Once the author, illustrator, editor, designer and production manager have done their bit and the book is produced – how is it sold? Liz Attenborough investigates.
To find out more about the selling side of children’s book publishing, I spoke to Fiona MacDonald who is the Export and Library Sales Manager at Walker Books.
The route to carryingthe big bag of samples
‘I did a general librarianship course at Birmingham Polytechnic (now the University of Central England), but once I got my degree I decided I didn’t want to get a job in a library, but wanted to get a job in sales. I had several friends who were sales reps, and I started off selling health food products,’ says Fiona. After four years in the health food industry, Fiona wanted a change to selling books. In 1989 she saw an advertisement for sales staff at Walker Books. They were setting up their own sales force after having been distributed by other companies since their inception, so it was very exciting to be in at the beginning of a new sales team. ‘I got the job because I had both a library background and sales experience,’ says Fiona.
Getting to know Walker
‘We had a brilliant induction week as a new sales team. Only one of us had been a book trade rep before, and the others were from bookshops, stationery companies and other sales backgrounds. We talked to every department in the company and I knew I’d joined a great company when I found a copy of the soon-to-be-published We’re Going on a Bear Hunt in my hotel room, signed with a welcome message from both Sebastian Walker and Helen Oxenbury.’
Getting to know the book business
‘I lived in Birmingham, which was the centre of my patch covering the Midlands and the North of England. I regularly clocked up 40,000 miles driving a year, and had to stay away from home at least one night a week. Within my territory I managed all the accounts, whether they were branches of Dillons and Waterstones or small independent booksellers, but also major customers in the area like Peters, Askews and Holt Jackson library suppliers. Later on I took over selling to the other key library suppliers – Morley Books, Woodfield & Stanley, JMLS and Books for Students – as well as covering all the shops on my territory.’ Her library training certainly came in useful, says Fiona, as she understood the workings of her customers. As Walker is a specialist children’s publisher, Fiona targeted just the children’s buyers in each of the accounts, but it was nevertheless a huge task. ‘The trade knew and liked Walker, so I was always welcomed warmly,’ remembers Fiona. Walker had just begun to produce paperback versions of their own books, and at the start a separate sales team handled those, but that did not last long and Fiona was soon selling paperbacks alongside the hardbacks.
Moving up the career ladder
After three years in that job, Fiona was ready for a change. ‘It was very hard, lugging big cases around and being on the road non-stop,’ she says. Moving house to Bath coincided with the job of Export Sales Manager becoming vacant, so Fiona added export territories to her portfolio of library suppliers, but dropped the regular bookshops. Export means selling Walker’s English language books into overseas markets, which are principally Australia and New Zealand (now managed from Sydney), but also South Africa, Singapore and Japan, each of which Fiona visits once a year, to liaise directly with Walker’s agents there, and visit bookshops and check on the market for herself. (In addition to the Australian office, Walker have a company in America under the name of Candlewick.) Fiona also visits the English language bookshops in Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam twice a year, and supervises the sales to international schools overseas through a distributor, Baker Books. She does all this by living in London during the week and going home at weekends to her house in a village outside Bath, near the M4. Fiona seems unbothered by all the travelling about, and any physical tiredness seems unlikely to dampen her undoubted enthusiasm for the books that she is selling.
Communication between customer and office
I asked Fiona whether all that contact with her customers sometimes meant she might have split loyalties. Did she sometimes side with her customers more than her employers? But she was having none of it, and looked puzzled by the question. ‘I have very close links with our customers, who put forward ideas and opinions, and we have always been encouraged to get that feedback to the editors and designers. We all want to get it right, and sales have a voice early on in the production process by such things as the Sales Director, Henryk Wesolowski, being a voice at the cover meetings. There was a great deal of two-way communication before the non-fiction list was launched last year, and I take many rough covers to the library suppliers to get their views.’ Fiona also takes editors to library selection meetings, which she thinks is an invaluable learning experience. ‘And every month all the sales team write reports on their customers’ reactions, and those reports have a wide circulation internally so that action can be taken.’
The sales team
Under Sales Director Henryk Wesolowski, and alongside Fiona, there is a UK Sales Manager who manages the UK area sales team members, a Manager in charge of home and school book clubs and sales to Sainsburys, a Marketing Manager, and a Foreign Rights Director who sells the rights in Walker Books to foreign language publishers all over the world. ‘We have sales conferences twice a year when Editors present their new titles and Marketing present the accompanying promotions, but there are interim sales meetings just for UK sales, where we discuss sales targets for new titles, about four times a year.’ Fiona reckons to spend about a third of her time out of the office visiting customers at home and abroad, but with telecommunications as they are these days she can be in touch with anyone by car phone or fax from wherever she is.
Nuts and bolts
How does the selling process work? Fiona hears about new titles as soon as they are signed up by the company, and may talk to her customers about big projects anything up to a year in advance. She formally presents the titles three months ahead of publication, by showing proofs, dummies or advance copies, and takes her orders then. For her export customers, whom she only sees once a year, she will present a whole year’s books in one go, using colour photocopies of artwork, and copies of the text. ‘Customers will sometimes have heard about forthcoming books from our catalogue and things like the Spring and Autumn Bookseller and other mentions in the trade press, and with a new ‘Wally’ title coming, Where’s Wally, The Wonder Book, it has been hard to keep the excitement to ourselves.’
Authors and Illustrators
Asked to name favourite authors and illustrators, Fiona does not know where to start or stop. ‘I started at Walker just when ‘Wally’ was beginning, and although we hoped for big things we had no idea of the success that was to come all over the world. And nobody could have dreamt that Guess How Much I Love You? (‘My favourite six words,’ says Henryk) would be such a phenomenal seller, appealing across such a wide audience. The sales around Valentine’s Day were extraordinary, with adults giving the book as presents to adults.’ Fiona waxes lyrical about the close bond everyone at Walker has with their glittering array of illustrators such as Helen Oxenbury, Jill Murphy, Lucy Cousins and Colin McNaughton, but is clearly as excited about newcomers’ work as she is about the tried and tested. ‘We are encouraged to meet them in the office, but we also meet at parties, signings and events like the Bath Festival. It’s always useful to know something more about authors and illustrators so that you can share that information with your customers,’ says Fiona. ‘In particular we obviously specially get to know about the authors and illustrators who live in our own territories.’
‘Non-fiction is our big investment right now, and it’s targeted to grow over the coming years, but we’ve also been re-using the backlist in things like bookcharts and cards. We’ve done some merchandise ourselves, but license most of it, so it’s exciting to be diversifying when the opportunity presents itself. Our biggest range of merchandise is for Lucy Cousins’s Maisie. The sales team has an important role to play in early discussions of such things. The company just continues to grow and grow.’
How does Fiona see her role developing in the future? ‘Every year the library budgets seem to be cut, and the abandonment of the Net Book Agreement has had a major effect on library buying. The suppliers used to compete on service, but now they have to compete on discounts as well, which is putting a lot of pressure on them. Personally I am looking forward to developing sales in South Africa – another very tough market, particularly as their weak currency makes all imported books very expensive, but also because reading books are not a priority for the government in the same way as text books. And I shall be exploring markets in the Middle East.’
The job itself
Is she glad she married her library training with her selling experience and joined Walker? ‘I absolutely love the publishing business. I still get a terrific buzz from seeing the new books, and from finding new customers. And I get the biggest buzz from getting in a really good order!’
Liz Attenborough was formerly Children’s Publisher at Penguin Books. She now works as a children’s book consultant.
Publishing Profiles No. 5 will go behind the scenes in the Rights Department.