What It Takes

What It Takes

The Sell In

By Shawn Coyne | Published: December 17, 2010

I ended last week’s post discussing “publishing meeting” Personae.  As Steve’s manager/agent, one of my jobs is to secure the best possible sales campaign for THE PROFESSION.  Easier said than done.

As Steve’s representative, I went to the Crown marketing meeting with an internal agenda.  Just as a publisher needs to define the proceedings of a marketing meeting with an agenda, so does the manager/agent.  If the manager/agent’s goal is to goose the meeting into breaking precedent and discussing new initiatives that could help sell your client’s book (which it should be) then he has to not only accept that he will need to play the agitator, he has to embrace that role.

Two outsiders (a writer and his manager/agent) walking into a sterile conference room in a skyscraper built by the largest English language publishing conglomerate in the world is intimidating.  It’s crazy not to recognize that.  Just Getting the Meeting was a huge coup and these very busy people have agreed to spend a lot of time outlining their plans to make your client’s book a success.  They obviously care about the book and want to make it work or they wouldn’t be there.

The inclination for the agent/manager is to think “mission accomplished,” sit back and let the agenda flow.

The client doesn’t know the “inside baseball” that will be reviewed.  The writer’s just happy to be there.  The manager/agent knows that the plans that Crown’s marketing and publicity departments will lay out at the beginning of the meeting are “unsexy” and “traditional.”  But he also knows that the “sell-in” plans are more crucial to the success of the book than any unique innovation he or the other members of the writer’s outside team can engineer.  Without the ground work outlined in that first page and a half of the agenda, efforts to innovate marketing will have little to no effect on the ultimate sale of the book.

If books aren’t in stores and easily accessible, exciting promotions fail.  For all of the hoopla about eBooks today, 90% of Steve’s audience will buy physical copies of THE PROFESSION at the tried and true distribution outlets.

What we need to happen at the start for THE PROFESSION is exactly what happened for GATES OF FIRE fourteen years ago.  With concerted and dedicated efforts from every person at that conference table, THE PROFESSION will reach stores in critical masses with industry excitement and buzz.

The “sell-in” is the literal pre publication selling of the book to retailers and wholesalers.  Retailers are the place where consumers can actually purchase the book…Barnes & Noble, Borders, Amazon.com, the independent bookstore that used to be in the center of town on Main Street or the fancy one that still hanging on at the mall etc.  The retailers order the book from the publisher months before it goes on sale and then sell it to you directly.

Wholesalers are another intermediary between a publisher’s book and a consumer.  They provide a service for big box retailers who have little interest in having an on staff book expert to pick and maintain its book departments.

Here’s how it works.

The Sell-In Diagram

Wal-Mart, Costco, Albertson’s, Kmart, Target, mega-grocery stores like Fred Meyer, Albertsons, and Kroger hire third party companies to “service” their book racks.  The wholesaler (Levy Home Entertainment, Ingram, Baker and Taylor, Hudson Group etc.) is responsible for a defined section of square footage of retail space in these big boxes.  They pick the books from publishers and get an added discount because they order in bulk.  Then they stock their big box client’s shelves and maintain the inventory.

When someone buys a book at a big box, the wholesaler gets the lion’s share of proceeds from that sale, and the actual retailer takes a fee/commission directly off the top.  The higher the volume of sales in this square footage, the more the money the wholesaler and chain store make.  If the volume is low, the big box will look for another wholesaler to take over the racks—one that can bring in better selling “product”—or it may discontinue books as a category to sell in their store entirely.

Wholesalers need big bestsellers to attract consumers to its section of the big box and ultimately for those readers to buy their books at Target instead of Barnes & Noble or Amazon.com.  Just like Barnes & Noble, Wholesalers employ book “buyers” who are responsible for ordering the titles that will be distributed to the big boxes.  The buyers are usually responsible for specific genres.  They’ll be a science fiction and fantasy buyer, a mystery/crime buyer, a romance buyer, business book buyer etc.

One competitive advantage one wholesaler can gain over another is by employing savvy buyers.  If they buy a big amount of a book that is not an obvious bestseller but ends up being a huge sensation, that wholesaler’s big box accounts will be flush with copies when they are scarce elsewhere.  Their big boxes will reap the rewards of their smart ordering and the wholesaler and its client will be happy.

However, if the book ends up being a dud, the wholesaler will not only lose dollar volume of sale at their big boxes, but they’ll have to take on the added expense of sending the books back to the publisher for credit.  Or in the case of unsold paperback editions, the wholesaler will have to pay to pulp unsold copies.

Depending on the number of blockbuster books in a given year (Twilight, The Da Vinci Code, The Help, etc.); wholesalers servicing the big boxes sell 30% to 40% of all books sold.  Barnes & Noble has about 20% share and falling, Borders 10% and falling, Independents 10% and falling, and Amazon.com has 25% and rising.

Because their business model is to supply the most popular books at the lowest possible cost to the largest number of people, wholesalers for the big boxes are very conservative during “sell-in.”  They’ll pre-order palette after palette of Dan Brown’s latest (tens of thousands of books at a time) to make sure they don’t run short, but won’t order a single copy of 95% of a publishers’ list.

Steve’s previous hardcover releases didn’t reach the big boxes in big quantities.  They were brilliant novels that didn’t lend themselves to that sort of mass market sell.  They sold through word of mouth and Steve hit a number of bestseller lists, but they skewed more toward the historical epic than the relentless “action driven thriller” kind of read.

What makes THE PROFESSION so wonderful is that Steve has done something quite remarkable.  He still delivers the epic nature and historical gravitas from his previous works, but the reading experience is the same as an “action driven thriller.”  It lends itself to those cheesy Hollywood one line sales pitches—SEVEN DAYS IN MAY meets THE THINGS THEY CARRIED—but it’s an authentic Pressfield experience.  People who love The Afghan Campaign will still love THE PROFESSION but the book will also bring in readers of W.E.B Griffin and Tom Clancy.

Pushing big quantities of THE PROFESSION into wholesaler’s warehouses for the sell-in isn’t the answer.  What we need to do is press Steve into his traditional markets (B&N, Borders, Amazon, etc.) in quantities that can generate enough sales velocity to get THE PROFESSION on the New York Times hardcover bestseller list in its first week on sale.  Then the word of mouth and razzle dazzle that makes a book move to a higher sales plane can evolve.  When extraordinary demand arises, the wholesalers will come in.  They’ll recognize an opportunity to increase their sales by ordering THE PROFESSION and selling it to big box customers as a fresh VINCE FLYNN meets DAVID BALDACCI thriller.

Crown knows this.  I know this.  But it’s always worth repeating.

Last year I wrote a book with a friend about the rise of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s (shameless plug, The Ones Who Hit the Hardest).  In our research, we discovered that one of the secrets to the Steelers success was that every year, at the beginning of training camp, head coach Chuck Noll began the season by reviewing the proper way a football player should stand…where he should place fingers…how he should line up against his opponent.  He started each campaign with the basics.

Just as the marketing director began reviewing the “sell-in” plans, the publisher opened the door to the conference room, apologized for being late, and then shook Steve’s and my hand.  She told Steve how much she LOVES THE BOOK and took her place at the head of the table.

I kept my mouth shut and waited for the right moment to play the agitator.

To be continued.

Posted in What It Takes

13 Responses to “The Sell In”

  1. December 17, 2010 at 7:47 am

    Reading “The War of Art” helped prepare me for the inevitable loneliness that came with the creative process, strangely enough it was the support of random strangers who came up and asked me what the hell I was working on everyday that provided the push to keep going on off days – not, as time went on, the steadily fading support of family and friends who weren’t exactly on board with what I was doing.

    But hundreds of ignored or rejected query letters, one failed outing with an agent that dragged out for almost a year, and a couple busted relationships with social media companies later – I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss the support of family and friends who’d fallen by the wayside while I was consumed with my muse.

    Unfortunately, the marketing and publishing aspects of the creative process seem anathema to any muses out there, and over the years the reality of the financially threadbare publishing industry has started to beat me over the head a bit and seems to be off waterboarding my muse somewhere.

    If you get a chance, I’d love to hear about the emotionally supportive role your relationship with your agent and manager played after your muse had done her job and each manuscript was completed – did you keep pushing through with publication and marketing on your own, or was their support vital?

    Writing everyday was enthralling and during that period success seemed like a foregone conclusion, but “The War of Art” stops at the end of the creative process – at least for me, the writing was the fun part, it’s been the time since that’s been kicking the shit out of me.

    The following quote seems to be at least somewhat in-line with your creative philosophy, is there anything a writer can do when they’ve started to feel like the soul they’ve tried to bring to life is about to flicker out for good?

    “Every book, every volume you see, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and the soul of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens…”
    -Carlos Ruiz Zafon

    (In something of a last-ditch effort I went ahead and posted my entire stupid book up online, but if its site fails to get any traffic and I can’t sell e-book copies of it I don’t have any clue what’s next.)

    • December 18, 2010 at 5:44 pm

      Matt, I must confess I have been extremely lucky, even blessed, by the people I’ve worked with–agents, editors, publishers–AFTER the actual writing process. It took me so long (almost thirty years) from the time I started till the time I actually got something published, that maybe the stars finally lined up and the literary gods gave me a break. To say I could not have done it without Sterling Lord or Shawn Coyne or Larry Hughes or–I could go on through twenty names at least–would be an outrageous understatement. I wouldn’t be BREATHING without them. They were and have been and are absolutely indispensable and have been and become much more than colleagues or allies; they’ve become friends, real friends. I see how up against the wall you feel and, believe me, I know that place all too well. All I can say is hang in there, keep working to get better. Don’t get angry or bitter (as tempting as that may be or as good as it might feel). Resistance rears its ugly head in many forms and that can be one of them. The Holidays are here. I send you my best, Matt.

  2. December 17, 2010 at 9:11 am

    Very interesting Shawn.

    And the publisher showed up! Excellent.

    Looking forward to your next post.

  3. Wiz
    December 17, 2010 at 9:14 am

    Shawn, that was you who wrote that book about the Steelers? My first experience with football goes back to the Steelers of the 70’s. I loved your comparisons to Lambert and Ham. I always wanted to play like Lambert. Football games in the yard gave me the opportunity to be Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swan or Lambert depending on what I was doing during the game. Thanks for bringing back the memories as I read through the pages…still hate the Cowboys!

  4. December 17, 2010 at 4:31 pm

    Seems like much of the (commercial) success of a book is finding a good agent-manager. Am sure after writing “Hunt for Red October” or “Legend of Bagger Vance;” agents will find you; maybe Shawn could address finding a good agent in some column?

    • Shawn Coyne
      December 20, 2010 at 3:05 pm

      Andrew,
      Great idea. Will do!
      Shawn

      • Imran Siddiq
        April 25, 2011 at 11:55 am

        Hi Shawn,

        A bit off topic, but i’m looking to get in touch in order to have a few different discussions. One centers around a bit of a unique request.

        Is there a phone number or email address I can contact you via?

        Best,

        Imran

  5. Tricia
    December 17, 2010 at 8:23 pm

    Very informative.

    But I haven’t quite grasped why you are calling yourself a manager instead of simply an agent? Is it because of the varied personal/professional experience you bring to the table? Or perhaps a creative attempt to break out of an unhelpful traditionally defined but limiting (ie., static) category/role? Or simply something much more fundamental than that, of which I am simply uninformed?

    • Shawn Coyne
      December 20, 2010 at 3:03 pm

      Hi Tricia,
      I like all of your answers to why I call myself a manager. While I still fulfill the traditional and crucial role of an agent (getting the best deal), I think the industry is requiring more and more day to day management after delivery and acceptance of a client’s manuscript, hence my preferring the title Manager.

      Managers will have to understand their clients’ core markets and of how best to reach those readerships directly rather than simply putting books into publishers’ hands and waiting for the royalty checks to arrive. It’s becoming a two front campaign. Publishers are hitting the traditional avenues of sale (retail and wholesale), while managers need to understand and facilitate direct connections between a writer and her audience.

      Literary managers will also need to understand the economics of the business so that they can best advise their clients when new publishing models arise. Some work will be best published within the traditional model and other work will be best published in a nontraditional way. Managing this brave new world is a challenge for all writers. Having someone in their corner who can get a deal done and then put on different hats to continue supporting the work through publication will be essential in the years to come.
      Shawn

      • Tricia
        December 21, 2010 at 10:42 am

        Thanks for your response. Guess I didn’t do my homework … because I just noticed that you were interviewed by McKee – twice no less (been on a non-McKee treadmill lately (year). But perhaps you are the hook (incident inciting!) to get me back into that tiresome but seemingly necessary head stuff.

        Anyway, thanks again and I (we all) look forward to more of your contributions on SP’s site.

        Time now to figure out my RM website password (Act one: horror non-story, since I’m ‘telling’ you!)

        Tricia

  6. December 21, 2010 at 9:02 am

    Wow, this whole series of articles is not only wildly informative, but it reads like it’s own thriller! (Well, maybe _horror_-thriller, considering the hair on the back of my neck always stands up when I read about the “monster” that is today’s publishing business.)

    Please keep up the great work; the writing and information are both compelling and top-notch.

    Bill

  7. December 21, 2010 at 10:33 am

    lovin the transparency that you are creating of the publishing world.

    It is starting to no longer seem like I’m grabing a dragon by the tail, holding on for life, while hoping I’ll like where I end up.

    (MATT keep the fire and give us all you’ve got)

    D

  8. December 23, 2010 at 8:09 am

    Shawn,

    As someone trying to get into the publishing industry, I find your posts both enlightening and entertaining. The publishing field seems one ripe with possibilities and rife with politics. I’m eager to learn more.

    Diana