Wednesday, 9 November 2011

What would an e-rep look like? byJulia Jones

In the years when I was a bookseller the acceptable face of publishers came with their reps. At this distance I can hardly remember any rep who I wasn’t glad to see. That doesn’t mean that I was ever Ms Thoroughly-Sweet (far from it!) merely that my shop was so small and the orders so piffling that only the kindliest and most dedicated of the fraternity bothered to make the detour off the A12 and lug their battered briefcases down the village high street to drink a cup of my indifferent coffee. It was rare that I was so rushed off my feet with customers that I couldn’t enjoy looking though forthcoming titles and wondering exactly which customer each book might suit. Then there was the fun of popping that book in the front window and lurking in my lair to see who might come wandering past … and stop … and look … and make up their mind to come in. When I wasn’t sure about stocking a book, I came to trust my friends, the reps’, advice. They were experienced members of the trade and they were also booklovers. They’d listened to the editors’ pitch at the sales conference - sometimes they’d met the author - they knew what their publicity department had planned. They bought their publishers’ catalogues alive.

One of the best things that has happened to me this year is that I’ve met a firm of freelance reps who are prepared to carry my print titles. It’s taken away so much of the loneliness of self-publishing as well as showing tangible improvements in the sales to bookshops. Now I want the same support and guidance in the e-world and, judging from other Authors Electric posts, I’m not the only one. “It’s always psychologically difficult trying to sell your own work” as Enid Richemont commented a few weeks ago. She was talking about the big stuff – going to Frankfurt and Bologna book fairs to promote one's work. Hell! when I was in my bookshop and the lovely customer walked in, instead of ravening down their credit-card like a Venus flytrap, I was just as likely to end my spiel about the glories of the latest subscribed title with the pathetic “I expect you could get it from the local library.”

Well that’s not a get-out line many of us will be using any more. One of the reasons I’ve signed up to the Gardners Digital Warehouse is that it makes my ebooks available for purchase in the public library system but I’m not expecting to book the kids a skiing holiday with those proceeds … So, sticking with the High Street Bookshop – how can I sell my e-books there and would an e-rep help? I asked Ali Balaban who runs the Gardners’ Digital Warehouse to explain to me in simplest language exactly how it interfaces with the retail sector. Apologies if I am teaching my grandmas here …

How the Gardners Digital Warehouse system works (for Dummies)

The ebook file (ePUB format only) is stored with Gardners. The details are displayed on the retailers website – let’s get respectable and say Foyles. Foyles takes the customer’s money – we’ll call her Julia – and her details (Julia’s email address). Once these have been validated Gardners email Julia the link to download – though it arrives in her inbox as if sent from Foyles. It’s been made totally secure via Digital Rights Management (DRM) – ie can’t be copied, forwarded or printed. Foyles pay Gardners at the end of the month (less their agreed discount) and Gardners pays the publisher (less their wholesaler rate). We’ll call them Golden Duck

This works for big shops or retail chains who maintain their own websites. If a small shop has its own site it can take data from Gardners – thus allowing it to promote the books of its choice, developing its own specialism or responding to its local customers interests – or it can use the Gardners site, Hive. is the site that is intended as the interface between internet shoppers and their local bookshop. Hive is also intended as a means of enabling local bookshops to ‘carry’ (by proxy) a wide range of electronic products as well as printed books – and to be (virtually) available to their customers 24/7. Customers who buy from Hive are encouraged to nominate a local bookshop who will then receive the retailer’s percentage from their purchase. Gardners take the wholesale percentage and the Golden Duck (the publisher) is paid as usual.

Hive stocks printed books, DVDs, CDs and e-books. If the purchase is a physical object – such as a printed book – it will either be available for collection from the local bookshop or delivered directly to the customer. If it is an e-book it will be sent as a DRM download to the customer’s email address or if the customer has a portable device (an iphone for instance) the download can be done in the shop when payment is made.

Hive produce point of sale materials, organise promotions and marketing campaigns. I find it quite hard to understand why all independent bookshops don’t simply stick a Hive poster in their window saying “ e-books sold here” or “order from us 24/7” Any extra sale earned this way would surely be a bonus? But I’ve been out of the High Street for twenty years. Is there perhaps a fatalism in the trade which is allowing the e-book market to be handed to Amazon and the Kindle? I’m not sure how I’d react if I were an independent bookseller now. I read an excellent article in The Bookseller recently which urged Indies to survive by knowing their stock, knowing their customers, being an integral part of their local cultural communities – all those classic traditional bookselling values which I endorse and which my rep friends in those olden days (golden days?) helped me put into practice.

As I said in my previous blog I’ll buy books from anywhere – from Amazon or a second-hand charity box in a garden. I’d like to buy e-books that way too. Mobi ebooks purchased from Amazon can only be read on a Kindle or via a Kindle app. I’ve got some of those. The ePUB versions sold via Gardners and potentially major outlets such as the Apple ibookstore or Google e-books as well as via high street retailers are potentially more flexible in that they can be read on a wide range of devices other than dedicated e-readers. I fancy them as well. And I’m guessing that other readers are equally ready to purchase books in a variety of formats, both print and electronic and I believe that physical bookshops may be ideally placed to encourage this. A bookseller might, for instance, capitalise on a customer’s enthusiasm for something newly published and looking tempting in its print form with the suggestion that there are backlist titles by that same writer ready to be read electronically. This, I think, is where a book rep who is also an e-book rep, could be invaluable. I hope that my friends at Signature, who are currently doing such a great job with The Oaken Heart (print only), The Salt-Stained Book (print, MOBI and ePUB), and my most-recently-published A Ravelled Flag will soon find ways of promoting all the versions of each title to the most appropriate outlets.

Signature are primarily print reps who may find ways to include e-repping with their bread-and-butter retail trade. Here at Authors Electric we are less concerned with print, more with the effective marketing of our electronic wares. So, what would a dedicated e-rep do? Identify likely review blogs? Check out all possible sales sites? Tweet on a book's behalf? Suggest targeted advertising via Facebook, Google or other social media? Advise on the up-loading of synopses, author biogs, video clips, comments and reviews? Promote to wholesalers and retailers? What do you think, fellow electric authors?

And how would our e-rep get paid? On a contracted basis – offering a package of services per title? Or on a sales percentage, in which case they might need to take on responsibility for the entire interface between e-book author and display sites. "Cut out the middle man" is a superficially appealing slogan but, with something as personal as marketing our own books, mightn’t we be grateful for someone else’s supportive, energetic practical input? Then, perhaps, we’d find more time to write …


Dan Holloway said...

I spent four years managing small flooring showrooms and visits from reps was always the highlight of my job. Some were just lovely people I'd share a coffee with, others would come with boxes of unbridled delights (one of the stores was in Henley so I got to see some amazing things from mother of pearl tiling at £6000 a square metre to inch thick pure silk velvets). The relationship I built up with them over those years (I moved shops twice, but on each occasion was able to bring products with me - probably book reps work differently without the exclusive stockist thing) meant I got to build collections that set each store apart from those in the surrounding area. And they had that magic mix or whatever other Kenwood-related phrase you call it - the dazzling things that drew people in but no one bought, the "go-to" products that people came from miles around because only you stocked them, and the bread and butter products that take up very little floor space but provide almost all your sales. Bookselling is a very different business, of course, but the stores that keep me coming back for my Murakami and P D James are nonetheless ones that share the magimix philosophy rather than simply stocking what everyone sells and knows will sell. The Albion Beatnik has whole shelves of obscure poetry and in-translation books that are a "go-to", for example (though most people still end up buying the £2 copies of Naked Lunch). And even Waterstone's keep me coming back because I love flicking through copies of McSweeney's that no one buys.

None of which answers any questions. It's part reminiscence, but sort of relevant - 1. because the store/rep relationship is vital and 2. because as an independent retailer you need to remember you can't compete on volume so you have to stand out another way - and that's usually by on the one hand dazzling your customer (McSweeney's) and on the other making yourself a must-visit (knowing your in-translation onions or always having everything written by or about Anais Nin, say) - and both of those things come from fostering relationships with reps, just as Julia clearly did - I know that most of the reps who came to see me spent very little time with most of the shops on their patch. Make enough tea, show genuine passion and interest in their products, and show you can sell them, and you make yourself one of their tester outlets - they'll come to you when they have something unusual/give you first refusal on Point of Sale materials (one of my proudest working moments was being chosen as product consultant for a new core range when luxury flooring brand Amtico were reinventing themselves back in about 2004).

And to get to a bit that's sort of relevant at last, ebook stores allow small retailers the opportunity they always dreamed of - the chance to create the product mix of their dreams without being confined by square footage. They can all create the perfect Kenwood shop window that will make them places to seek out to see what's new, exciting, unusual, gobsmackingly innovative. Before people one-click Dan Brown. Which is very much a retailer-side view, but as retailers are reps' customers it sort of feeds in to the questions asked.

Enid Richemont said...

I can turn my books into Kindle books or ePubs - so far so easy. The Kindle book drops into Amazon, no problem.
But here's the dead end - how do I get my ePub into any/all of Gardners, Waterstones, WHSmith, etc in order to reach the other eReaders as well as the Kindle? The Hive is good for booksellers and readers, but seems to have nothing to say to authors.

Katherine Roberts said...

Very thought-provoking post, Julia.
I can see bookstores are worried they might lose profits if they don't somehow "stock" e-books, but (speaking as a reader here), I view the two forms of books as two quite different animals, providing different reading experiences.

I would not even consider going into a shop to buy an e-book. But when shopping for paper books, I enjoy the browsing experience almost more than the purchased item, so will only buy online if I know exactly what I want or need it quickly.

To me, physical book buying should be more like going out for a coffee in a nice cafe... you want a decent cup of coffee, but you could get that at home more cheaply. Mostly you pay for the atmosphere (of the shop, the staff, the town, the friends you are with, the weather, the feeling of being on holiday from your computer.) Some of that permeates the pages of the book you buy, and lingers for years afterwards.

So for Amazon, I'm tempted to say "render unto Caesar..." and just hope that bookstores can find a way to continue giving readers an atmospheric browsing experience with paper, whether by offering e-books on the side or something else. (My local enterprising independent now has a Thorntons chocolate franchise, and coffee is of course another favourite to partner books... both of these more likely to draw me into my high street store than another way to buy e-books.)

Linda Newbery said...

Interesting post, Julia, and very amusingly written. Not sure I can add anything, but lots to think about.