NEW YORK — Think the book-buying season peaks at Christmas? Think again.
In late September, while most folks prepare for the holidays, a small army of salespeople are slipping cassettes into tape decks and pondering the real question on every publisher's mind: How to sell you the big books of spring.
Some of the listeners are cruising down California freeways, while others are cooped up in New England motels. When they turn up the tape volume, a jingling Motown chorus of "Spring Is Here" gives way to a British man's jaunty brogue. It's time to lose those winter blues.
"Hi, Harry here, with a daffodil between his lips," jokes Harold Evans, publisher and president of Random House, as the canned rock music fades. "And I want you all to know that we've got a \o7 monster\f7 of a spring."
For Maggie Castanan, motoring from Berkeley to a Sacramento bookstore, Evans' greeting snaps her to attention. A company sales representative since 1971, she takes mental notes as the publisher describes new titles like a waiter ticking off blue-plate specials. Although the lucrative Christmas season has barely begun, publishing runs on a year-round cycle of selling, and it's not too soon for her to start focusing on spring. The miles roll by.
Back in New York, the audiotapes interrupt a hectic day at the office for Michael Morrison. Unlike Castanan--whose territory ranges from stores in the East Bay to the Central Valley--he sells Random House titles exclusively to Barnes and Noble, the nation's largest book chain. Morrison pays special attention to potential blockbusters on the new list, sorting his way through a recorded spiel that lasts 105 minutes and spotlights 70 spring books.
It's like a long, chatty letter from home. The Random House sales representatives need ammunition to market these new titles, and the audiotapes get them started. But they're just the beginning. In weeks to come, the sales force will meet in New York to craft marketing strategies for each book. They'll also anticipate a raft of real-world problems:
How do you sell yet \o7 another\f7 book on the JFK assassination to skeptical store owners? Why should merchants care about an unknown first novelist who has little or no chance of appearing on "Oprah"? If stores already have five shelves of gardening titles and you're pushing three new books on roses, the aisles could get crowded.
You need a hook, a pitch to make your product stand out. And that becomes an obsession for the unsung heroes of America's $18-billion book business.
"We're the ones out on Main Street," says Castanan, who along with 56 other people sells books to bookstores for Random House, the nation's largest consumer publisher. "And the home office needs to know what customers want. So I think of us as being on the front lines, the real point of contact."
Every year, an estimated 150,000 new titles hit the market, and publishers spend millions to win your business, haggling over everything from dust-jacket designs to price and publicity. But there's only so much that can be done behind closed doors in Manhattan. Eventually, these books wind up in your neighborhood store--and it isn't because a few executives wish it so.
Standing between them and consumers are the sales reps. Like an army of literary Willy Lomans, they fan out across America and try to drum up business wherever books are sold. They work long hours for relatively little money, and few experts mention their names when new titles start climbing the bestseller charts. But attention must be paid.
"Sales representatives are very much out on their own, constantly on the road," says Betty Fairchild, who supervises six Random House sales reps in the West. "They drive a lot at night and spend days away from their families. Yet that's the job. That's what's expected."
The work is especially demanding at Random House, which is part of the larger Random House Inc., a publishing conglomerate that also includes Alfred A. Knopf, Times Books, Vintage, Pantheon, Villard, Crown and other imprints. Run by the Newhouse family, whose fortune is valued at more than $10 billion, Random House is known as a tough place to work. Editors and publishers are expected to meet extremely high standards, and sales reps are no different.
They come from a variety of professional backgrounds. Castanan has spent most of her life in the Bay Area selling books, both in stores and for publishers. Morrison comes to the book world with a business orientation, having worked for several publishers as an accountant and production manager.