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Selling the Story: How Does Publishing Work?, Part Five

Selling the Story: How Does Publishing Work?, Part Five

By Press Staff | Date: April 12, 2021

Every book passes through many hands before arriving at your local bookstore or library. We’ve developed a six-part series, How Does Publishing Work?, to shed light on a book’s journey to publication. From developing stories and characters, to editing and illustration, through to the publishing and marketing stage, this series takes a look at all the different people and processes involved in bringing your favourite stories to life.

In part four of our How Does Publishing Work? series, we broke down the stages and creative decisions behind every graphic novel or children’s book illustration. Today, in part five, we’ll examine the sales process and learn how books travel from the publisher to your bookshelf.

Sales in a Publishing Context

Many authors, editors, and artists are motivated by a love of stories, but to ensure a story gets told, it needs to find its way to readers. This is where the sales aspect of publishing comes in. As a book nears its final stages of development, the sales and marketing teams begin working to get the book into readers’ hands. Selling a book is a complex process with many moving parts that involves publishers, authors, distributors, retailers, and the media. We spoke to Synora Van Drine, Sales Manager at Portage & Main Press/HighWater Press, to find out what goes into selling a book.

Putting the ‘Data’ in Database

The first stage of selling a book takes place long before a book is published and available in bookstores. Information about the book, from basics like the title, author, and ISBN (International Standard Book Number) to more complex information like age ranges, reading level, and BISAC codes are added to metadata software. In turn, the software distributes that metadata to retailers, including online stores like Amazon as well as your local independent bookstore.

“Soon after a book is added to the production schedule, the process kicks off with the preparation, collection, and distribution of the book’s metadata,” says Synora. “This is so that information about a book is available for everyone to find as soon as we start talking about it.”

Selling Is Strategy

A significant part of Synora’s role is designing and implementing strategic plans to sell the title. These strategies consider sales channels, which include retailers like McNally Robinson or library wholesalers, as well as promotions and campaigns.

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“In addition to developing and cultivating sales channels and creating sales campaigns, I have a role to play in planning trade and customer events, and of course pitching every new title [to retailers],” says Synora.

An important aspect of strategic planning for a book release also involves how to overcome foreseeable challenges. For example, some stories are so unique, they can be hard to describe or put into a particular genre category—and that can pose a real challenge for selling the story to retailers and readers. 

“[When] a book doesn’t exactly fit a category, the challenge is making a case for the book,” Synora elaborates. “The invisible pieces—like logistics and metadata—all have a role to play in discoverability and getting a book into a reader’s hands.”

Constant Conversations

Relationship building is just as essential to a sales role as the strategic measures used to spread the word about new releases. Not surprisingly, establishing a strong relationship with booksellers and libraries is key, and it’s a highly nuanced part of the job.

“It’s important to understand what the book buyer is interested in,” Synora explains. “Analyzing what they’ve bought in the past, [current] trends, and finding that connection for your list. Also important is making sure they have all the necessary information at the right time in their selection process.”

“Selling is an ongoing conversation that happens on different levels,” she says. “Whether you’re talking to a journalist, an influencer, or the book buyer for a beloved bookstore, you’re not just conveying information about the book, but also what makes the title stand out.”

A Job in People and Publishing

Unlike many roles in publishing, which tend to be well-suited to introverts, a career in sales is driven by strong people skills, suggests Synora. It’s an ideal career for those who don’t shy away from interpersonal communication and aren’t afraid of the word ‘no.’

A Bookstore’s Perspective

We connected with Kai Bergen of McNally Robinson Booksellers to discuss the decisions a retailer makes when acquiring and distributing a new title.

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PMP/HWP: How does a book buyer decide which titles their store will have in stock, and how are the quantities determined?

KB: This depends on many factors, and does vary from store to store. For me, I prefer to buy “wide and low”—that is, take many titles but few copies, and then see what sells. But we do choose some titles to feature which we will order many more copies of up-front. For those, I like to think about: 

  • Is the book considered a lead title* at the publisher?
  • What is our history of sales with this author?
  • Can I put it on a themed display, such as for a holiday? Does it “match” with other big books that are coming out? 
  • Have I or my coworkers been hearing any buzz about it on social media?
  • Has someone read an ARC (Advance Reading Copy) and loved it? 

If I know someone will hand-sell** a book, I will order more copies.

*Lead title: A book that the publisher expects will be a big hit.

**Hand selling: When a bookstore staff member offers a personalized recommendation to a customer based on a conversation about the reader’s interests. 

PMP/HWP: What are some of the internal processes that decide how a book will be featured in-store once a title has been released? 

KB: I’m lucky in that I am both a buyer and a display person, so in a way that makes both of my jobs easier. We decide on a list of books to feature each month, based on what we think will sell, and then I build displays around those titles. 

I like to make themes if I can, and I will also make displays seasonally (winter, seasonal holidays, etc.) and for events like I Love To Read Month (which is February). 

We also try to “listen” to what kinds of topics are being discussed in the world at large, so we have an idea of what kinds of books our customers are looking for. For example, in the lead-up to the U.S. election, many people were reading books on democracy, and we had a display of these kinds of books in our adult sections. 

PMP/HWP: How might an author or publisher support the book once it’s in your store? 

KB: Social media is a real force when it comes to spreading the word about books. Post about it! Engage with readers! It’s always fun as well when publishers send us fun little extras we can use to build hype around a book, such as enamel pins or even bookmarks that we can give for free with the book. 

Also, we always love it when authors come in and sign copies of their books for us (though, sadly, that has been less possible lately). In “normal times,” we hosted many book launches, and those gave a big boost to book sales. But, alas, we are unable to do those at the moment due to the pandemic. Hopefully we’ll be back at it soon enough.

PMP/HWP: Once a book has hit the shelves, what does the sales life cycle look like from the bookstore’s perspective?

KB: We run a sales sort each week to determine how many copies of each book have sold and how many we need to reorder. We also generate a bestseller list for both kids and adult titles each week. Sometimes, when a book has had a lot of buzz (Dog Man, for example), we see a lot of sales right in its first week. But often, the sales will build up gradually as people notice it and word spreads. 

Bookstores can keep books on the shelf for up to a year and still return them to the publisher—this arrangement allows us to take chances on books we might otherwise not have. 

We will return a hardcover when the paperback version is released, and we run return sorts every three months or so; if a book has not sold any copies in a three-month period, we are likely to return it. Sometimes we will return books, and then suddenly they will win a prize, or get a great review, and demand for them will renew, so we will reorder them. It’s all about watching the sales patterns and reacting to them.

In our next and final installment, we’ll look at the marketing and publicity around each new book—the driving force that helps a new release become a bestseller! Make sure to check back, or follow us on Twitter or Facebook to read part six of the How Does Publishing Work? series!

Read the other posts in the How Does Publishing Work? series for a detailed look into the people and processes that bring your favourite books to life:

How to Write a Book: How Does Publishing Work?, Part One 

I Wrote a Book. Now What?: How Does Publishing Work?, Part Two

What Does an Editor Do?: How Does Publishing Work?, Part Three

Captivating Through Artwork: How Does Publishing Work?, Part Four