Wednesday, March 4, 2009

In Praise of the Sales Force

by Cory Doctorow

Hardly a day goes by that I don't get an e-mail from someone who's ready to reinvent publishing using the Internet, and the ideas are often good ones, but they lack a key element: a sales force. That is, a small army of motivated, personable, committed salespeople who are on a first-name basis with every single bookstore owner/buyer in the country, people who lay down a lot of shoe-leather as they slog from one shop to the next, clutching a case filled with advance reader copies, cover-flats, and catalogs. When I worked in bookstores, we had exceptional local reps, like Eric, the Bantam guy who knew that I was exactly the right clerk to give an advance copy of Snow Crash to if he wanted to ensure a big order and lots of hand-selling when the book came in (He also made sure that I got ARCs of every Kathe Koja and Ian McDonald novel — Eric, if you're reading this, thanks!).

This matters. This is the kind of longitudinal, deep, expensive expertise that gets books onto shelves, into the minds of the clerks, onto the recommended tables at the front of the store. It's labor-intensive and highly specialized, and without it, your book's sales only come from people who've already heard of it (through word of mouth, advertising, a review, etc.) and who are either motivated enough to order it direct, or lucky enough to chance on a copy on a shelf at a store that ordered it based on reputation or sales literature alone, without any hand-holding or cajoling.

The best definition I've heard of "publishing" comes from my editor, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, who says, "publishing is making a work public." That is, identifying a work and an audience, and taking whatever steps are necessary to get the two together (you'll note that by this definition, Google is a fantastic publisher). Publishing is not printing, or marketing, or editorial, or copy-editing, or typesetting. It may comprise some or all of these things, but you could have the world's best-edited, most beautiful, well-bound book in the world, and without a strategy for getting it into the hands of readers, all it's good for is insulating the attic. (This is the unfortunate discovery made by many customers of vanity publishers.)

http://www.locusmag.com/Features/2009/03/cory-doctorow-in-praise-of-sales-force.html

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