cause reps to sit up and take notice,” says Tom Doherty, president of Cardinal Publishing Group.

Sharon Shell

That means publishers should come prepared. “I rely on my publishers to provide the most complete information, data, and visual collateral available so that I can best represent their titles to all my customers,” says Sharon Shell, who manages library and educational accounts for IPG. “Providing us with all the complete information that we need in a timely manner helps us tremendously.”

Publishers share this information in a sales material packet that contains the basics about each book—cover, title, description, and metadata. The packet also details the marketing plan for the book, including sales handles, endorsements, social media reach, intended audience, and comparative titles. Sales materials such as posters and advanced reader copies (ARCs) may be included, too, along with “inside the book” visuals, book trailers, and other relevant media.

The value of these packets extends well beyond the distribution sales meeting. Publishers also use them when listing the book online, approaching media, and pitching the title to advance reviewers. (For more on sales material packets, see the article “How to Create an Effective Sales Packet” on page 14.)

To help the sales team position a book, Williams urges publishers to present their marketing plans in bullet points that include the author’s previous sales histories, audience demographics, and competitive titles already in the market. He also suggests publishers communicate how many copies they need to sell for the book to generate a profit.

Because the distributor’s team is generally familiar with the book’s basic sales handles before the sales meeting begins, Doherty advises publishers to go beyond the obvious in their presentations.

“Instead of concentrating on the product specs everyone already knows and will have readily available during a presentation, I recommend filling in the backstory about a book, an author, or their brand,” he says. “This gives the reps something they can talk about between product presentations that might be more interesting and persuasive.”

These meetings can be long, Doherty adds. After a while, the presentations may begin sounding repetitive. “Being succinct and presenting with confidence will leave a better impression than any specific product detail,” he says. “Be enthusiastic about what you’re presenting and focus on the most important products, authors, and campaigns.”

Williams advises against bringing authors to sales meetings. “Because publishers are one step removed from the books, they are able to make better presentations and take sales feedback somewhat more critically without the emotional responses an author might have,” he says.

Follow Through

Sales meetings offer opportunities for publishers to improve their business practices—and their bottom line. But to reap these benefits, Doherty says that publishers need to be open to suggestions.

“Don’t solicit feedback on the product, pricing, packaging, or marketing unless you’re willing to make some changes,” he says. “Salespeople are generally very polite, but that doesn’t mean they are necessarily demure. A publisher can and should expect sometimes brutally honest feedback.”

As one case in point, Corrigan asked IPG reps why a Scribe Publishing title that was getting good press wasn’t being shopped more. They suggested she add key selling points to the book’s listing in Edelweiss+, an online book discovery platform.

As a follow-up, Corrigan attended IPG’s online webinar “Edelweiss Advice from the Reps Selling Your Books,” where she got the perspectives of librarians and booksellers using the platform. “We are now revamping our content to satisfy those interests,” she says. “The goal is to both contour and refine content, some of which already existed in IPG’s system, to meet the expectations of both the IPG sales team and trade professionals selecting titles for their collections.”

That includes adding marketing plans, selected videos, and pertinent web links to the key selling points in Scribe’s Edelweiss+ listings. Bullet points help busy users navigate this content. As an example, Corrigan points to Scribe’s Edelweiss+ listing for Sobremesa: A Memoir of Food and Love in Thirteen Courses. “I formatted all of the content in HTML before submitting [to IPG] so that it’s both clear to the folks at IPG and already formatted appropriately to go out to Edelweiss+,” she says.

In ongoing sales meeting follow-through, Corrigan makes a point of learning which sales reps present data in each market. “I am working to establish relationships with and ask advice from each of them,” she says, adding that she integrates everything she learns into Scribe’s workflow.

Corrigan doesn’t expect these actions to yield an immediate uptick in sales, but she thinks her conversations with sales representatives will lead to some of Scribe’s titles being included in the Edelweiss+ catalogs they create and share with the trade. “When our outreach efforts lead buyers to our Edelweiss+ listings, they’ll be more compelling and hopefully lead to increased interest and sales,” she says. With so much to gain from sales meeting interactions, Doherty advises publishers to avoid exclusively focusing on problems. Instead, ask questions and stay positive. “The sales meeting is a time to get excited about the near future and celebrate recent successes,” he says.

A Synergistic Exchange

A distribution sales meeting is a synergistic exchange of information and insights. As publishers understand how this part of the industry works, they can adjust tactics and practices based on input from those with the most direct knowledge of the brick-and-mortar, library, and educational markets.

By refining expectations, making meaningful presentations, and adjusting tactics based on market insights, publishers enhance the discoverability and reach of their lists. Ultimately, that’s the foundation of a healthy publishing business.

Deb Vanasse is the author of several books, including two forthcoming titles with West Margin Press. She also works as a freelance editor.

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