How to sell books
I have received a number of emails of late from fellow small publishers asking for advice on how to sell books. Here are my thoughts. The first thing is that sales aren't the responsibility of the sales team: a successful book starts at the editorial stage. I know it sounds totally obvious but it's true to say that if you publish what people want, they will be more likely to buy it. Conversely, if you publish books that people don't want, you are going to have to persuade them that they want it. And with the recession closing in, even if a person wants an item more than anything, it's no guarantee that they'll buy it as they have to also buy the week's food shop and new shoes for the nipper. So if you want to sell lots of books, don't publish edgy contemporary novellas, slim volumes of poetry or 600 page biographies of unknown people. Publish those things by all means if you want to: but we're talking about selling books, here, not publishing them. Persuading people that they want something is costly and, as an independent publisher, an additional cost that you can do without. And before you start commenting that you live for slim volumes of poetry and I'm talking rot, consider the fact that you're reading a publisher's blog. This means you are more likely to be in the small minority who regularly buys poetry - and indeed books. We are talking sales sufficient to pay the bills here - at least 3000 copies.
So say you have a book which is entirely needful and at least 20,000 people in the UK would love nothing more than to buy it. The next stage is to make them aware of it - if they don't know it exists, they can't know that they want it. Snowbooks do this in a very targetted, focused way: we aim to have our books on display in shops. Sounds facile again but there are plenty of other perfectly valid ways: catalogues, online only, through trade shows and so on. However, we know about shops having been retailers before starting Snowbooks, and so shops it is. And now the big question that everyone asks: how do you get Waterstone's to stock your book?
OK, take a deep breath and step back. Imagine you are a buyer at Waterstone's. You have responsibility to produce, say, 800,000 worth of sales in a year. You also have to manage all the admin of your category, which involves line-by-line analysis of stock, sales and margin every week. You have to manage all the promotions, which means lots of forms to complete, send to publishers for agreement, chase, action and file. You have to respond to the 30 or more calls a day from stores asking when such and such a book will be in, and why their allocation hasn't turned up. You have to deal with all the other departments in the business, from space planning to store ops. You have to manage all this admin at the detailed level and still make sure that your category sales are at least 40,000 a week - that's a lot of books. Put simply, you are a very busy, pressurised person.
Now imagine that you get a phone call from a new publisher. 'Hi,' says the new publisher, 'we're a new publisher and have just published our first three books.' Does your heart soar with excitement? Do you relish the possibilities from these new three books? Probably not - you think 'great, three more new line forms to fill in, plus a new supplier form, plus I'm going to have to explain every last obvious thing to this newbie.' So you say, politely 'Great -
what are they?' The publisher then launches into a 20 minute (unless stopped) ramble on how great these three books are. Tip: we all think our books are great. It is not a unique selling point. Another tip: when is the shopper, in store, ever going to hear your 20 minute pitch? The book should do the talking, not you. If you also go on to ask 'how can I get my book in your stores', then you need to educate yourself first. You do NOT ask the busy buyer, the key to your success, to hold your hand. You want to do all your research first, then present them with the finished pitch - which should be:
- an AI. See our AIs on this website, and many other publishers', for ideas.
- a finished copy of the book. The book should be of a standard size (A format - 178 x 111mm for mass market, B format - 129 x 198mm for literary), on standard paper (ensobelle 70gsm, or bulky news 55gsm), with standard finishes (spot UV, matt lam, perhaps embossing and foiling) and with a standard cover design (find a similar book in store and copy all the main elements, including barcode box layout, font size of the blurb, types of font and graphic used for different genres) and standard layout (open a book and copy the layout. No 10mm first line indents, no oversize/ undersize font.) You want the book to look like the sort of books the buyer buys all the time. Now is not the time to be changing the world - you don't have the money. Make your book the best example of its type of book on the market, whilst sticking to the basic rules as above, and you're onto a winner.
- a catalogue, if you like, which gives the buyer a sense of your new company. Even if you have only one book, a four page catalogue can send the right message. It should contain the details of your distributor and your own contact details. You must have a distributor if you want to sell direct to the chains: you have to be able to accept EDI, and retailers don't want the hassle of setting up a new EDI link. They want to use an existing one from one of the existing distributors. Making your pitch to a distributor is as important as making it to the retailer - you want a good, big one and you have to persuade them that they will make money out of you. In other words, that your books will sell.
So although this is shaping up to be a long post, I hope the message is simple. You do not 'get Waterstone's to stock your book'; you publish books that Waterstone's wants to stock, and you make it as easy as possible for them to do so. You do not phone important buyers asking for basic advice: you read blogs like this one, the Bookseller, you join the IPG and ask all your questions of people who can help you. You get your supply chain sorted out; you agree without hesitation to any and all terms (60 days, sale or return, 55% discount) - you are a delight to deal with. You don't phone them - they're busy. You don't bribe them - they're professionals. You don't publish low quality books, but nor do you use very expensive paper or avant-garde designs. You don't go in with an attitude, thinking that your books deserve to be bought and that the buyer doesn't know what she's doing. Make yourself look as much like Harper Collins, be a considerate, well-informed person, and put yourself in the buyers' shoes, and chances are both you and Waterstone's can make some money.
Some details to add to the above.
Waterstone's have a team of central buyers, but prefer to buy from smaller publishers via the wholesalers, Gardners and Bertrams. You can sell just as many books through this route, so treat the buyers at Gardners and Bertrams as well as you'd treat the chains. Post your AIs and an introductory letter to the New Publisher buyer at each company and it'll go to the right person, or join the IPG and find out the name of the present job holder.
Some good distributors are Littlehampton Book Services, TBS, Macmillan and Turnaround. You have to promise them you'll sell a lot of books, and so you need to demonstrate your ambition and professionalism to them. Do your research at the IPG before phoning up.
Use a proper book printer, not a local copy shop who rarely do books - it's less expensive and results in an authentic book. We use Haynes in Sparkford (email me for contact details); there's also the CPI group including Cox and Wyman, Mackays and Bookmarque - all great. The smaller run printers - Biddles, Anthony Rowe etc - are ok but remember not to overspec your book. Ideally, buy a book in store, send it to your prospective printer and ask them to use the same paper stock and printing process. You should be quoted less than 1 a copy for a print run of 2000 books with 4 colour covers and all the finishes (spot UV, embossing and foiling) - considerably less if you omit the finishes, but take a look in store - very few books omit all finishes.
I hope this post doesn't sound too stroppy - I hope it helps someone. I owe everything to Scott Pack and Susie Doore, the then buyers at Waterstone's when we were starting out, and know that if you can impress people from the start you've got a good chance of getting to year 5 of your business. I hope by sharing our approach someone else can get the chances we've had.