By popular demand: Sales force of 1 • 20 February 2007 • The SnowBlog

By popular demand: Sales force of 1

          lone.jpg The people have spoken (see 'Hating the UberList' comments)! Here is a post combining two of the requests - how we manage with a sales force of one and whether sales reps are a necessity or not. More posts will follow about the other requested areas soon. 

To set the scene: Snowbooks doesn't have a sales force. In the beginning that wasn't through lack of trying. Back in 2003 I tried hard to interest companies like Derek Searle, and publishers who offered a third-party deal, in our little fledgling company. I promised 10 publications and sales of £150,000 a year. People couldn't have been keener to run a mile - and, as I recall, were bloody patronising. 

So like all small business we did what we thought best to survive. I thought back to my days as a buyer at Superdrug and B&Q (oh what a murky past I have) and wrote a list of all the things I wished my suppliers had done to make my life easier. All I had wanted, back at B&Q, was to look good in my boss' eyes. It was a vicious environment and management had to believe I was doing a good job - and I needed my suppliers to help me to convince them. I was working 16 hours a day, easily, and weekends too - and to save precious hours I wanted suppliers to stop pestering me for meetings - what would we say in a meeting that we couldn't say on the phone? They just wanted to tell their bosses that they'd 'had a meeting with B&Q'. I wanted them to stop bullshitting about how their product was going to revolutionise hardwood floor cleaning as we knew it, or whatever, and just give me a realistic and accurate forecast of what it was going to sell. I wanted them to promise to fill in the new product forms correctly - once the details were keyed into SAP it took about a month to correct any mistakes. I wanted them to just agree with me that they were going to have to sell their products to me at just above cost, rather than dragging out the inevitable. There were plenty of other, say, bin-bag suppliers out there and it was a buyers' market - and we were B&Q, for god's sake, we could sell a million binbags in a week if we wanted, so they were still going to get rich. And so on - basically, I wanted them to support me. 

So Gilly and I sat and wrote this list of all the things a supplier could do for a buyer, and then we wrote an information pack laying out all of this stuff. We included realistic forecasts, and all the bibliographic data, nicely formatted. We wrote about the target market and the research we'd done to make sure the book was a safe bet. We promised to give the buyers as much margin as we could possibly afford without actually losing money - if they felt our books were profitable we would be good suppliers. We promised good supply chain service levels - sale or return, short lead times, correct pallet ti-hi's, all the usual. We looked up what their strategic objectives were - all public domain stuff on the net, but it was a job and a half to track down various presentations and press releases - and made sure that our books were going to help them achieve their goals. We printed it out on nice card - about 30 pages of A5 - put it in a nice frosted binder... and posted it off. 

And waited. 

For a day. Then (lovely, precious) Susie Doore emailed from Waterstone's and invited us in for a meeting. Her and (lovely, precious) Scott* who was then there too put our first three books on 3 for 2 - one of which utterly tanked (I must do a blog post about that, entitled 'How we made every mistake possible when we published a particular book one time but at least we never made any of those mistakes again'), one of which did ok and one of which went on to sell 50,000 copies. We were on the way. 

So that is the story of how we got going. As you grow a business, though, you start to think about how you can improve processes, and whether you need to take on more resource to do so. One of the areas we've thought about is sales reps. There is no doubt that a good team would increase subs - it stands to reason, as there would be more people out there selling books in. Our queries are around sell*through*, though. 

Say a buyer buys 1500 units of a book from me and (kindly) puts it on 3 for 2. A stack of 10 or so books find their way onto the front of store tables. Hopefully each store will sell at least 8 of those - because the cover is compelling, we've got some good quotes on the back, an interesting blurb and so on. The odd person might buy it because of a good review, too. 

What if a sales rep sells in those same 10 books to a store? There are the same number of books sitting on the table - will that make readers buy an extra 2 copies? Readers don't know whether a sales team sold them in, or just me. All else being equal, I don't quite see what difference a sales rep makes - aside from taking a healthy cut of our turnover. I can imagine, however, a sales rep oversubbing a book which then suffers from higher returns - or languishes in store, making us look bad when someone from head office looks at the stock balance.  

I would have a sales force if it meant making life easier for my customers - but I don't think it does. Very few indies see reps any more; the large retailers buy centrally. I suppose at heart I don't like the inefficiency of it either - sending 10 people out to have 10 conversations about the same thing, when one conversation with a central buyer would achieve the same goal. 

So - have I answered the question? (I'm doing an Open University degree at the moment so I ask myself that a lot.)  We get by on a sales force of 1 by making sure our bibliographic data is timely and correct, and by trying to do what retailers want us to do. Would we sell more books if we had a rep force? Probably, but we'd also risk higher returns. And would ceding control over such an important area of the business be a good idea? 

* I was once explaining to Rob who the important people in bookselling were. I refered to one buying controller as 'the Scott Pack of [insert retailer name]'. Rob asked who Scott Pack was. I replied 'He's the Scott Pack of Waterstone's.' I am funny. 


The SnowBlog is one of the oldest publishing blogs, started in 2003, and it's been through various content management systems over the years. A 2005 techno-blunder meant we lost the early years, but the archives you're reading now go all the way back to 2005.

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