Bulk Sales Bring More Revenue (and You Can Make Them Happen)
by Theodore P. Savas
As the co-owner and managing director of Savas Beatie LLC, a small independent publisher of (primarily) military history titles, I get to be responsible for everything. We launched in early 2004 and have about 100 books in print, another 16 in active development, two dozen strong titles under contract, and a vibrant line of e-books in all formats. Many of our titles have garnered prestigious awards, earned slots with national book clubs, and been niche bestsellers. Sales have risen steadily year over year, though it is more challenging to maintain respectable growth in this no-growth environment.
Still, I refuse to participate in recessions—and I share that belief with my publishing friends and co-workers at every opportunity when the bleak economic landscape settles into our conversations. “Opportunities to sell books abound,” I insist. “It is simply a matter of creatively fitting a circle into a circle or a square into a square.”
Nearly everyone who reads this article already knows that the worst place to sell a book is in a bookstore. While our distributor, Casemate Publishing, handles book trade sales (and they do a darn good job), Savas Beatie focuses on sales outside the book trade. Our primary customers include individuals, state and national battlefields, museum shops, and other independent enterprises not usually associated with (or primarily engaged in) bookselling. As noted, it is my responsibility to make sure we keep the pickers in the warehouse busy and the payroll checks on time.
Our Campaign Chronicle
Each year we launch a major new campaign. Think of it as like a New Year’s resolution: I promise to do X.
Three years ago we organized a significantly better methodology for working with our authors to help them schedule more events and thus sell more books (which they buy from us at 50 percent off with no returns). We sell thousands of books this way each year, and many authors earn some serious money.
Two years ago we standardized our e-book program and pushed it into overdrive, and it has been very successful. As of this writing, all but three of the books we have published are available in all the standard digital formats.
Last year we turned to special (aka “nontraditional”) sales. With the shuttering of Borders and the consequent decline in trade revenues, we had to make up lost money (and hopefully more) from another source.
In March of 2012 we added Mona Cole to our growing office as specialty sales manager. We had made a few bulk sales here and there over the years, but they were largely fortuitous rather than the result of our own initiative. It was time to focus our efforts—especially because we had several titles, and one in particular, that seemed especially suited to sell in quantity.
After extensive discussion and market research we decided to focus on selling National Guard 101: A Handbook for Spouses by Mary Corbett (2011) in bulk. Mona worked closely with the author, with our marketing director, Sarah Keeney, and with me to craft an organized way to attack and crack open special sales.
One of the first things we did was utilize the author’s expertise and knowledge of how the National Guard was set up, how it functioned, and where the best opportunities for sale resided within its structure. Mary’s husband is an officer in the National Guard, and she knew a lot about these areas. (We routinely tell our authors, “Help us help you sell your book.” With Mary, no sales pitch or prompting was needed.)
After we tapped her knowledge base, it became obvious that the National Guard Family Programs, which are organized by state, offered the best opportunity for bulk sales.
Mary took the time to explain how these organizations functioned and developed a detailed contact list for our use. Using her input (virtually every author has expertise in some area that can be tapped for sales; your job as publisher is to find and tap it), Mona crafted an email with information about National Guard 101 and how it would help each member of the Guard’s Family Readiness Group.
Then Mona organized her contacts (in all 50 states) and began phoning each one personally. The key was finding the decision-maker—the person who could buy the book; dealing with others is almost always a waste of time.
Responding to Responses
The responses we received spanned the gamut from deep interest to ice-cold refusals to discuss anything. Many phones rang without anyone answering. As with so many things in life, perseverance paid dividends. Mona offered more information on the book via email, a complimentary review copy (even if the initial reception was chilly), and a promise to follow up once the book was delivered and people had time to browse it a bit.
Mona also looked at individual Family Readiness Group Websites for listed special events to see if our book could be usefully distributed to members there.
Note: It pays to send complimentary copies. Don’t be shy or cheap. Stamp “Review Copy—Not for Sale” on the inside cover and mail them out. Your books are your best calling card and advance marketing device. Keeping paid inventory on shelves collecting dust is not a good way to earn a profit. Use those copies to your advantage.
As every good salesperson knows, your product has to solve a problem or fill a need that the buyer wants to solve or satisfy. Our job as publishers is to meet that need and fill it to capacity. So Mona asked each contact directly, “What do your members need most?” “What is it that your organization does that helps its members most?”
We already knew that Family Readiness Groups exist to provide information and support to National Guard family members, and that our book satisfied and supported their mission. Once her contacts in those groups told Mona about their problem or need, she was able to explain to them how National Guard 101: A Handbook for Spouses was tailor-made for their members.
Most reviewers who liked the book but did not purchase it immediately didn’t buy because they could not find the money in their budgets, which were expiring or had been tapped. Mona noted the information, learned (through trial and error) to ask about their budget cycle, created a detailed Excel spreadsheet with all the vital information on every group, and then followed up with another round of contacts after prospects began their new fiscal years.
With all this information under her belt (and on her spreadsheet), Mona set about crafting plans to sell the most books possible, at the best discount possible, to meet individual programs’ needs.
Every book we sold was discounted between 40 and 55 percent and nonreturnable.
The Sales Cycle in Motion
It took Mona two or three weeks of diligent work and review-copy mailing to land her first bulk sale: 125 copies at 45 percent off, nonreturnable. Within a few months we had sold bulk orders into 17 states. The smallest invoice was for 75 copies, and the largest was for 2,000.
One particular option that excited many buyers was customization. We offered to reprint National Guard 101 with a special title page with the group’s own personalized dedication. Reprinting our trade paperback was not expensive; we needed a lot more books to satisfy demand anyway, and swapping out a title page for a separate run is easy to do.
It was the customized option we offered that convinced one National Guard Family Readiness Group to purchase 2,000 copies to hand out at its annual symposium. Mona also arranged to have our author appear there as a featured speaker. (This group had already purchased 335 copies and absolutely loved the book; Mona’s follow up sold the 2,000 more.)
Because members of the National Guard change daily, we renew contact each time a group’s budget renews, and several groups have contacted us to place new orders. And thus the cycle begins anew.
Is selling a lot of books in bulk easy? No. It takes time, patience, organization, an ability to tap an author’s skill set matched to the right book, and plenty of perseverance. But with the right plan and a firm view on the horizon rather than on your cluttered desk, you can do it too. I might have been tempted to write more . . . but we have another bulk order to fill.
Theodore P. Savas practiced law in Silicon Valley for many years before turning to book publishing. In addition to being the managing director and co-owner of Savas Beatie LLC, he is the author or editor of more than a dozen books in six languages. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.