After winning his first Grammy Award, singer/songwriter Michael Bolton said he felt like an overnight sensation 10 years in the making. We tend to see superstars as they are today, and not the years of hard work it took to them to get where they are. Look, for example, at Marcella Smith, director of small press and vendor relations at Barnes & Noble, who is perceived as one of the most powerful people in the industry–a king- or queen-maker. Talking with me, she showed how she came to occupy this power-broker position, how her authority at B&N is neither arbitrary nor absolute, and how easy it really is for independent publishers to get her attention and support.
Half a Life in Bookselling
Smith grew up in rural Mason, Michigan, just a half-hour south of the state capital in Lansing, and graduated from the academically rigorous University of Michigan in Ann Arbor with a degree in English and a teaching certificate. She says she has always known what she wants, and then it was to live in New York City.
“I saw myself living in a big city, like New York, but I still had corn behind my ears, so I was willing to accept almost anything outside Michigan and work my way up. I went to the library and used Literary Market Place to find the addresses of publishers, then wrote to many of them in search of work,” she reports. The job she landed was executive assistant at Acropolis Books, in Washington, D.C.
Smith has been in the book trade ever since, quickly climbing to the big leagues in New York. When you understand where she’s been, you’ll see that she was not crownedas director of small press relations for B&N but was recruited for her talent and her drive.
From Acropolis Books, Marcella Smith went to work as a cashier in Washington’s Globe Bookshop at 17th and Pennsylvania Avenues, moving up quickly to buyer for the hardcover department. Next, she took a job managing hardcovers at what was then a branch of the Brentano’s bookstore chain in the National Press Building., In 1974 she was called up, moving to Brentano’s headquarters in Manhattan as assistant hardcover buyer for the chain, which had 30 stores back then. She still lives in the Hell’s Kitchen apartment she found in 1976, near Times Square. There is no longer any corn behind her ears.
Smith’s next retail assignment was managing the Harcourt Brace Jovanovich bookstore at 47th Street and Third Avenue, near the United Nations. “We didn’t just sell HBJ books–we sold books by all publishers–but we also handled customer service for HBJ’s direct sales, doing fulfillment for mostly single-title orders. We were very close to the United Nations and to many advertising agencies, which gave me invaluable experience in the hidden world of institutional bookselling,” Smith says.
“At Globe, Brentano’s, and HBJ, a significant portion of our sales came from institutional buyers who had accounts with the store. In New York, we sold a lot of foreign-language dictionaries and reference books to people coming and going from the United Nations,” she adds, noting that “in today’s Barnes & Noble’s urban stores–and even our suburban stores–a good portion of sales come from servicing institutional buyers: schools, libraries, and businesses.”
Half a Life in Publishing
Once in New York, Smith began switching teams like a free agent in high demand. She was a sales rep for St. Martin’s Press for two years, where her experience on the receiving end of a lot of sales pitches helped her draft a short list of what it takes to be a good sales rep: “Show up on time. Know your list. Know what store you’re in.” This last item is especially important, she explains: “I expect sales reps to do their homework and know what kind of customers a store likely has, and what items on their lists match up well.”
When St. Martin’s decided to make special markets a full-time position, they recruited Smith to run it. “My experience in institutional selling helped me find new markets and new customers for St. Martin’s books,” she says. “It was a wonderful job. I learned a lot about the production end of publishing: how to draft good contracts, production standards and timing. . . ” Asked for examples of unusual uses for books, she replies, “Most of the sales don’t sound unusual in hindsight. We sold a chili book to a chili-pot manufacturer, pregnancy books to OB/GYNs. St. Martin’s had a strong line of pop culture books, so we sold a lot into Tower Records, Sam Goody, at concerts, that kind of thing.
“At the Publishers Association of the West conference a few years ago,” Smith continues, “there was a panel on special markets, and nearly all the publishers felt they weren’t doing enough in this area, and they’re right. Most publishers just wait for deals like this to find them. They get distracted by what they see as the major revenue stream–the bookstore and library trade–and ignore the core constituencies for their books.
“Look at Dominique Raccah at Sourcebooks. She makes sure she finds every possible sales outlet for her titles. She’s aggressive about promoting to that ‘first customer,’ the primary target audience for the book. That’s where special sales come from. You publish consistently into the same markets, and before long you cultivate these special sales.”
Smith switched lines again in 1985, moving to marketing for Simon & Schuster. “My accounts included Dalton and Walden. I had the flight schedules from LaGuardia to Minneapolis memorized.” At S&S, she handled marketing for audiobooks and for distributed publishers. “That was my first exposure to niche publishing. We helped the publishers distributed by S&S to focus their publishing programs and polish their presentations. It was a crash course in the economics of independent publishing.”
After leaving S&S, Smith hung out her shingle as a literary agent for long enough to have a few power lunches before taking a job with Barnes & Noble doing “special projects” work. In 1993, after a reorganization of B&N’s buying operations, she was given the unenviable task of liaison between the giant bookseller and independent publishers.
“We were opening 100 stores a year. In every market where we opened a store, local authors and publishers wanted to do business with us. It was an onslaught. The publishers couldn’t afford to come to New York to present their titles. Maureen [Golden, former VP of trade merchandise] and Steve [Riggio–B&N CEO] said, ‘Marcella, we want you to be our point person for the small press.’ For me, it was an ideal job. I’d spent half my life in bookselling and half in publishing, and the two halves were united in this job.”
What Makes B&N Love a Book?
Does Marcella Smith ever tire of the ocean of self-published titles crashing against her shore? “Actually, I love the ocean. I just returned from a trip to the beach. I like the coming and going of the waves, the changing colors of the tides. We’re always looking for that bottle with a message in it.”
Reluctantly, she admits that many of the books seen by the four people in her department are “overpriced, poorly produced, badly packaged, with no marketing plan,” but she is remarkably optimistic for a person who has to deal with so many titles and such inexperienced publishers. “We are committed to finding the best possible way for Barnes & Noble and small publishers to work together.”
Asked what barriers or filters B&N has installed to screen the flood of self-published books, Smith responds curtly, “None. There are no fees. There are no hoops to jump through. We like to see a finished book and a marketing plan. There is this myth that we are some corporate monolith, and that myth intimidates people from sending their books for consideration. It’s not David versus Goliath. We’re on the same team. If the phone rings, and I’m here, I answer it. We are wide open.”
Asked what qualities position a book and publisher to take off, Smith replies, “You have to know who the customer is. We’re all bookselling veterans in this department. We love it when we open a package, and there is no question who the customer is.” Pressed for examples, she says, “When Don Tubesing at Pfeifer-Hamilton sent me The Quiltmaker’s Gift, I thought, This book is going to go, and we got on it. They’ve sold a hundred thousand copies. It’s still on my shelf here.
“Sleeping Bear Press in Michigan is another good example,” she adds. “They produce alphabet books for kids, like G Is for Granite, which is about New Hampshire, the Granite State; and L Is for Lobster, which is about Maine. They’re just beautiful books, and I could tell right away we were going to sell the heck out of them. Because they know who the customer is–teachers, parents, and kids–and they nailed all three.”
Confessions of a Baseball Slut
Asked how she unwinds from the intensity of the book business in New York, Smith admits, “I’m a baseball slut. I grew up watching the Detroit Tigers, and when I moved away from Michigan, I lost touch with baseball too. Then I watched the 1975 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the Cincinnati Reds, and I was hooked again. I only get to one or two games a year, but I’ll watch baseball all day Saturday and Sunday if I can, and I die a little when baseball season ends each year.”
Are there useful comparisons between baseball and bookselling? “Well, about 30 percent of the titles submitted to my department get accepted,” Smith says; “that number is a lot higher than most people think. And a 300 is a great major league batting average, so I think we’re doing pretty well.”
Director of Small Press Relations
Barnes & Noble, Inc.
122 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10011
© 2004 by Steve O’Keefe
Steve O’Keefe is the executive director of Patron Saint Productions, Inc., a publishing consultancy (www.patronsaintpr.com). His latest book is Complete Guide to Internet Publicity (Wiley, 2002). Please send comments or suggestions about PMA’s Publishing Profiles to email@example.com.