Book Publishing Operations: How Texbooks Are Sold

1 Aug

Once upon a time, I had this dream that all you had to do to sell a book was to publish a good book; you know, that kind of Field of Dreams “if you build it, they will come” idea. This approach is alternately known as “an excellent way to sell absolutely nothing at all no matter what or how great your product may be.” And the only people who like that method of non-sales less than the authors of books are the publishers of those books.

So, to get our sales up to where they need to be, that’s why we got Lindsey Springer in here to coordinate these efforts. But, textbook sales are a completely different beast than trades sales, especially in terms of how the yearly calendar works. So, to get her started on the right track, we brought in a consultant for a day to get down to the real nuts & bolts of making those big adoption sales. Sure, having been a faculty member for 10 or so years, I had a pretty good idea of how all this works—I mean, after all, we have been selling textbooks for the last three years—but seeing all this from the selling end is distinctly different than from that of the instructor’s perspective.

One big difference between textbook vs. trade sales is the yearly timeline. With trade sales—for the most part—you’ll want to release your “big” books in the fall after a carefully tailored pre-release campaign. That’s because most of your sales will likely fall in the late October through late December. After the first of the year you’ll hit a slow time sales-wise, like most retailers, before things begin picking up with your next round of pre-release campaigns starting again in late spring and summer.

Textbooks are completely different. The summer is actually a research period for the upcoming fall semester pre-sell activities. A sales rep—and for the most part I’m referring to outside sales as opposed to inside sales although there is some overlap on activities—spends the summer learning the books in the list to be represented, learning the competitors’ books, learning the sales territory, and updating contact lists of faculty: who’s new, who’s gone, and who’s teaching what in particular.

During the fall semester, a textbook rep will make series of trips to campuses in the assigned territory. The first is to gather up office hours of faculty you’ll be wanting to talk to plus doing a walk-through of campus bookstores to double check what books are being used for different classes. The second round of trips is to meet with faculty individually about books in your list. The third and last trip of the fall semester is to follow up with faculty who’ve seen your books and get their feedback. Plus, you’ll want to catch those faculty members you missed the last time around.

The spring is crunch time: this is when textbook adoptions are determined for the next fall semester. (And once a book is adopted it’s usually going to be used for at least two years before a department goes through the selection/adoption process again.) After making a list of your 10-15-25 most likely and most lucrative prospects, you concentrate almost exclusively on closing those deals over the course of the semester. One big important thing is to figure out if adoptions are done by committee (most likely) or individually by instructors (less likely). If it’s a committee, you have to stay in touch will all of its members as well as being ready to give a presentation about your book to them.

Then, by April 1, it’s pretty much all over except for the crying. By April 90% of all adoption decisions have been made, faculty are wrapping up the semester and getting ready to be scarce for the summer, and now’s the point at which a rep begins the research and planning stage all over again.

Of course, this is just the basic outline. There were lots of important details we learned both large (always get in—and stay in—good with departmental secretaries) and small (wear comfortable shoes). For me, it really made clear by I’m not particularly well suited by nature for sales work. On the other, Lindsey is, thankfully, chomping at the bit to get started so it should be an interesting year coming up.


One Response to “Book Publishing Operations: How Texbooks Are Sold”

  1. Stephen Tiano August 3, 2008 at 9:48 am #

    Well, that’s pretty interesting … as is how far off the mark I’d been in my thinking on the subject.

    Now it’s embarrassingly naive to admit, but I just figured that textbooks were sold to a kind of “captive audience”. I mean, I thought that they were written by well-known authorities in the subject matter, that they were automatically adopted by the schools of the authors, and sales just spread.

    For the first time, I feel like an “artistic” type—you know, above the mundane stuff like sales (which pay the bills).

    Thanks for the enlightening piece, Mark.

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