Thursday, June 4, 2009

These Guys Sell Our Books to Your Bookstores

(blognote by co-publisher Bobby Byrd)

Who are these people? And why for God's sake are they smiling? Good questions. First off—besides being friends of ours—they are BOOK people, they read BOOKS, they get excited about BOOKS and they sell BOOKS. This last fact is very important to Cinco Puntos because they sell OUR BOOKS. They are independent sales reps who are contracted to our distributor Consortium Book Sales and Distribution, which is headquartered in Minneapolis, MN (CBSD was purchased last year by Perseus Distribution but retains its headquarters in Minneapolis although shipping and handling is now done by PSB). Their job is to sell books to “the trade,” that is, to the independent retail bookstores whose numbers are diminishing around the country. They also sell to wholesalers and retailers that reside in their territories. Their client base, thanks to the ferocious competition from retail giants like Barnes & Noble et al and, is shrinking. [Note:, B&N, etc are "national accounts" and CBSD handles them in-house.]

Yet, these men and women fight back. They know their territories, they know their buyers, and they are the ones who plant the seeds for a book’s popularity, especially those books without national advertising campaigns and big name authors, books with niche and regional audiences. So many times books are sold by groundswell buzz, what in the current vernacular is called “viral” information. I am sure that some wiseass programmer with an understanding of the book industry could create an algorithm that extrapolates the percentage of sales to places like Amazon and B&N that sales reps like these create. It would be, I think, significant, and a pleasant surprise to the book world.

Twice a year CBSD hosts a two-day sales conference, usually in NYC, and these guys, our sales reps, are sitting at the tables to listen to the CBSD publishers. CBSD now manages sales and distribution for 108 publishers. It’s a great group of publishers—exciting and intellectually stimulating and politically in sync. A wide range of points of view. And fun. (Look at this link and you’ll see what I’m talking about.) We all bring our dog and pony shows. The rules are we have two minutes per book. TWO MINUTES! Holy perritos de Chihuahua, we’ve worked all year and more on these books, we love them, and we must explain them in two minutes. And for two days the sales reps must listen to our spiels (108 publishers, say an average of seven books per publisher, somewhere between 700 and 800 books). Making these two-minutes talks gives me the willies. It's much easier for me to get up in front of other audiences to talk about this or that or to give a poetry reading. It's strange. When it’s done, the sales reps pack up their bags and go home. They study and organize our materials, they map out a plan, and they get out on the road, calling on clients they have known for years. These guys are one of the parts of the publishing industry that the general public doesn’t know too much about, but Cinco Puntos—and other independents like us—exist in a large part because they are selling our books.

On Saturday night of Sales Conference, CBSD sponsors a party. It's always fun. Business and laughter and chisme and wine and a good buffet and a walk through NYC afterwards. Below are some photographs from the May 2009 Sales Conference—

Lee with Elaine Katzenberger, Publisher of City Lights Books. City Lights, of course, is one of the monuments to what it means to be an independent publisher. Elaine understands the history of City Lights but she is working to make its front list as significant as its backlist with all its (for)evergreen titles from Ginsberg, Kerouac, Corso and the rest of the titles from the San Francisco Renaissance. I first got to know Elaine in Las Vegas of all places at a Latin American Studies Association meeting. We watched a sad and troubling debate between George Bush and John Kerry on the tube in Sandy Taylor's room—the late great Sandy Taylor of Curbstone Press—and afterwards we wandered around Las Vegas looking for a place to eat a real meal, talk about life and family and worry about four more years of George Bush.

Johnny Temple, publisher of Akashic Books, talking business with friends Amy Scholder, editor of Feminist Press and Elaine Katzenberger. Johnny and Akashic (based in Brooklyn) have been friends of ours ever since they signed on with CBSD, and for a number of years we have shared booth space at the annual Book Expo. It was Johnny who convinced us to make our yearly trips to Los Angeles for the L.A. Times Book Festival. His argument was that we were not only selling books and advertising Cinco Puntos (the L.A. area has become the biggest book-buying region in the country), but by being there we would become part of that intellectual landscape—writers pay attention to that. By the way, when writing about Akashic, I cannot forget to mention Johanna Ingalls who has long been a driving force behind Akashic along with Johnny. Johanna is recently married to an Irish dude. Thanks to the miracles of the internet, she still works for Akashic, but she does so from Ireland. We miss her.

Douglas Messerli, publisher of Green Integer Books. Green Integer is the successor to Douglas' Sun & Moon Press, which is from way back in the day. Douglas is one of the pioneers of independent publishing on the West Coast. I was reading Sun & Moon books long before I ever met Douglas. They were an important part of my growth as a poet and, later, as a publisher. I like the way Douglas writes ad copy. Take for instance, his description of Green Integer: "Essays, Manifestos, Statements, Speeches, Maxims, Epistles, Diaristic Jottings, Narratives, Natural histories, Poems, Plays, Performances, Ramblings, Revelations, and all such ephemera as may appear necessary to bring society into a slight tremolo of confusion and fright at least."

I feel awkward taking photographs of friends, so I quit taking photographs about then and had a glass of wine and talked. Besides my captions could last forever.

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