As Field Sales Forces Retreat, Will Telereps Take Up the Slack?
Opened nearly a quarter-century ago, Auntie’s Bookstore is a solid fixture on the corner of Main and Washington Streets in downtown Spokane, Washington, a bustling burg of almost 200,000 that boasts the largest book-buying population between Seattle and Minneapolis. Judging by the number of publisher sales reps spotted in recent years, however, Auntie’s may as well be in midtown Siberia. “We’re out in the middle of close to nowhere,” owner Chris O’Harra says. “We even have commission reps now who don’t come out. You know things are seriously changing in the business.” It’s a sign of the times, then, that on a recent morning head buyer Julie Smith logged nearly three hours on the phone with Publishers Group West, working through the list of new titles after the store’s regular PGW rep was reassigned. “We really have a lot of trouble now with the mid-size companies like Abrams who just kind of vanish,” O’Harra explains. “They used to be with a commission rep, but we don’t see anybody now.”
And when publishing’s foot-soldiers fall off the map, phone reps like those at PGW are left holding the line between a book order and oblivion. “Telephone sales,” as O’Harra says, “is better than nothing.” Call them what you will — telemarketers, inside sales teams, telereps, or robo-reps — for reasons of economy and efficiency, phone reps are shouldering a growing range of the repping burden, handling initial sales and reorders for many accounts, tag-teaming with field reps to cover author events and co-op snafus, and even cold-calling new stores to drum up business. While telereps still account for a small proportion of revenue — estimates range from 1% to 10% of a given publisher’s sales — it’s clear that speed-dialers are pushing out mud-spattered Subarus as the weapon of choice for book publishers, both for better and for worse.
Left Off the Hook?
Strapped for time themselves, many booksellers say they’d take a well-trained telerep over a strung-out sales visit any day. “For my schedule, it really works best to do this by phone, rather than in-person,” says Luanne Ripley Kreutzer of St. Helens Book Shop in Oregon. As the store’s owner-buyer, Kreutzer doesn’t have much leisure time for shop visits, not that many reps would show up if she did. Since the store is so far off the map she only sees one major house rep each season — “Field reps from the major houses have always been scarce in the ten years that I’ve been doing business,” she notes — the telereps take care of everything from counselling Kreutzer “oh-so-subtly” on what to buy, to “just being the one to help me navigate through co-op.” Sometimes, however, the line goes cold. “When your rep changes, you often don’t know it,” Kreutzer says, the upshot being that her orders have gotten delayed or dropped altogether. And with certain publishers, the line seems to be permanently off the hook. “I have asked for a telephone rep for at least three years from a major house, and have yet to be assigned one,” she says. “As a result, they’ve lost their sales to me.”
It’s not just out-of-the-way accounts that are getting the telerep treatment. “I used to get visited by almost every major publisher,” says Joi Afzal, co-owner of the Hue-Man Experience bookstore in Denver. “All of that has really started to diminish over the last year.” Now the only rep she sees is from Time Warner and maybe one or two other stragglers who turn up on her stoop. Nonetheless, working with Random House and HarperCollins telereps has been pretty smooth sailing. “In essence it’s the same thing,” she says. “I get the attention I would from the field sales rep.” Meanwhile, Fern Jaffe, owner of Paperbacks Plus in the Bronx, raves about her Random telerep, who has visited the store — booksellers say visits can be the major factor in a telerep’s success — and is “as good if not better than most field reps,” says Jaffe. But a telerep handling the mass market line for Simon & Schuster was quite another story. “He was a young snippy kid who was telling me, having never seen my store, what I should be buying,” Jaffe says. “After 32 years, I know how many copies of Star Wars I need. I took myself off telemarketing.”
In no mood for busy signals, buyers at the heavy-hitting independents are digging in their heels. Paul Yamazaki at City Lights, for example, says that telereps haven’t yet come ringing, and rues the day they do. “We still see the field reps and commission reps,” he says with evident relief. “I can’t imagine replacing them with phone reps, given the long-term relationships we’ve built out here.” Ditto for Kathi Kirby, Purchasing and Publisher Relations Manager at Powell’s Books in Portland, OR. “I’m assuming that phone reps loom in our future, but it hasn’t happened yet,” she says. “We don’t deal with phone reps at all. Not even in tandem. If that were to happen we’d have to really evaluate how we buy our books.” In a first step down that road, however, mid-size publishers have dumped commission reps based in the Northwest and switched to house reps who may as well be from planet Xenon. “The new house reps cover too much territory, don’t know us, and don’t care too much,” she says. Harvard, MIT, and Yale ditched a local group and went with a rep in Detroit. And service has sunk. “He’s a nice guy that we see for 20 minutes twice a year,” Kirby says. “I’m not saying we have to do business the way it’s been done for ages. But it has to be more than twice a year. It has to involve a real partnership.”
Penguin Comes Calling
That’s just the way publishers like to talk about their telesales programs. “We visualize this as a business partnership, and that is exactly how we work,” says Eleanor Jones, Corporate Director of Inside Sales for Penguin Putnam. Over 18 years the telephone sales department has more than tripled from six to its current staff of 22. Based at Penguin’s Kirkwood, NY distribution center, the tele-force mirrors field rep divisions, with the phone group split into four adult hardcover reps, four trade paperback reps, and six children’s reps. Each phone rep is teamed with two or three of the company’s 50 field reps, with the field force tackling larger accounts, and the phone force backing them up and also tending smaller or left-field accounts. The phone reps also attend sales conferences, and are encouraged to visit accounts that are within a day’s driving distance from their home base. “Part of our job is also to prospect for new business,” Jones says. “We do some cold calling as time allows. We grow and develop the smaller accounts.” The group also places a premium on familiarity with the stores. Jones recalls working as a phone rep with Doug Whiteman (now president of Penguin’s children’s division), who as a field rep in Colorado would call in almost daily, describing in novelistic detail the demographics of various towns so that Jones would have some clue how to pitch booksellers. Overall, Penguin strives for what Katya Olmsted, Director of Field Sales for Penguin’s adult hardcover group, calls “a tremendous camaraderie between our field reps and our inside force. I don’t let the field reps dump the bureaucratic work on them,” she adds. Though phone reps are paid sales commissions, they are compensated in a way that downplays competition: “We incentivize, but we look at the whole business.”
A similar logic guides Random House’s phone unit, which is based at its Westminster, MD distribution center. “Telemarketers are at the forefront of our integrated sales effort for frontlist and backlist titles,” says a Random spokesman. More than 15 full-time reps are divided by specialty and geography, so that in addition to regional responsibilities, telereps focus on areas such as African American, women’s fiction, or gay/lesbian titles. Moreover, telereps sell titles across the entire corporate spectrum, a range no other Random sales force spans. They too prospect for new accounts, and now attend regional trade shows in addition to sales conferences. One Random source estimates that telereps account for 10% of the field sales by dollar value.
For publishers without their own telereps, distributors such as CDS have developed a hybrid phone/field approach, says VP Sales Stanley Cohen. To get independent stores revved up about Robert James Waller’s A Thousand Country Roads, for example, CDS partnered with the ABA’s Book Sense program to have a San Francisco–based rep phone all 1,200 or so Book Sense accounts. (Orders for the Madison County epilogue were up to some 350,000 copies.) Normally, all of the distributor’s reps play both phone and field roles, following catalog mailings up with a phone call or visit. Other options include the independent firm Phone Books, based in White Plains, NY, which has 10,000 stores in its database (searchable in categories such as children’s or specialty stores) and can deploy as many as 10 phones for a major campaign, according to Marketing Manager Ted Valand. Most reps come from retail bookstores, and they typically hold mini–sales conferences (one Phone Books rep visits a publisher sales conference, and then reports back). Orders are faxed in the same day. The company handles contingencies, too. If a publisher rep has already blown through, say, Detroit when an author drops by, “they’ll ask us to call all the bookstores in Detroit and let them know that the author’s going to be there,” Valand says.
Back in Spokane, O’Harra from Auntie’s Bookstore has a suggestion she’d like to make: Pshaw with the phones. “I’m waiting for the time when they just send us videos,” she says. “You could watch a video of the rep, and if you weren’t interested in the book, you could just fast-forward.”