Sales Help Wanted – by LDS Publishers

It’s almost a cliché to say that any businessman would like help getting more sales. LDS book publishers and product suppliers aren’t any different — nor are LDS authors for that matter. Who wouldn’t want their book more widely distributed (and the accompanying financial rewards)? Yet despite this motivation, the difference between how sales are made among national publishers and how LDS publishers make sales is substantial. While there is some good reason for the difference, the LDS market needs at least one of the sales methods used in the national market — sales representatives.

Mainstream US publishers usually employ sales representatives who call on bookstores and convince them to carry the publisher’s books. Representatives visit each bookstore at least 2 or 3 times a year, spending at least 30 minutes or so and as much as several hours presenting the publisher’s books.

To get books on bookstore shelves and convince booksellers to ‘handsell’ a book (i.e., present the book to customers one by one), there is simply no substitute for a face-to-face sales call by a trusted and honest sales representative. Often independent bookstore buyers simply don’t know about a title unless it has been presented to them by a rep.

At large publishers, these representatives are actual employees of the company, presenting only that publisher’s titles to bookstores in their assigned territory. Small publishers use independent representatives, who represent many small publishers in the territories they set.

These independent representatives are often part of groups of 3 to 8 representatives, and a small publisher may use as many as 6 or more groups of independent representatives nationwide. All told, as many as 40 or 50 representatives sell any one publisher’s books to the thousands of independent bookstores in the US. Each representative calls on 150 to 200 stores.

So what happens in the LDS market? Sales reps exist, in a manner of speaking. Full-time reps that only spend their time acting as sales representatives only exist inhouse at a few large publishers. Except for Deseret Book and perhaps one or two others, no LDS book publisher has sales reps. This is because representatives are expensive — requiring sales of at least $800,000 a year (perhaps 3 or 4 LDS publishers are larger than this), according to the National Association of Independent Publishers Representatives (NAIPR), a trade group that represents sales reps. NAIPR suggests that reps cost at least $60,000 a year in salary, benefits and expenses.

Unfortunately, the LDS market doesn’t have independent representatives at the moment. Smaller LDS publishers (everyone but the largest 3 or 4) don’t have dedicated sales reps or even independent reps. Instead, employees hired to do other functions also make sales calls (usually by phone, not in person) — if sales calls are made at all! (Of course, publishers make other sales efforts also — direct mail pieces, email lists, websites, booths at the LDSBA convention, etc.).

Why haven’t independent sales representatives appeared in the LDS market? Its probably a question of size. The LDS market has been so small and so concentrated in Utah that sales reps seem unnecessarily expensive. Its hard to justify spending $60,000 a year on a sales rep when your sales are less than 10 times that.

Could an independent sales representative work in the LDS market? There are certainly enough potential clients! The LDSBA claims more than 200 ‘wholesale’ members (i.e., those who provide products to booksellers). The number of booksellers, while dropping in recent years, is still more than 100 bookstores — possibly enough to support visiting stores full time. And given that a large proportion of the stores are located in the Intermountain West (Utah and parts of Nevada, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and Arizona), the visits to be made are relatively concentrated.

Since a sales rep needs to make $60,000 a year to cover his salary and expenses, that rep needs to sell $400,000 to $600,000 worth of books (50,000 to 70,000 copies with a $15 cover price and a 45% discount to bookstores) to the 100 or more LDS bookstores. The sales rep therefore needs to book sales of $4,000 to $6,000 each year at every bookstore, spread over two to three visits and many follow-up phone calls for re-orders. If there were more LDS bookstores, a sales rep wouldn’t need to sell as much to each bookstore. [Nationally, independent reps cover as many as 150 to 200 stores.]
Is that possible? A lot depends on the quality of the books and the ability of stores to sell and stock books. Obviously, exciting, popular or new titles sell better than others, as do titles that get reviews from major media. And the amount of advertising and promotion support that the publisher gives also makes a difference. To be frank, poetry and academic titles aren’t as helpful to meeting the sales rep’s needs as thrillers and romance novels.

If you assume that the average book sells 5 copies at each store each year (this may be a generous assumption), then the rep needs to represent 100 to 150 titles from the publishers he represents.

While these numbers are large, in my view, reaching them does seem possible. The rep would probably have to represent not only books, but other products (art, music, possibly jewelry, etc) aimed at the LDS market, in order to get a large enough base.

Alternatively, the rep could work part time. If national sales reps cover 150 to 200 stores, then the 75 to 100 store maximum that a sales rep in the LDS market would cover is likely only a half-time job. But the demands of travel limit how far you can go with this; I can’t see how a rep could spend less than half-time working as a sales representative.

Fortunately, a sales representative can increase his earnings by increasing the number of titles he represents. But here too there are limits. Publishers generally don’t like representatives to also represent their competitors. In the LDS market this competition issue is complicated by the fact that LDS publishers haven’t specialized much — Deseret Book publishes the same kind of books that Covenant and Cedar Fort publish and vice versa.

Unfortunately, reducing the number of titles represented to avoid competition also has its limits. Cutting the number of titles reduces the number of titles represented, but not the sales representatives effort and costs. The sales rep only saves the few minutes required to present that title, but still must call on just as many stores and spend close to as much time.

Given the above analysis, I think the best bet for independent sales reps at this point is for part time reps in the Intermountain West. The difficulty lies in balancing the number of publishers represented and the number of bookstores to be visited with the money necessary to cover salary and expenses. Whoever undertakes this will undoubtely learn a lot, and may gain a central role in the LDS market.
I’d love to see someone try this. But I also realize its not for everyone. Sales representatives travel incessantly. Its not a lifestyle for everyone. But I think its needed in the LDS market, and something that would benefit the market for LDS products tremendously.

Remember, nationally independent sales representatives probably account for 10% to 20% of sales through all bookstores — hundreds of millions of dollars. With any luck, the development of independent sales representatives in the LDS market could increase sales at bookstores, by bringing the new and innovative products from small publishers to a market hungover from the mediocrity and monotony of the offerings of Deseret Book, Covenant and similar publishers.

If you are going to try it, please let me know. You can represent my books too!

7 thoughts on “Sales Help Wanted – by LDS Publishers”

  1. Kent,

    You forgot one very important point. Any independent bookseller has to convince the 100 or so bookstore owners to actually CARRY the independent LDS books. As you know, these bookstore owners tend to be very conservative and most of them are “fluff-oriented”. They will not sell anything that even remotely smells of independent thought. They know that Deseret Book and, to a lesser extent, Covenant, are “safe” choices to put into their stores.

    Anyone who takes up the challenge of selling independently to the LDS market will quickly run into this wall and will find the effort is just not worth the time and expense. I think this alternative explanation may explain the lack of current alternatives in the marketplace much better than your hypothesis that the market size is too small.

  2. Some great thoughts!

    The other thing to remember is that many books are now ‘not just for LDS’ anymore. I recently wrote a book published by covenant, and the only Mormon reference was family home evening in the introduction. I think there are many books that are written and published by Covenant and other independants that could easily find a national audience. But the LDS with few recent exceptions, publishers just don’t try to sell to that market.

  3. Matthew, you are correct, but publishers in the LDS market are NOT equiped to sell those books in the national market, with the possible exception of Signature Books.

    The proof of this fact can be seen in their book catalogs — there isn’t a listing for who the sales reps are for a particular region. Every catalog I’ve seen from the national market lists the sales reps with their territories and contact information, so booksellers can easily contact them for more information.

    This information is missing from LDS book publishers’ catalogs — and authors should realize that this means that they aren’t serious about selling to the national market.

  4. Thanks for this clear-eyed analysis. I’d love to see someone start real small and test the waters mainly via phone and mail, hoping to build up to half time.

  5. I disagree in part with Michael’s analysis (comment #1), at least as far as whether or not having sales reps is worth trying.

    I do agree that booksellers are a conservative lot. Yes they will try to stick with the “safe” books — until they are persuaded to try books that aren’t from “safe” publishers.

    The problem is that if no one tries to persuade booksellers to stock and sell other items, nothing will change. Booksellers will continue to emphasize the big three (Deseret Book, Covenant, and Cedar Fort) and independent publishers will loose out.

    Of course, your argument is that it won’t be worth it for the sales reps. You may be right. But a lot depends on what the sales rep expects when starting out and as he or she gains experience. If expectations are too high, then you are correct.

    But, if sales reps don’t expect to earn more than half a salary, or if they just want a little extra cash, I think the effort could be worth it for them — and ANY additional sales at all that small publishers gain from their efforts is worth it, both to the small publishers, and to the market.

  6. I spend a minimum of $2000-$3000 per year on marketing my books. I’ve driven to bookstores in Nevada, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Arizona, California, and Utah. I e-mail the stores. I do mailings to the stores. I do special promos for the stores. Along with the regular visits and signings. This is in addition to what my publisher does.

    It would be great to have a full or part time salesperson hitting all the independants, but nothing beats you getting on the phone–or even better in person–and pitching your own book. A salesperson who is repping 150 books plus jewelry, art, games, toys, etc is not going to do your book justice.

  7. Jeff, you are absolutely right. There is no substitute for an author trying to sell his or her own books.

    But your hint that a salesperson would be great is also true. The roles are complementary — there are things that an author can do that a salesperson can’t hope to do, but there are also things that a salesperson can do that an author at least isn’t likely to do.

    Regardless, the fact that a salesperson is out there certainly won’t keep an author from doing what authors can do to sell books. Nor are an author’s efforts likely to hurt a salesperson’s efforts. Both trying to sell the book should result in higher sales than either alone.

    Regardless, I hope authors get your point — that they are better off pitching their books instead of sitting back and letting the publisher do the work.

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