Death of a (book) Salesman

Back in the nineteen sixties when publishing was still the tweed jacket and pipe sort of business that it is still often portrayed as being; the tawdry process of making money was regarded with some suspicion. It was a life style choice for academics manqué attracted by the combination of long lunches and the publishing of low selling literary works untainted by popularity.

That left a gap in the market that was filled by new, hungry, sales focussed paperback houses (then regarded with the same tolerant disdain that modern publishers aimed at Amazon until not so very long ago) who gradually swallowed up the old hard back houses.

Even so, in the UK at least, publishing was still a pretty cosy world. The net book agreement protected smaller retailers and the less commercially savvy publishers by ensuring that they could not be undercut on price.

But this artificially levelled playing field was itself swept away by a new breed of sales driven publishers, spearheaded by company’s like Headline who epitomised the new pile’em high sell’em cheap post NBA world of the supermarket bestseller.

This ushered in the age of the celebrity book. An age where sales teams took more or less open pleasure in bullying editors out of their ivory towers and in which discounts rose and margins dropped as rival sales teams competed – futilely - for ever greater market share.

In the process two things happened. The author’s share of publishing revenue dwindled to an all time low and booksellers began to be fatally damaged as key areas of their business migrated into other retail environments. The first to suffer were the independents, but the biggest victim was Waterstone’s which allowed itself to be lured into a fight with the supermarkets which it could never win. Almost without noticing we found ourselves in a world where books, like cheap furniture and second hand cars, were on permanent sale.

This has led directly to the horrors of the 20p e-book. And a world that is, so overwhelmingly, an Amazon friendly environment. Quote of the week: Kobo's Michael Tamblyn on Radio 4’s Bottom Line last Sunday: “competing with Amazon on price is like having a hold your breath competition with a fish”. Quite.

The fact is that for years now there have really only been about five people that a sales team needs to talk to in order to have books stocked throughout the UK. Their ability to influence the decisions of these retailers has always been fairly minimal, much more importantly though, the impact of in store promotions is dwindling at a huge rate. Store position still matters, but sales are now being driven ever more by the tidal processes of the internet: processes which are almost wholly indifferent to the activities of sales people.

The era in which sales people were the big beasts of the publishing jungle is coming to an end. What is interesting is that those are the people who still run the major publishers. Whether they are the best people to grasp the nettle of opportunity the new world offers them is very much a matter of your point of view.

It certainly isn’t self evident.



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