The Rep Route to Nontraditional Sales
by Linda Carlson
How do you sell more books? You expand your market—to more bookstores, and usually to more retailers overall: cookware shops, baby boutiques, card and gift shops, maybe even neighborhood hair salons.
Sounds good, doesn’t it? Especially when you know that nonbook retailers seldom get discounts of more than 50 percent, usually pay their own freight, and buy nonreturnable.
What could be better?
There’s only one catch: selling into these markets is often far more challenging than selling into traditional book channels.
Nonbook retailers seldom buy the way booksellers do. They don’t buy from book reps, from book distributors, or from book wholesalers. Instead, they usually work through gift, gourmet, or other specialty sales reps, independents working geographic territories on a commission basis.
Some specialty retailers buy through niche wholesalers or distributors, such as New Leaf Distributors (new leaf-dist.com), which sells to new age stores on consignment terms like those of book wholesalers; Nutri-Books (nutribooks.com), which sells to natural foods and new age stores; and Integral Yoga (yogahealthbooks.com), which sells to natural foods markets and yoga instructors. Camping-gear retailers may buy from outdoor-gear wholesalers. And, of course, some specialty retailers buy direct from publishers (you can read about that in next month’s issue).
Specialty Sales Rep Basics
It’s unlikely that a rep will be interested in a single-title publisher.“A rep needs to be able to sell more than one title for you, and needs to see the possibility of future sales with your company,” says Brenda Knight, who works with 11 gift-rep groups, representing a total of 120 salespeople, as associate publisher in Red Wheel/Weiser’s San Francisco office. “Remember, books aren’t like candles and widgets—a rep invests a lot in learning about each publisher and each new season’s books.” And, she points out, gift reps, unlike book reps, have the expense of showrooms and displays for each line they carry.
At Independent Publishers Group (IPG) in Chicago, gift-sales manager Michael Riley says that many gift-rep groups are willing to look at a publisher only if it has at least 25 titles for the gift market.
Not every book is appropriate for the gift market, and generously illustrated hardbound books with lots of color are most likely to sell there. “More pictures than text,” says Riley, “and the value of an appealing cover cannot be overemphasized. In the gift market, books are merchandised on the basis of their covers.”
Both he and Knight stress the importance of high quality. Knight likes to see ribbon markers or (especially with journals) ribbon ties. Riley notes that trim sizes can be nontraditional, but that books shouldn’t be too long—perhaps a maximum of 200 pages. In general, most PMA members with gift-sales experience agreed with Tanya Hall, the L.A.-based special projects manager for the Greenleaf Book Group, who reports, “Trim size is important. Smaller books—5″× 8″ or smaller—generally fare better simply because there’s not a lot of space in the gift/nonbook stores for book displays. Books are large items compared to the shot glasses, magnets, and snow globes.”
Genres, Life Span, and Packaging
Some genres are not usually sold into the gift or specialty market. At IPG, where each gift-book catalog may include 550 titles, children’s board and story books are the most important category by far, with books for older children difficult to sell and young adult books almost impossible. Be aware, however, that the children’s-book category is also the most competitive.
For IPG, as for many others, regional books do well in nonbook stores. Other top categories are humor, food, and wine; gardening and home; and, to a lesser degree, inspirational books for women. Kitschy retro items are also often popular with Greenleaf customers, Hall adds.
A title’s life span with a gift merchant is short.“Gift stores don’t differentiate between frontlist and backlist; what matters to them is that the book is new to their customers. Usually they’ll buy for one or two seasons and then never buy that title again,” Riley reports. The only typical exception: regional titles.
A book may sell better if it’s packaged with typical gift-store merchandise. Colorado-based Rein Designs, which sells children’s souvenir shirts and books in resort areas, does well when it packages a book with a shirt. Bobbie Hinman of Maryland-based Best Fairy Books has been able to get both New York and West Coast gift reps to handle her single title (“Fairies are hot now,” other publishers agreed), but she reports that reps have said additional products such as fairy dolls would make her line more appealing.
Your price points must make sense for spur-of-the-moment purchases. Riley defines every book sale in a gift store as an impulse purchase because people don’t go to stationery stores, baby boutiques, bridal shops, and the like to buy books. They may buy an inspirational title, a picture book, or a wedding-etiquette guide, but the purchase of that item is seldom planned. Because it is an impulse purchase, the book must be attractively priced. He prefers $19.95 or less, perhaps $14.95.
What’s ideal? The price point Knight suggests is $9.95, especially for “cash register” books, those displayed by the checkout counter and expected to be last-minute purchases.
It makes sense to share easy accounts.“If you have both house and rep accounts, it’s tempting to retain the easy accounts in-house, but it’s actually more savvy to give those to your gift group. Then the reps start making money off your line right away, and they’ll work it harder and harder each season,” says John Tintera, who set up nonbook-rep sales for other publishers prior to joining the New York-based Osprey Publishing as sales and marketing director.
When RedWheel/Weiser takes a direct order from a gift store, it passes the contact information along to the appropriate rep—and that rep gets a commission on the sale, even if the rep didn’t consummate it. “Who knows what the rep may have done to break ground for the sale?” says Knight.
You will need to pay sales reps as much as 15 percent, cut checks promptly, and protect territories,since sales reps pay all their own expenses and work only on commission. “Don’t skimp on the commission rate,” Tintera cautions. “Because of the overhead for the showroom, the individual reps keep less than 10 percent. Paying less than 15 percent gives reps just one more reason not to push your line.”
Pay promptly, too, Riley advises. “Many publishers pay in 60 to 90 days, which is one reason many specialty reps do not want to carry books. If publishers paid 30 days after an order shipped, they would get more interest from reps,” says Dennis Hayes, who spent more than 17 years at Crossing Press and Ten Speed Press working with gift and gourmet markets sales reps before opening BarnDance Productions in upstate New York to serve special markets.
Unlike in the book trade, where publishers usually wait 90 or 120 days for payment after wholesalers sell their books, nonbook retailers often pay when they place an order. You can expect chains like Hallmark stores to pay at 30 days, and national chains like Macy’s to pay in 60 to 90 days, says Robert Brekke of Publishers Design Group, Roseville, CA.
It’s vital that you provide supportin the form of catalogs, sell sheets, samples, display units, regular specials, email bulletins, sales training—and author visits.
“Always provide your reps with a focused and easy-to-sell-from brochure,” advises Tom Wierzbicki, president and CEO at Martingale & Co., a quilting and fiber arts publisher in a Seattle suburb. “Make their life as easy as possible and your results will improve.”
Your promotional piece should show the book cover and provide bibliographic information, a brief description, and relevant marketing points in bulleted format, Hall says, noting that a single sheet might be acceptable to some rep groups.
At Rein Designs, Rick Dilz phones each rep’s 50 to 100 existing accounts when a new My Grandma Can Do Anything title is forthcoming, to alert retailers that the reps have a new product, and he offers specials that include free freight for quantity buys, which appeals especially to the company’s Hawaiian customers.
At Red Wheel/Weiser, Knight issues a weekly “rep rap” email newsletter that describes the current retailer specials (which sometimes include extra discounts), compliments from readers, and authors’ upcoming media and store appearances. “I want to stay in their faces, make sure they remember my books when they’re making calls,” she says.
Knight also keeps Red Wheel foremost in retailers’ minds with a strategy that’s common in the book trade but unusual in gift stores: having authors tour. A recent tour by Mary Anne Radmacher for her first book, Lean Forward into Your Life, included gift shows and store visits. “Instead of ordering five copies as they might otherwise do, stores ordered—and sold—between 50 and 500,” Knight reports about the Oregon artist and writer, already well known for her greeting cards and posters.
At Word Forge Books in Pennsylvania, the free corrugated counter display is often what convinces a retailer to carry Mary Shafer’s single regional history title, so both she and her rep use it in sales calls. For each press run of 2,500, she has purchased 50 units. Her rep delivers them to his customers when they order, or when the originals wear out and need to be replaced. “The displays sell books,” says Shafer.
She estimates that, when labeled, the displays cost about $3.50 apiece. Each holds six copies face out, or eight copies spine out. Shafer uses her laser printer to create display signage and small posters for her rep to give retailers. “He was absolutely thrilled with a full-color poster for point of purchase, and retailers occasionally ask for replacements. I change the design each time supplies get low, so the retailers don’t always get the same thing again.”
Some distributors and wholesalers mandate such support, along with advertising in their catalogs and on their Web sites. Reps also may bill you for showroom space and your share of gift-show expenses.
Preparing for the Sales Pitch
Want to pitch your books to a rep? Here are some recommendations from publishers with several years of experience selling books through nonbook sales reps:
Research rep groups. Contact the gift marts, where the reps have their showrooms; the major ones are in Atlanta, Dallas, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Denver, and Minneapolis. If a gift mart doesn’t permit guests, ask a friendly retailer if you can tag along.
Look at the each showroom’s merchandise and how it’s packaged. Ask yourself if your books match a rep’s lines in theme, quality, and presentation.
“Talk to showroom managers. Start with the two or three gift groups in each territory that specialize in books,” advises Tintera. “If you strike out, try groups that specialize in lines related to the subject matter of your book. Always remember that in the gift world, books are just another form of merchandise. You must think of your book almost as a piece of furniture and be conscious of how it will look flat on a table in a boutique.”
Evaluate gift reps in action at gift shows, Brekke advises. The major shows are held at showrooms in the cities listed above and in New York and Boston. (For details on who is admitted to these shows, see sites such as seattlegift.com/buyercredentials.html and nyigf.com.)
“Watch how the reps approach the buyers and see what lines get the most activity. Bring your prototype and marketing materials with you. Ask to speak to the owners of rep groups and find out not only whether your product fits but also about their contract and about commission rates. Take notes, and after the show, visit the permanent showrooms. See which publishers the reps handle and call those publishers for references.”
Another suggestion from Hall of the Greenleaf Book Group: “Sometimes you can provide the mart with a detailed description of your line, and its staff will distribute the information to the rep groups and have interested parties contact you.”
Hayes starts with his target customers. “I find out which sales reps they like and respect, and then I phone those reps to see if they are taking on any new lines. If they aren’t, I ask who they recommend.”
This strategy can also be useful if there is no gift mart near you. Ask local gift-store owners how they buy merchandise that appears to be a match with your books. Use a search engine to look up the rep groups they mention and see what other lines they carry. (One publisher suggests researching reps with the Spoor & Associates Inc. National Rep Directory, available at spoorconsultants.com; it costs about $150, and many libraries don’t have it.)
When you have targeted one or more rep groups, cold call to determine who makes the buying decisions. Rather than the head of the group, it may be a rep who specializes in books or themes, or the showroom assistant.
Network your way to an introduction. If you have colleagues whose businesses work with reps that seem appropriate for your books, try to obtain a personal referral. Relationships established in previous jobs may be valuable too, as Sheila Simmons reports about her start-up, Great American Publishers, founded in March 2006, and already generating 60 percent of its sales from the gift market:
“My partner, Annette Goode, and I knew so many of these customers from years at Quail Ridge Press. That connection definitely helped—in many cases all it took was a phone call reintroducing ourselves and introducing the new company. Once we got past that, the fact that we are producing books similar to what we know they purchase (based on our previous experience), and that we are producing professional, high-quality books, made the sale almost a given.”
Understand the gift-store buying cycle. Purchase decisions are made during the gift-show seasons, which are January and February for spring and summer books, and June through August for Christmas and winter. Purchases are almost always based on finished books, so you’ll need at least a short run of new titles before the shows.
Negotiate each rep contract involving catalog sales with an eye to your bottom line.“Some catalogs require more than a 50 percent discount, and in addition you’ll have the reps’ commission plus fulfillment costs,” Brekke at Publishers Design Group points out. “Packaging, labeling, and shipping out 50 to 100 small parcels a day can overwhelm a small publisher.”
If your fulfillment center charges $1.50 per book, as Brekke’s does, you could be left with $2 to cover all your costs—royalties, book editing, design and production, marketing, overhead—on a $10 book after you provide a $5 discount to the catalog merchant and pay the $1.50 commission.
Be able to sell the members of a rep group on your books.“Getting a rep group to take you on is less than half the battle,” Tintera stresses. “The real work starts the day you go ‘live’ at your first gift show, when you’re required to do a five-minute training session for 10 to 15 cynical sales reps. Most reps have their bread-and-butter lines, so even though their boss has said they have to sell your books, you have to convince them they’ll be able to make money with your titles.”
Linda Carlson (lindacarlson.com) writes from Seattle.