Nothing more clearly illustrates the seismic shifts in the publishing landscape in the past 10 years than the decline of publishers’ sales forces.
Their numbers started to diminish in the 1990s, as the end of the Net Book Agreement brought about the decline of independent bookselling and the demise of that now legendary figure, the regional sales rep.
While the end of the sales rep can now be seen as presaging the loss of prestige and status now being suffered by sales forces, there was a decade-long period when that was far from apparent. As supermarkets opened up new markets, The Golden Age of the Promotional Slot was born and wheeler-dealer sales directors fought tooth and nail with their rivals to secure for their big authors those all-important chart positions and “book of the week” slots.
And it worked — up to a point. If you got the right book, with the right package, into a prominent enough retail position there was a good chance it would sell. Certainly four out of 10 would, and that was enough.
That made sales people powerful. Perhaps understandably, the view was that while editors, publicists and marketers ponced around, sales people got their hands dirty: it was them at the sharp end, actually cutting the deals and making the money.
The fact that salespeople have a fatal tendency to be bonus whores and discount their own grandmothers to make the sale meant that retailers were offered deeper and deeper discounts and the era of the book on permanent sale had arrived. The book brand has yet to recover.
So by the time Amazon had grown large enough to eat everyone else’s lunch, publishers were shockingly vulnerable and we were soon confronted by the hilariously unedifying spectacle of the self same people who had destroyed the Net Book Agreement in the name of free market economics signing up to the protectionism of “the agency model” in an attempt to bring the price of books back up.
Narrower and shallower
So is this the end of the big beast salesperson? I think it is. The old certainties no longer hold and there seems to be an inverse proportion between the number of sales, marketing and publicity levers at the disposal of publishers and their certainty about how to use those levers to generate bestsellers. Above all, physical retail channels are both narrower and shallower than they once were, and their importance is fractional compared to their heyday. Sales directors are no longer the most important voices at publishing meetings.
There are things about this that one might miss—certainly their demise will contribute to making publishing an ever more metrosexual, mineral-water industry. One thing to be sure about, though, is that book salespeople tended to like a drink and had a refreshing contempt for the kinds of high-flown pretension that this business has a tendency to indulge in.
But for all that, they were over-promoted: a capacity to cut a deal and bully editors made them executive catnip for their corporate bosses, who failed to remember that salespeople are inherently short-sighted and have an absolute inability to look beyond the next year’s sales targets.
But, in the absence of salespeople, the interesting question is where the publishing c.e.o.s of the future will come from. Digital departments are still far too nascent, and too much of what they do involves managing processes—not deal-making and driving new business. Publicity hardly seems likely to step up. Editorial may be at the heart of every process, but editors are given so little autonomy and information is withheld from them whenever possible, so that too may not be feasible. Above all, editors have one fatal problem: they care about books too much, and that makes them suspect.
Perhaps publishers will be forced to look to the people in the business who combine deal-making and negotiation skills with driving new business and an intimate understanding of the creative core of the business. Agents?
Only kidding. It’s already looking like marketing. For the next decade all the talk will be about “product” and “platforms”. Better the devils you knew?
Agent Orange is a UK-based agent. They can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org