Simon & Schuster cuts loose the South and Midwest indies

>> Thursday, January 7, 2010

Simon & Schuster announced this week that it's cutting back on its field sales force. These are the people who do what Wendi used to do for Random House Kids: travel around a geographic territory to visit independent booksellers and present each season's forthcoming crop of titles. Booksellers already get catalogs, but many of them have no time to look them over. And a good sales rep can point them to the books that fit best in their store or their region, because the sales rep knows her stores and her region. In the best of situations, booksellers rely on sales reps to cut through the hundreds of thousands of new books each season and steer them to the books they'll want and do best with.

But every time Wendi went on one of her more extended store visit trips, I would invariably ask her, "How can publishers possibly afford this?" Wendi's territory stretched from Miami to North Carolina, and west to Arkansas. That's a lot of geographic territory, and rarely did she have more than one store per town to visit. Sometimes she would drive hundreds of miles between stores on the same trip. She ate up gas (paid for, along with her car, by Random House), stayed in hotels (paid for by Random House), and ate out every day (paid for by Random House.) Occasionally, she flew places (paid for by Random House). And she hit the road to those places three times a year.

While many of her accounts placed decent-sized orders, only one of them--Books-a-Million--was on any kind of par with Barnes and Noble, Borders, or Amazon--let alone the big box stores. How was this profitable, I constantly asked her, to send her all over the South selling handfuls of books here and there to independents?

Turns out, it wasn't. At least that's what Simon & Schuster is saying. Here's part of their announcement, from the Publisher's Weekly article:

As part of the reorganization of its field sales force, Simon & Schuster has created a new telemarketing department while reducing the number of reps in the field. Sources said that the addition of telemarketing reps somewhat offset the cut of nine field reps, resulting in a net job loss under 10.

Under its new approach, S&S’s new field sales team “will focus on the geographic regions where our sales are strongest—urban areas with a large base of key independent retail, wholesale, and educational accounts,” S&S executive v-p for sales and marketing Michael Selleck said in a memo explaining the reorganization.
 Catch that? "S&S's new field sales team 'will focus on the geographic regions where our sales are strongest--urban areas with a large base of key independent retail, wholesale, and educational accounts.'" By "urban areas with a large base of key independent retail, wholesale, and educational accounts," they don't mean Atlanta. Or Miami. Or Charlotte. Or Nashville. Or Memphis. Or Raleigh-Durham. Or Jacksonville. Or Orlando. Or Birmingham. Or Columbia. How do we know this? Because one of Wendi's sales rep friends at S&S who had all those cities in her territory--the same one Wendi used to work--just got fired. She's going to be replaced by a telemarketer--which any indie will tell you isn't nearly the same thing.

Given the Southern indies no longer serviced by a sales rep, you can pretty much guarantee that the Midwest, and the Plains, and the Southwest--with the possible exception of Texas?--are out too. That leaves the only "urban areas with a large base of key independent retail, wholesale, and educational accounts" as the Northeast and the West Coast. The flyover states are S.O.L.

I get that there are more bookstores per capita in the Northeast and West Coast than anywhere else in the country, and that sending sales reps on thousand-mile treks wasn't cost effective. But by reserving in-person visits to the Northeast and West Coast, and shunting everyone else to telemarketers, S&S is just reinforcing old stereotypes about the coasts versus the flyover states--and doing those booksellers in those regions a disservice. Without visiting a store and getting to know its staff, its inventory, and its customers, how can a sales rep effectively represent a publisher's books?

I think, ultimately, the solution has to be some compromise between visiting distant stores three times a year and never visiting them at all. What about once yearly visits, with video conferencing? Or better, a walkthrough of relevant book titles via a remote slideshow with the rep on the line? People already do this in academics and other businesses. Some booksellers may have to get a little more tech savvy--but it beats the alternative. And keeping regions with individual reps means the bookstores get more personalized service than someone out of region looking at previous sales numbers to suggest titles.

In the meantime, our sympathies to all our friends who lost their jobs Monday. Here's hoping it only leads to bigger and better things in the long term.


Jessica Leader January 10, 2010 at 3:30 PM  

Thanks for this bit of info, Alan! As a new S&S author (and midsouther--hello!), I'm feeling on the cusp of sadder and wiser.

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