Anatomy of a Tip Sheet
by Davida G. Breier
Competing for shelf space for your new book is akin to seeking employment in the current economic climate. You wouldn’t think of applying for a job without a resume, and a tip sheet is essentially a book’s resume. Usually, you don’t get an in-person interview; and either the tip sheet does all the talking, or a sales rep does, working on your behalf, utilizing your tip sheet.
A tip sheet lets buyers—from corporate chain offices to local independents—quickly get a handle on the book’s subject matter, marketing plans for it, early reviews and endorsements of it, and ways to position it to consumers.
The example I am focusing on here is a tip sheet I helped draft for No Voice Unheard, a nonprofit publisher. Thanks to my prior experience as a sales rep, calling on Ingram, Baker and Taylor, and American Wholesale Book Company, I knew what buyers and sales reps wanted to see (and what would earn an eye-roll).
If you work with a distributor, you will generally need to provide a tip sheet at least three to eight months before a book’s pub date, when you submit copy about it and art from it for inclusion in the distributor’s catalog. The sales reps have to work with long lead times. For example, chain buyers often start deciding on holiday-related titles as early as eight to nine months in advance.
If your book is tied to an event, holiday, or anniversary, you want buyers to review it as early in the buying cycle as possible. The later they see it, the less chance there is of getting shelf space and funds from the budget for it.
Reps who sell to the chains and major wholesalers also have to prep additional documents and files required by these accounts and need time to do that before they meet with buyers. Often based on the information in the tip sheet, these additional documents will determine how many copies of your book will be ordered and where it will be placed—regionally or nationally; in stores and/or in the distribution center for fulfilling online orders?
If you are not working with a distributor, you will want to use a tip sheet in approaches to distributors and/or wholesalers because it will help show that you understand the bookselling process and that your marketing will help support their efforts. And you will also want a tip sheet if you have decided to make your own sales calls.
Once you have finalized your tip sheet, it will only need slight modifications to become a sell sheet for your media kit.
A Tip Sheet Checklist
Much like a resume, a tip sheet should be limited to one page. Keep it legible. You may be tempted to cram as much detail as possible into one page by reducing the font size. But that will just reduce the chances that buyers will read it.
The average job hunter gets about 60 seconds of a hiring manager’s time, and your book is faced with similar time constraints. You need to wow buyers in the first 15 seconds to get them to keep reading, and then get them thinking about how many copies to order.
Like the annotated tip sheet pictured here, your tip sheet should include:
• Your company logo.
• The book cover.
• The title.
• A clear and concise description of the book, stressing benefits to readers. This may end up in various databases, so make sure you describe as much as you can in the first two sentences. Try creating descriptions of 500 words, 100 words, and 50 words for these purposes and for use otherwise in marketing.
•Standard book metadata (ISBN, price, category, page count, and so on). Selecting a category can be tricky. Start by browsing the BISAC categories (bisg.org/what-we-do-0-136-bisac-subject-headings-list-major-subjects.php). Then try to select both a major and a minor category (for example, “Gardening/Perennials”) to tell booksellers exactly where your book should be shelved. Of course, stores have their own categories, and you may wish to visit several chain stores and independents to see where your book would fit in each.
Bear in mind that some categories are more crowded than others as you decide which ones to use.
And make sure your pricing is competitive (see Competition, below).
• Information about the author’s location. Buyers often want to know where an author is likely to be promoting and getting attention from local media. In this example, because the book is a collection, the tip sheet tells where the editor lives and additional marketing materials tell where all the contributors are located.
• A summary of marketing plans. This area has seen major change over the last few years. Buyers used to look for print media advertising budgets and for the number of stops on a book tour. Now, they’re most interested in social media activity.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that buyers want to know how your marketing is going to drive sales in stores and online. It is great if an author will be speaking to huge groups, but not great for these purposes if the author will be selling large quantities of books to attendees instead of fueling sales of books sitting on store shelves.
If you have confirmed reviews, list them. Often, the strongest sales come from niche media, so don’t be afraid to include things like coverage in association newsletters. And please don’t mention Oprah unless you have her home phone number and an invitation to appear.
When possible, quantify the potential readers you will be reaching. What is the circulation of the magazine that will be doing a cover story? How many people are fans of the author’s Facebook fan page and of yours? What are the stats for your blog and/or the author’s? How about Twitter followers?
If you are offering sales materials that could be useful for a rep or bookseller (e.g., posters, blads [for book layout and design], and ARCs), mention them as well.
• Sales handles. Here is where you get to make your case to the bookseller in three or four sentences—essentially an elevator pitch. Include statistics if you have them. Why is your book timely? What makes it of interest to readers? Who are your readers (a topic you will also touch on under “audience”)?
A common, perhaps lazy, approach is comparing your book to an existing book and noting what is different and better about yours (“Wuthering Heights with aliens!”). Remember, these may be the words coming out of the sales reps’ mouths when they pitch, so make them good and strong.
• Endorsements and/or quotes from early reviews. If you have succeeded in getting prepub endorsements in time to use them in the tip sheet, include them. If your book is a second edition and the first edition received high praise, include some quotes; obviously, the bigger the name or the publication, the better.
• A description of the audience. The kiss of death with buyers is saying “everyone” will want this book. And sales reps die a little inside if they have to present a tip sheet saying that. Be as specific as possible about your market. Your book may target a niche activity or interest, a particular age range or gender, or fans of another author (just don’t say Dan Brown, Stieg Larsson, J.K. Rowling, or any other megablockbuster writer).
Information about how you’ve defined your book’s audience tells the buyer not only who readers might be but also how they are likely to purchase. You want books where your potential readers will find them.
• Information about competing titles. Some publishers think it is great marketing to say, “No competition; no other books like this!” Unfortunately, the buyers’ translation is, “Either the publisher didn’t do any research, or there probably is no audience for this book.” And that means no sale.
Some major accounts require information about competing titles, which means reps have to have it before they can call on them. The information is generally crucial because it gives buyers guidance on what has worked, what hasn’t, and where.
What you tell them about existing sales patterns can help them avoid overbuying and creating unnecessary returns. So provide title, author, ISBN, and pub date for books in the same subject area as yours that were published in the last few years. If possible, make them books in the same format that are similarly priced. And if your author has written other books, even books in other subject categories, also mention at least one here.
Doing this research can be time consuming. Access to BookScan and/or Pub Alley can help, but you will also want to spend time looking at relevant books in stores and online. Store research can be extremely helpful because it will also tell you what kinds of books have actually gotten shelf space and where and how they are displayed.
If you are stumped and you work with a distributor, your account manager should be able to offer guidance.
• Your contact information. If you have a distributor, include contact information for someone there too.
• Ordering information. Make it easy for buyers to order, either direct from you or via a distributor or wholesaler, whichever fits your situation.
As with a job interview, having a great suit and decent credentials might get you in the door, but being on time and understanding the job will get you hired.
Davida G. Breier works for Johns Hopkins University Press, managing its distribution division, HFS. She is a board member of IBPA and No Voice Unheard. To reach her, email email@example.com.