Show and tell

How we get our books into bookstores

Things have been rough at Sutherland House this summer. We had a production mishap. A book went to the printer without captions on its photo pages. We had to scrap the whole press run, fix the captions, and then find press time to reprint, which was next to impossible. There is no slack in the system right now. Friesen’s, maybe the biggest Canadian book printer, and the best for hardcover books, is not taking any new bookings before February. We needed our books this fall. We juggled projects and deadlines and managed to muddle through but not without a lot of pain and lost time.

It put a damper on what is otherwise shaping up to be a very strong fall for us, and it also put us behind for our sales conference this week.

When most people think about book sales, they think of the transaction at the Indigo cash register or on Amazon. But that’s not what sales conferences are about, at least not directly.

Before a retailer can sell a book to a customer, someone has to sell the book to the retailer. For that purpose, publishers employ sales representatives to make the rounds of independent booksellers and chain stores. The reps try to convince the retail buyers to order lots of our books for inclusion in their stock.

All of this happens way ahead of the actual release of the book. Our sales conference this week was for next spring’s books. It’s not convenient for a small shop like us to be working so far ahead. We’re concentrating right now on ensuring that our fall books do well. It’s difficult to think ahead to next spring, but it has to be done because retailers (especially the chains) drive the process and they make their choices many months in advance of on-sale dates. (The retailers also get 50% of the proceeds from each sale, and they can return any unsold product for a full refund, which is to say that booksellers have it sweet).

Sutherland House doesn’t have its own sales representatives. Only the very largest publishers such as Penguin Random House and HarperCollins have dedicated teams. The rest of us outsource our sales. The firm that represents us in Canada is the Canadian Manda Group, and we feel very fortunate to have them on our side. They’re excellent.

Most of their work is with brick-and-mortar retailers, both chains and independent retailers, which is where roughly a third of our books are sold. (More than half of Sutherland House’s books sell through Amazon, and no one really sells books into Amazon. Its algorithms do most of the work in deciding which books it will stock and how many. We also sell a good chunk of books directly to consumers through events, launches, and our website).

The bricks-and-mortar part of the business isn’t what it used to be, but it’s still crucial, not only for the revenue that it generates but for the visibility our books get in the stores. So we take our sales conferences seriously. We do two a year with Manda (for our spring and fall books), and two a year with our US representatives, Baker & Taylor Publishing Services (also spring and fall).

The idea of the conference is to arm your sales representatives with the information and excitement they need to succeed in their pitches to retailers. We show up (on Zoom these days, rather than in person) with a slide presentation displaying our spring list, which for 2022 is a half dozen books. We show off our covers (although most of them are not yet finished. We talk about the content of the books (which are still being edited). We discuss our plans for promoting each title (these are often already underway).

Welcome to the 115th edition of SHuSH, the weekly newsletter of Sutherland House Books. If you’re new here, hit the button—it’s free:

One of our spring books is Eric Reguly’s Ghosts of War: Chasing My Father’s Legend Through Vietnam. Eric is a Globe foreign correspondent. His father, Robert, was a star correspondent for the Toronto Star in the 1960s and 1970s. He became famous for tracking down Gerda Munsinger (below), the “Mata Hari of the Cold War, an East German prostitute and alleged Soviet spy who had affairs with a couple of Canadian cabinet ministers; she was believed to be dead by the time her antics were revealed in 1966 but Robert found her very much alive in an apartment in West Germany and won the first of his three National Newspaper Awards.

He had many other great scoops but the highlight of Robert’s career was his coverage of the Vietnam war, which he saw up close and intimate, as reporters did back then, jumping in and out of helicopters with US troops whenever they felt like it.

Long fascinated by Robert’s career and press coverage of the war, Eric retraced his father’s footsteps in Vietnam a couple of years ago. That became the centerpiece of a larger story that reviews Robert’s career, the toll it took on his personal life, and the impact of his constant story-chasing on his family. It is part biography of Robert and part memoir by Eric, who grew up in his father’s shadow, pursued his own (celebrated) journalism career, and tried to avoid the personal damage that can come with the single-minded pursuit of stories.

I relayed all this to the sales reps and talked about target audiences for the book, which range from the general non-fiction reader in Canada to Vietnam war enthusiasts in the US (there are a lot of them). I mentioned some publicity we’ve arranged and that the Globe is going to host the book launch and run an excerpt of Ghosts of War.

Ideally, a publisher wants to have covers designed, titles and subtitles set, and book descriptions (from, say, inside the front jacket, or your Amazon page) polished before going into a sales conference. As mentioned, we’re behind, so the draft of the cover of Ghosts of War I used for the presentation (above) is unfinished. It is a photo montage, and we montaged the wrong kind of chopper. That will have to change, but the photograph of Robert will stay and that’s generally what the cover will look like.

Manda represents a bunch of publishers and its sales conference runs over four days. We were fortunate to be first up on day one; we had the Manda team at its freshest. They asked good questions and gave us great feedback on our covers and titles, which we always take seriously. The sales reps have a hard-headed sense of what works in the book marketplace, and what doesn’t.

It all happens fast. Disappointingly fast, if we’re honest (and if you think about it from the point of view of an author who has spent years on his or her book, horrifyingly fast). But Manda has a lot of publishers to get through, and dragging a sales conference out longer would take time away from actual selling, so it’s understandable.

Also, the process of quick pitches mimics what happens when the rep sits down with a retailer. In fact, the reps have even less time. They’re lucky to get a minute of a buyer’s attention on any particular book. There are a lot of publishers with a lot of books vying for that minute.

The process further mimics the consumer’s buying decision. People browsing in bookstores or on Amazon do not linger on every available title. They make snap judgments based on the genre of book, the title, the cover image, the author. They may quickly cast eyes over a hundred books before bothering to read the dust jacket of something that attracts their attention. So a book has to make its impression at a glance. In that sense, the quick-pitch disciplines imposed by a conference agenda are useful.

Of course, the sales conference is not our only contact with our sales reps. It sets the table for the upcoming season; it is not an end in itself. There will be plenty of follow-up and feedback in the months following.

Similarly, the sales rep’s initial pitch of a book to a retailer, if it sparks an interest, can lead to a lot of back-and-forth to improve the book’s odds of success. Manda sometimes relays to us the feedback it gets from retailers; we’ve had buyers at the chains double their orders because we tweaked a cover to their satisfaction.

Even after four years (!) in this business, it still strikes me as weird that publishers outsource their sales. We’re nothing without sales. Why would we outsource the most important thing we do? But when we’re selling books into many hundreds of retail outlets spread across a continent, it’s not feasible for any but the largest firms to deploy their own sales forces. So that’s how we roll.

If you can stand any more…

We’ve mentioned this before but our friend Nigel Beale runs a great podcast called The Biblio File in which he talks to authors, publishers, booksellers, collectors, scholars, critics, designers, and agents from all over the literary world. It’s wonderfully informative and Nigel’s accumulated archive is an incredibly valuable resource on the book trade. Recently, he had me on the show together with Jack David of ECW. We talked about what’s working and what isn’t in Canadian publishing, and whether or not I was correct in saying that our efforts to build a made-in-Canada publishing sector “have failed as completely as it is possible to fail.” You’ve probably heard enough from me but Jack and Nigel are worth the listen.

Our Newsletter Roll (suggestions welcome)

Lydia Perovic’s Long Play: literature and music.

Tim Carmody’s Amazon Chronicles: an eye on the monster.

Jason Logan’s Urban Color Report: adventures in ink (sign-up at bottom of page)

Anne Trubek’s Notes from a Small Press: like SHuSH, but different

Art Canada Institute: a reliable source of Canadian arts info/opinion

Kate McKean’s Agents & Books: an interesting angle on the literary world

Rebecca Eckler’s Re:Book: unpretentious recommendations

Anna Sproul Latimer’s How to Glow in the Dark: interesting advice

John Biggs Great Reads: strong recommendations


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