See You on the Bookshelf | Episode 12
May 8, 2017
See You in the Cosmos is on the shelves of most bookstores in the English-speaking world. But it doesn’t get there automatically. Booksellers have to decide to stock it. And convincing them to stock it is in large part the responsibility of the publisher sales rep.
Jack: Previously on See You on the Bookshelf, we talked about the internal launch at the publishing house, and the series of meetings that happens afterwards.
Lindsay T. Boggs: It’s kind of like editorial gets to give us, here’s the book. And then we come back and we say, here’s the marketing plan. And then sales and editorial get to weigh in on what we’ve come up with. And then we take their notes and finalize a plan, and then those are presented at sales conference.
Jack: So you’ve heard from my editors and, last week, from my publicists. This week, we talked to sales.
John: The general public has this perception of, a book is written, the bookstore gets it, the bookstore sells it, and then it goes from there. And I guess that, you know, with most things – you see something and oh, okay, well it’s always been there. But you don’t think about what it took for that item or situation to present itself.
Jack: And one thing it takes, for a book to even appear on a bookstore shelf, is a team of people like John Dennany.
John: My name is John Dennany. I’m a publisher sales rep for Penguin Random House Books for Young Readers. My territory includes Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Western Pennsylvania, Western New York, and Tennessee. There are eleven Penguin Random House Young Reader reps, and on top of that, we have two regional field managers who keep us in line.
Jack: John sounds a bit like a cowboy there, doesn’t he? Well, I think we should bring in a guitar while he tells us about how he got into publishing.
[ soft guitar music ]
John: I got into publishing by chance. I graduated from high school, and like all people who graduate from high school, they want to test the waters. So I went out West for about two or three months with a group of friends. We were living and working out there. And one of my friends was getting married. So I had to come back from California – to Michigan. And after I landed, I was beating the bushes for a job. I was going to school, and I ended up working in a retail bookstore. I worked there for maybe two, three years and subsequently went to work for the wholesaler who owns the bookstore chain. And over the years, I graduated into running their educational department.
And because at that time, wholesalers were buying out one another and nobody knew exactly what their future held in store, I started applying with publishers. I’d become friends with some of the publisher reps who would come into the wholesaler. And I thought, man, I could really get into doing something like this.
I was lucky enough to land a job working for Viking Penguin. I was the last Viking Penguin rep ever hired. And I used to sell the entire line, from adult to trade paperbacks to children’s. The company transformed over the years, and I ended up working in the children’s division for Penguin Random House. And it’s still as exciting, to this very day, as it was when I started, all those many years ago.
Jack: And we keep going back to Episode 6 here on the podcast – to launch, about nine months to a year from when a title goes on sale. Like we heard last week from publicity, this launch – and right around that time – is also when sales gets involved.
John: It’s basically the introduction. We lay down tentative marketing and sales plans, and then several months after that we have what is called a pre-sale, where we review everything that we were given at the launch. And it’s fine-tuned as far as advertising, print runs, sales handles …
Jack: We’ll get the sales handles in a minute, but I think what you need to know here is that it all culminates in the sales conference, where everything is set in stone – when all the departments are on the same page, and all the individual sales reps are on the same page, too.
John: What I say to my accounts, selling a particular title, is very, very close to what another rep is telling their account, thousands of miles away.
Jack: And when John uses the word accounts, he’s talking about bookstores.
John: I actually go out into the individual bookstores to see and talk about titles, and talk about our backlist and give suggestions on themed titles that the stores could put up an in store display.
Jack: So I think sales is maybe the aspect of publishing that people outside of publishing are the least aware of. It certainly blew my mind to learn about what John does. Bookstores don’t automatically get copies of every new book that gets published; they have limited shelf space. And how are they supposed to stay on top of books that are just coming out, that they haven’t even read yet? Well, that’s where someone like John comes in. Like, literally comes in to the bookstore.
John: I probably travel, percentage-wise, maybe about 40-to-50 percent of the time, overnight. And then I also do day trips. So I don’t really count a day trip as traveling – traveling to me is more overnight. Now, I don’t cover every single account in my territory, just because time would not allow that. And we have – aside from the eleven direct reps that we have – we also have a couple of in-house sales reps who handle the customers that we are unable to see.
Jack: And I should mention here that publishers also send out these seasonal catalogs of what’s coming out in any given season. You can see these online too, if you just Google the name of the publisher plus, like, “fall 2017 catalog”.
But of course it’s no replacement for someone like John coming in, with his rolling suitcase full of galleys, and giving a presentation to you – to your bookstore – about the titles that both he and the publisher are really excited about.
John: When you’re presenting a book, you try to find the happy medium that will strike the buyer’s interest as far as subject, plot, the regionality of a title, the types of marketing that we have in place … just a whole myriad of things. And so, you know, every presentation is not exactly the same for every single account. There are quite a few similarities, but you get to know your customer base over a period of time, and the type of market that they sell into, and you do your presentation accordingly.
Jack: That’s what John meant earlier when he said sales handles. They’re these things for your audience – in this case, booksellers – to latch onto. They’re kind of like the pitch angles from our episode on publicity; they’re tailored to the person, to the bookseller, by John, based on his knowing them and having a relationship with them.
Jack: Do you still remember your experience reading See You in the Cosmos?
John: Oh I sure do. For one, I am a huge advocate for getting boys to read. And so that was number one that struck me. Two, I’m a huge advocate for regional authors, and that hit me as well. So I was excited. The in-house excitement – the editors and a few folks within our house who had read the manuscript prior to us getting it – they were excited about it. So it was sort of a snowball effect.
And while I was reading the title, I was flashing back every once in a great while to some of my favorite books, that certain situations in the book reminded me of. Like for example, a little bit of The Outsiders – you know, in as much as, there’s a character who really doesn’t fit in, who’s got a good heart and nothing gets them down. Or even some of my childhood books, as a young kid – Story of Ferdinand, you know, for the innocence.
Jack: By the way, I haven’t heard John’s sales pitch for See You in the Cosmos, but I imagine it sounds something like this.
John: You know, this is just me, but anything that makes me feel the way that I felt when I read other books … it’s just a fantastic thing. I just love that.
Jack: Mmm. Yeah.
John: I love that there was an innocent character who was always upbeat, because I think we need a lot of that nowadays, more than ever. You know, there are obstacles that Alex runs into, and either he overcomes them or with the help of other people – it’s like almost a close knit family – they help him over that. And it just makes me smile.
Jack: And as you might imagine: from traveling and being on the road so much, John has some stories.
John: When I first joined Viking Penguin, we were out selling a title called Satanic Verses. And it culminated into this publishing phenomenon because of the fatwah that was given to Viking Penguin and anybody associated with it. And so, there were some tense moments there for that year. And I can remember walking into one of my bookstores – and it’s somebody that I had known for years and years – and I was talking with him and I said, so Joe, do you have Satanic Verses? And he goes, John, I’ve got a story to tell you. And he said, I was working behind the counter, and some big, huge man walked in dressed in fatigues and asked me if I sold Satanic Verses. And I said, no. And he said, that’s good, turned around and walked out of my store.
[ laughter ]
Jack: And I think, listening to this story – I really get the impression of just how close-to-the-ground John and the other sales reps are. How they really have their finger on the pulse – through their booksellers – of how well a title is doing.
Jack: Do you feel like after all your years working in publishing – do you feel like you have like an intuition for what’s going to do well?
John: Well, I mean, I hope and I pray I do. But sometimes it doesn’t work out that way. You find a book and a story that you love and you think, wow, this is fantastic. And something just does not fall into place, whether it is a consumer on the consumer side, or maybe something that we didn’t do. I wish I could shoot a hundred percent, but realistically that’s impossible. But I get such satisfaction when there is something that I get excited about, and then the in-house people are excited about, and then I started to think, oh, maybe I am right. And it just takes off.
You know – See You in the Cosmos – prime example. Loved it. I thought, man, there was really something here. And then the in-house publicity, and people in-house, were just getting excited over it. And then the reps – like myself, my fellow reps – jumped on, and this was really something. Just a great thing.
One of the things that I really, really try to do is establish the authors who live and write within my territory as regional authors. I’m a firm believer that you have to establish yourself in your area and then branch out from there. Now, there are circumstances where something comes in that is huge nationally – and that does happen. But by and large, I just try to focus on regional, and then grow it out from there.
Jack: In March, the month after See You in the Cosmos was published, it was a top-10 bestseller in the state of Michigan.
John: Yeah, isn’t it nice when you put in a lot of work and then finally, you see the end result like that? I mean, that’s awesome. But, hey, we’re not stopping there.
Jack: Thanks very much to John Dennany of Penguin Random House Young Readers. If you see my novel, See You in the Cosmos, in a bookstore, there’s a good chance that a sales rep like John visited that same store months prior to convince them to stock it. Music for this podcast is by Saint Benjamin (now known as Ben Johnson Music Factory). This week, we also used “Acoustic Meditation” by Jason Shaw, from freemusicarchive.org.