But Can They Sell It?

Yesterday, Pam sent a question about Tuesday’s post on The Process of Acceptance:

Rachelle said: “At Pub Board, the sales and marketing people usually have the final say about whether to accept the book for publication or not. They have to strongly believe they can sell it.” This is the part that confuses me. If a house has good sales people, shouldn’t they be able to take a book and sell it? After all, it’s their job. It seems that when a sales person says, “I don’t know if I can sell it,” that negatively reflects on their ability to be a sales person. I don’t mean to sound snarky – it really does confuse me. It’s my job to learn and grow as a writer, to write and rewrite until my words sing. Why isn’t the sales person’s job to be the best they can be? Take the books the editor thinks are good and sell them!

Let’s just be blunt here. The sales people ARE being the best they can be—by knowing their market. By anticipating what their customers will buy. By diligently searching for just the right products to make their customers happy. The job of a sales person (in ANY industry) is NOT to take any old junk they can think of and try to shove it down people’s throats. Instead, it’s to find out what their customers want, and provide them with it.

Now, you may not have thought of it this way, but I’m a sales person. Is it my job to take whatever detritus rolls across my inbox and “do my job” and sell it? Of course not. It’s my job to choose the projects I think my customers (publishers) are looking for, then try to sell them. The reason for almost all my rejections is: I don’t think I can sell it.

When a salesperson says “I don’t think I can sell it,” it doesn’t reflect negatively on their ability to sell. It reflects positively on their knowledge of their market. If a marketing person doesn’t believe they can adequately market the book, it’s because their knowledge tells them that this author and/or book may not lend itself well to the traditional avenues of marketing; it may not capture audiences’ attention and be able to compete in the crowded marketplace.

It’s not realistic to think that a “good” salesperson can just take any book the editor thinks is good and sell it. If you walk into Best Buy looking for a new computer, is it likely that a great salesperson could sell you a refrigerator? Perhaps the salesperson would be more successful if they FIRST found out what you wanted… then walked you over to the computer department.

The editorial folks and the marketing/sales folks have separate purposes. The editors determine that the book has merit, is publishable, and hopefully if readers were to pick it up, they’d like it. The marketing/sales folks have to make a more difficult decision, often harsh yet firmly grounded in solid business principles. They have to decide if they think bookstores will buy the book, and if the company will benefit from publishing the book. The editors often get emotionally attached to a project; the marketing/sales people can’t afford to do this. The company’s bottom line depends on their wise decisions.

As a writer, you may want to count your blessings and be grateful for this process. Selling a book to a publisher is only the beginning; if you want an actual career as a writer, consumers have to buy your books. When the sales/marketing people have input in the publishing decisions and they choose your book, you have a better chance of bookstores and consumers choosing it too. And that’s exactly what you want.

Rachelle Gardner is a Christian literary agent affiliated with WordServe Literary Group in Colorado.

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


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  2. Timothy Fish on November 7, 2008 at 8:10 AM

    >If I can get on a soapbox for a moment, why is it that every time someone brings up money, someone has to say something about there being some more noble reason for us to do what we do? As to Adam’s remarks, most of the people I know have a love for their profession, whether they chose their career or came to it by accident. Passion is great and I believe it should be encouraged, but passion alone doesn’t pay the bills, put food on the table, put clothes on the kids’ backs or support the church. People often choose a job they love over one that pays more, but aside from housewives and retired folk, none of us can afford to work without getting paid something. Some people are happy writing just to be writing, but others want to make money doing something they love. There’s nothing wrong with that. It is important for those people to know what the customers want. Anyone else, you can write whatever you want.

  3. adam on November 7, 2008 at 4:49 AM

    >Sorry! The second line should have said, “Yes, the business is there, but that isn’t WHY WE WRITE, is it”?

  4. Adam on November 7, 2008 at 4:42 AM

    >Why do we write?

    Yes, the business is there, but that isn’t, is it?

    Gone are the days when the majority of people work in a profession because of the compassion for the industry and not the love of money. Has this become us?

    We should never attempt to do anything without the burning desire to make a difference. That desire only comes from the inside. When I read, I want to be able to see myself from the inside of your heart. I want to walk in your shoes and get lost in the passion that you posses.

    If you only touch one life, then you’ve done what you were supposed to do. The changing of one life by the intimate writing of another can never be quantified by sales and numbers. We write because we love to write. When you write what moves you the most, it will in turn, move the world!

  5. Kathi Lipp on November 6, 2008 at 4:28 PM

    >I am an author, and a former sales rep. As a sales rep, I was also a reader – so I sold things that I loved, and I sold things that were a slam dunk – I still had to feed my kids and make sales quotas. I know that whenever I tried to sell something I didn’t believe in, or wasn’t already a proven seller, not only did I not feel great about it, I lost a little trust from my buyer.Obviously, neither of us could afford to take big chances. Today, with current economic conditions, taken chances gets to be even riskier.

    If you have a book that is not an easy sell, that means that you become the sales person. It’s as simple as that in today’s market. It is not a salespersons job to take something that is unsellable and make it fly off the shelves.

    Kathi Lipp
    Standing up for all those road warrior sales people!

  6. DAISY on November 6, 2008 at 4:24 PM

    >Let’s have another contest to see who can write the best “more of the same but different” sentence, paragraph or very short story and let Rachelle pick the winner according to what she sees in the industry. Then we might be better directed in our writing. C’mon, whaddaya say? We love contests, Rachelle! We live for them! Well, almost.

  7. Rachelle on November 6, 2008 at 3:19 PM

    >Anonymous 8:54 — First, we love disagreement here. Keeps things interesting.

    More importantly, things aren't black & white. Sure we always like to find "books we can sell." But if you walk through the bookstore or look through publishers' catalogs, you'll see hundreds (thousands?) of "different" and less popular books (just like you described in your record catalog). There are always books on which we are willing to take risks.

    My post was not really about "more of same but different." It was about the fact that we can't take a book we think is a total dog and "just sell it" because apparently "that's our job."

    Also, Timothy made a very important point in that MORE readers are looking for "more of same" as opposed to something really original.

  8. Avily Jerome on November 6, 2008 at 2:18 PM

    >Thanks for your post, Rachelle!

    One thought- if we want to start seeing some stuff out there that isn’t “the same but different,” maybe we should start buying some stuff that is actually “different.”

    The market bends to supply and demand. If we start embracing the stuff that is different, the market will start to reflect that, and more of that different stuff will be marketable.

  9. Timothy Fish on November 6, 2008 at 1:52 PM

    >The writer who wants to make money from writing should be asking the same question before she puts pen to paper. There is no reason that we have to write to make money, but if we do we should focus on those high concept projects that Anonymous 8:54 described as “more of the same, only different.” Spend a few minutes in the discussion areas of Amazon.com and it won’t take you long to realize that readers are looking for “more of the same, only different.” I think that is how we can explain why television shows can run for years, telling the same story every week. People know what they want and will go where they can get it. If we hope to make money, we must figure out what they want and how we can provide it.

  10. anonymous (of course) on November 6, 2008 at 12:30 PM

    >I know I’m very inexperienced here, but as I read what Rachelle writes, followed by the responses, I realize that a lot of you are not able to look objectively at what she’s saying. I’m sure I’ll be there one day as well when I’ve completed my novel. But for now, I can still look in from the outside, so to speak.

    Rachelle is simply talking about the business end of writing. It’s a simple open or shut (the book) case at that point. The only question on the table is…do we think we can sell it or not? At the selling stage of the game it can no longer be about the intimate folds of the pages, but has to be reduced to a question of numbers. And, in a business overrun by countless manuscripts, how can they approach it any other way? It may be cold and hard to us, but it’s business.

  11. Nicole on November 6, 2008 at 11:10 AM

    >Marketing teams have still failed to market men’s fiction well. The really good marketing is done with already successful authors because they’ve established their buying audience. Selling books is another of those subjective/interpretive issues. What one salesman thinks should be “easy” to sell is another one’s bane.
    If the book has already made it through the editor’s scrutiny, we’re not talking refrigerators and computers.
    Selling a book can be a black hole, and it’s difficult to do for anyone. While some seem to be gifted in predicting trends, others couldn’t predict the rain when it’s falling on them.

  12. Anonymous on November 6, 2008 at 10:54 AM

    >Without disagreeing, I’m going to…ummm, disagree. How many good books have been trashed because some narrow-minded salesman said, “I don’t think I can sell it.” Like everyone else, they’re looking for more of the same, only different.

    It’s a diverse world out there. I can remember my mother telling the story of being in the clothing department and seeing something she wondered how anyone could possibly wear. A few weeks late she saw someone in the outfit and thought it looked very nice on them.

    I worked in sales for a record company. (Yeah, that tells you how old I am.) Our catalog ran the gamut. Sure everyone wanted to know if the Beach Boys or the Beatles had a new album coming out, but further back in my catalog of new releases I had slicks of the covers of the latest Guy Lombardo album and a concert by the London Philharmonic, Glen Campbell, etc.

    My job was to point out that while lots of people liked the latest rock group, stocking something else was good business.

  13. Yvonne on November 6, 2008 at 8:54 AM

    >Rachelle, I realize that genres go through phases.

    If a book is written well, but is not popular at this time and you or a publisher turns it down, would it be wise to just wait awhile and try again in a few years?

    How do publishers know what might be popular in the coming year or so?

  14. Gordon Carroll on November 6, 2008 at 8:28 AM

    >Great question… great answer.

  15. Kristi Holl on November 6, 2008 at 8:02 AM

    >Rachelle, how often do you turn down projects from your clients because you don’t think you can sell them? If you have a client who’s written a good book (good in your opinion as well), will you submit the book even if you think it might not sell? If you won’t submit it, is the client free to sell it on her own then (and keep her 15%)? I think there is a misconception that if you have an agent, THEN you can write whatever you please and the agent has to sell it.
    Kristi Holl
    Writer’s First Aid blog

  16. Katy McKenna on November 6, 2008 at 7:25 AM

    >Rachelle, Thanks for another great post! Q: Do the sales people make their decisions completely on the strength of the proposal? In other words, how much of a salesperson does the editor herself need to be when presenting the book to the pub board? How often (approximate percentage-wise) does a book get shot down at the pub board stage? Okay, that’s 3Q4U. I’ll stop! 🙂

  17. lynnrush on November 6, 2008 at 6:50 AM

    >Thanks for the post, Rachelle.
    That was a great question, once I’ve always wondered about.
    Thanks, have a great day.

  18. Susan on November 6, 2008 at 2:43 AM

    >I’ve bookmarked this post: thank you for the reminder that great writing doesn’t always mean a published novel! Writing is hard work, but it’s not the whole job. It took me a long time to learn that, and start making choices.