How Business Books are Sold

People ask me if there is a lull between Thanksgiving and Christmas in the publishing industry. Do we finally get a chance to lower the volume from a loud and hectic beat of the drum to something lower and more restful? The answer is a definitive no…well, lets say mostly no. And the answer has a lot to do with the way business books are sold. Here are some of the specifics, first. 

On the editorial side, we tend to see fewer viable book proposals during this period. We experience less agent activity as many agents take at least part of this time to recharge their batteries. This means that we are less likely to see proposals for the truly game-changing books, the really big books that can command advances well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, or higher. We are much more likely to see those books in other months like January or September (which, coincidentally, are two good months for business book sales as well). However, that does not mean that things slow down for us. Here’s why.

Like most large publishers, we are a three-season publisher. This means that three times a year, we are finalizing a list of books that our stellar sales reps will be selling for the following season. For example, in mid-November we held our sales conference for the summer, 2009 books—books slated to be published from May to August of 2009. That shows you how many months in advance we are working.

With each publishing season the reps get a catalog that includes one to two pages featuring each book. Each page includes a detailed description of the book, its unique selling proposition, a picture of the book jacket, a bio of the author, as well as a list of his or her most successful books. This catalog, prepared largely by that publisher’s various marketing teams, is the key tool used by the  reps to sell each book to the large chains and independent bookstores. Business book buyers from bookstores both large and small tend to be well versed in the business book category and make calculated decisions on how many of each book to buy. However, I would be less than candid if I did not tell you that it is common for publishers to be disappointed with the actual buy on certain key titles. But the good news is that if a book takes off, the book chains and stores respond by placing quick reorders. And publishers respond just as quickly by making sure that books are available (if there are not enough in stock, publishers reprint in lightning-like fashion).     

What separates the top tier publishers from all the others is related, in part, to the number of books each imprint has to sell each season. A publishing imprint that publishes, say, fifteen books per season naturally has a far more manageable task than the publisher that may sell 80-100 per season. I have been on both ends of the spectrum and I can tell you that the list of fifteen books are better titled, packaged and handled than the 80-100 put out by a single, very frenetic imprint. Business book buyers from the Barnes & Noble’s of the world recognize the difference between the two imprints, and order accordingly. These buyers understand that the imprint with the smaller number of titles will put much more resources (e.g. marketing and otherwise) behind each title and feel confident placing larger orders from the top tier publishing houses. 

Lastly, the key to all of this is to make sure that when each book is published, a maximum number of each book goes out the door onto the store’s bookshelves. The greater the number, the more visible the book and the more visible, the more copies that are eventually bought by our final customer, the book buyer/reader. 


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