A note on selling to shops

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In this section:

    Case study in selling to shops: Neil Levin

    Neil Levinused to run our sales in North America:


    In 1989, Kevin Costner starred in the movie Field of Dreams. The movie was about an Iowa farmer who hears a voice in his corn field telling him, "If you build it, he will come." He interprets this message as an instruction to build a baseball field on his farm, upon which appear the ghosts of the baseball player Shoeless Joe Jackson and the other seven Chicago Black Sox players banned from baseball for throwing the 1919 World Series.

    I have been selling books for 30 years. I have literally sold millions of books. First, as the junior sales guy calling on the key national chain buyers. Then up through the ranks of the publishing business. As the Publisher of Time Life Trade Books, I published 100 new books a year and had books on the NY Times Bestseller lists. At National Book Network I managed 200+ publishers and an international sales force selling 2500 new titles each year, with over $150 million in sales.

    I have seen successful books and many, many books that never made it out of their original shipping carton.

    Since early 2010, I have had the pleasure of working with John Hunt and his new Books program. I manage the sales of the JHP Books titles in the US and Canada. I am a believer in what John is trying to do and I think that the authors that publish with one of the many imprints are making the right choice.

    When you submit a proposal to us, the publisher is the first one to evaluate your book. Based upon his or her decision the project will move to the next level of Reader Reports, which give us a better idea of the quality of the book. At this point, I am often asked to evaluate your information to gauge the potential success of the book in the North American market. Having done this a number of times, I have created a list of important factors that I review.

    They are:

    1. The quality of the writing
    2. Has the author published any other books?
    3. Besides their publishing history, are they a recognizable personality or thought leader in their category?
    4. Do they have a marketing platform?
    5. What is their marketing plan?
    6. Do they have any endorsements?
    7. What is the retail price of their book?
    8. Intangibles

    But before I look at each of the factors, there is one big exception to my evaluation process. Regardless of my view about the potential success of a book, I have seen countless examples of authors break out as a result of excessive and extreme hard work. They got in front of every potential customer and media person whenever and wherever they could. They burnt out their shoes. And they sold books.

    The ingredients of success

    • The quality of the writing: based upon the Reader Reports I may add a point or two, or take away a point or two, from my overall score.
    • Has the author published any other books? Most of these items on my list deal with the credibility of the author as a voice that should be listened to. The first thing a bookstore buyer will want to know is what you have published in the past. What are the raw sales numbers (I have access to Nielsen book sales data for the US)? What kind of publisher were you with? While these questions are what a bookstore buyer will ask, the answers will also have an impact—consciously or unconsciously—on a consumer.
    • Besides their publishing, are they a recognizable personality? Not every author comes to us with a list of best sellers. Quite the opposite. We publish many first-time authors. So if you didn’t publish before, I will look intently at your Author Information. I will want to know if you are a leader in your field. Do you have extensive scholarly credentials? Have you published articles or other content? Those details will have a bearing on how I grade this question. Also, it is very important that you supply the information about where you were born, educated, and currently live .
    • Do they have a marketing platform? Your marketing platform can include as many of the following as you can maintain: your Facebook page, blog, website and YouTube channel. You can use these platforms to take the marketing of your book to the next level. We could spend days talking about each one of them but the key points to remember are that they need to be current, include bonus material, offer a way for the reader to interact with the author (and vice versa), and a way for you to collect names of the people who visit your page or website. The key phrase is “ that you can maintain.” These platforms lose their power when the information on them is dated.
    • What is their marketing plan? Do you have a target consumer? Do you really know them? What they read? Where they go? What they like? What they bought before? You can’t create a marketing plan for your book unless you know who you are marketing to. No one can afford a blanket marketing plan that is aimed at “people who read.” When I look at the plan, I am considering store visits, articles or blog posts, speaking at conventions, media coverage, whether a PR person or agency has been hired, appearances, etc. I want to know that there is a smart effort being made to sell the book and support retailers who are bringing stock into their warehouses.
    • Do they have any endorsements? If you haven’t written any books before and you have a difficult time in documenting your own scholarship that supports the writing of your book, what do you do? What you do is get endorsements from best-selling authors or from thought leaders in your field. The power of endorsements is amazing. Chain-store buyers consider an endorsement from a best-selling author as good as gold and while a consumer may not know all of the authors’ names the right endorsement for a book can make the difference between high sales and low sales.
    • What is the retail price of their book? Since much of the pricing of your book is out of your control, this can be a challenge. We price according to the extent of your book. But we let you know how that process works and you should know that consumer products, yes, including books, are price-sensitive. Part of the craziness we see in our business is due to the instability of traditional pricing models.
    • Intangibles: This is the catch-all question. What about the commercial viability of the concept, the number of potential customers, the clarity of the book’s concept and marketing approach, is it in a category that has a strong backlist potential, is it a “basics” book (they sell well), is it a personal narrative (they do not sell very well).

    Other factors that affect the potential of your book in the market:

    • Competing books: There’s a level of credibility that is associated with the selection of these titles. If this is your first book it really can’t be Harry Potter. We are looking for a book which is truly a competing book. One that occupies a similar space where comparisons could be drawn between the two books. Chain-bookstore buyers use this number to gauge how many copies of a book they should bring into their stores. Another point about competing books: know the books in your section. This is much easier to do, of course, in a physical bookstore, but if you go into a shop, look where your book will be shelved. Look at the other books. Most of them are solid backlist titles that stay around because they sell. When a bookstore buyer evaluates a title, one of the first questions they need to answer is “which book am I taking off my shelf so this new one has a home?”
    • Sales Estimate: See above. Please be realistic. If you are unsure, better to say that instead of a crazy number.
    • Unique Selling Points: How unique are they?

    Marketing and selling your book should happen long before the first word hits the screen.

    Why are you writing this book?

    Why are you writing the book to sell it or use it as a marketing tool – or to just give it away to family and friends?

    If your intention is to actually sell your book, don’t ever forget that your book is a consumer product. I don’t mean to denigrate the effort you are investing in writing this book or the subject or content of your book, but writing a book without thinking about how it will be sold is a way to fill up a warehouse.

    A marketing tool can be a professor writing a book for a class or publishing for tenure. They may be intending to use the book to disseminate their theories to build a wider audience for his or her ideas. Or, it can be a consultant who uses a book as a companion manual to his or her seminar. Or, the book could be used by a MBS practitioner who wants to build followers and add clients.

    In each of these cases authors must have a clear, detailed plan. Don’t start writing without one.

    An author responds to his or her inner voice to write a book.

    Just because it's written, doesn’t mean that the book will sell.

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