Publishing in Reverse: Understanding the Sales Process of Publishing from Z-A

Sales Is a Process

“Hey, Mark,” Bill cheerily told me in one of our first phone calls, “I just wanted to make sure to remind you that sales materials are due in two weeks. We need to get them in the hands of the sales team far enough before next season’s pre-sales meeting, so they have time to read them.”

“What do you need, exactly?” I asked.

“Well, the sales team would love to see TIP sheets, covers and manuscripts or proof pages. Author biographies and photos would be good. Any information you have on sales buy-backs, marketing budgets and plans, publicity commitments, and endorsements would help. If the author has any video or podcasts, or blog posts they’ve written, include those too,” Bill rattled off without missing a beat, “You know, the basics.”

Steps in the Sales Cycle

This conversation took place twelve months or more before the release date of the title. Why does the sales process require that much time? Here’s a breakdown of the various steps from the end to the beginning.

Every publisher has its own book publishing routines. Traditionally, they release titles in two or three seasons throughout the year. Self-publishers aren’t constrained by seasons, for the most part. But it is good to understand how the sales cycle can impact the publication date you choose for your book.

Sales people pitch titles to booksellers nine months in advance of an on-sale date. A salesperson calls on accounts in January to get them to buy and stock a title that will publish in September. For that to happen, the publisher needs to create and provide the sales team with marketing and sales information and collateral materials two to three months prior to them pitching the title. But the sales cycle can’t start until the publisher acquires the rights to publish the book.

The sales cycle is like a series of dominoes. A sequence of things have to happen, each dependent on the previous one. Setting up those dominoes takes time. Publishers can shorten the time, but they still need to work within a publishing industry infrastructure that is anything but nimble.

The Sales Cycle from End to Beginning

Let’s consider the sales cycle and how it depends on other publishing activities. A title’s on-sale date (or pub date) is the fixed point on the sales-cycle horizon. Take, for example, a title with great holiday appeal. While Christmas may fall on December 25, people purchase holiday gifts well before that date. The holiday sales season extends from late October through December. So the publisher sets November 1 as the on-sale date.

For booksellers to start selling the title to retail customers in November, they need to have books in stock by October. Otherwise they won’t have copies on their store shelves in time. To supply booksellers with books by October, distributors must have time to process the title. That means receiving stock and ingest it into their warehouse. It requires the publisher to add title information to their system. Then the distributor will receive pre-orders, pick, pack, and ship books in September to fill orders from booksellers. All of this activity is predicated on having print books. Finished books are the outcome of editing, designing, and typesetting the book—a process that takes 6 to 8 months (i.e., starting in January).

Sales Must Coordinate with Other Activities

In addition to being dependent on production and printing, the sales cycle must also coordinate with marketing and publicity efforts. These are distinct from sales activities and kick off as much as a year before the pub date. Sometime around March or April the publisher presents its titles to the full sales conference. In the two months leading up to that conference, the publisher is laying the groundwork to make an unforgettable presentation. That involves pulling together all the required sales materials and amassing evidence of a robust marketing and publicity campaign.

The more high-profile endorsements and knock-your-sox-off reviews you have, the better. TV and radio appearances are hard to beat. Securing the best possible placement for the book in bookstores is a plus. Already in February, the publisher presents the title in a pre-sales conference involving select key sales people. Based on their feedback, the publisher can revise things to avoid problems and improve sales prospects.

Miss the Sales Cycle, Lose Sales

All the work invested in preparing for the two sales conferences aims to equip the sales team for their scheduled meetings with book buyers. If the publisher doesn’t provide the sales team with the necessary material, or if a title is not yet on the list, then that title misses the sales cycle. The sales person cannot present it to the bookseller and the bookseller will not know about it; but more importantly, the bookseller does not order any copies, and therefore cannot sell the title to their customers.

If you are thinking about when to publish your book, put yourself in the shoes of the sales team. Look at the decision about the publication date of your book from their vantage. If you are interested in having a sales team aggressively sell your book into the trade, the sales cycle dictates your pub-date possibilities. And that cycle requires them to pitch titles around nine months ahead of the publication date.

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