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Sales Department | Inside Publishing


The Sales Department - what it does

Chris Holifield 2017The sales department has a crucial role in publishing companies. It is well worth taking time to understand how it works. This is the department which will have a crucial effect on the sales of your book. Their involvement and support are key to its success.

Big publishers

The sales department

The large publishing groups work rather differently from smaller firms. They are likely to have large sales departments with substantial central sales support and administration teams under the overall direction of a Sales Director (in the UK) or Senior Vice-President (Sales) in the US. In many publishing houses the same senior person will have both sales and marketing reporting to them. The sales department is further divided into home and export (see below).

The home sales teams are usually managed by field sales managers covering regions of the country. Naturally a very much larger field sales force is required to cover the US than the UK, but the concentration of bookstores in cities on the East and West Coasts means that sales efforts are focused there. In the same way sales operations in Australia and South Africa are concentrated on the cities where the big bookshops supply substantial book-buying populations, whereas the United Kingdom is more like other European countries such as Germany, where high population densities support a network of smaller bookselling outlets. All publishers are facing a contracting market as a very few bigger bookshop chains remain and Amazon has a dominant position in terms of online sales.

Sales conferences

Regular sales conferences, twice or sometimes three times a year, bring the sales force together to hear about the next season’s books. These have in the past been quite glitzy affairs, with audiovisual presentations, key authors invited to present their books and grand dinners, all with the intention of informing the sales teams and enthusing them to go out and sell. In the States there are often regional sales conferences. Some publishers have regular monthly one-day sales meetings to focus the sales people on the key books in the new selling cycle. Technology has helped to keep everyone in touch with head office (as well as focused on their sales targets) and sales teams feed orders straight into the system. Covid and working from home has affected all of this.

Selling cycles

Sales people work on selling cycles, with the largest and fastest-moving accounts having weekly or even twice-weekly visits, whereas small bookstores might be called on once every three or even six months. In many cases smaller independent bookshops are no longer visited by the big publishers’ sales teams, but will order their stock through wholesalers, using publishers’ catalogues and advance information sheets. Although this is the trend, many people in publishing feel that nothing can replace the sales person’s enthusiasm and skill in ‘selling in’ the books.


The sales team will be targeted to achieve a subscription of a certain number of books on the more important ‘targeted’ titles, together with overall targets for their territories, sometimes broken down into accounts. The ‘subscription’ is the pre-publication sales orders, which will be supplied to the bookshops for the publication date. The publisher will usually get the subscription figure for the bigger accounts before finalising the print run.

Central buying

Publishers’ sales departments have over the years learnt a great deal about modern selling methods and are undoubtedly very much better-organised than they used to be. The difficulty is that the chain booksellers have increasingly moved to central buying and do not allow their shops to buy individually. Central control means they can impose a uniform approach and also carry out most effective discount negotiations with publishers.

As a result publishers have developed head office key account teams which deal with the big chains’ central buyers. These relatively small teams are usually responsible for an increasingly large proportion of the company’s sales. In some cases the head offices have made it clear that they do not want their shop buyers to see sales people at all. The decline of the traditional sales force continues, as publishers cut the number of people on the road to control costs and enable them to have money in hand for tough terms negotiations with the big chains. Over the years this decline in the size of sales teams has continued apace and the big sales forces of the past have vanished, to be replaced by much smaller teams operating mainly from head office. Salesmen, or 'reps' have been replaced by account managers with wider responsibilities to look after and 'manage' the accounts.

Small publishers

The sales operation

Smaller publishers have often had a rough ride in recent years. In general their books are likely either to be sold by the sales force of one of the big publishers, or to go through a team of commission reps. These are freelance sales people who work on commission (generally a percentage of sales value) and who sell books for a number of publishers. The dangers of being ‘last out of the bag’ and the least important list being sold are obvious. Whether the small publisher’s books are sold by another publisher or by a commission sales team makes no difference. It is still important that the other lists being sold by the sales team are not so big that no attention is focused on the smaller publisher’s books, or so different that they do not focus on the right accounts, or so similar that they will dominate and take up all their time.

Increasingly, as book purchasers shift their book-buying to online, the sales teams are becoming less important. More recently there has been a bit of a revival in bookshops, but mostly they will order their stock through wholesalers.

Epos and reordering

It’s not easy handling your sales if you are a small publisher. They have suffered from increasing focus in the book trade on ‘big books’. The results of the introduction of epos (electronic point of sale) has been that it is difficult to get a large quantity of books subscribed into the book trade unless there is a big promotion supporting the title. This often means that the publisher has to ‘buy’ their way into a particular promotion or space in the bookstore, which the small publisher cannot afford to do. In theory, if the book sells, the system will reorder it, but in practice it is all too often not reordered unless there is substantial demand for it. Each book has only a few weeks to sink or swim and this has been exacerbated by the book trade’s increasing efficiency about returning unsold stock.


Export sales teams tend to work quite differently, often through local agencies within each country, which represent many different publishers. Because of the relative importance of export sales to British publishers (see The English Language Publishing World), they will have a team of export managers covering different markets and travelling regularly throughout the year to subscribe the new books. Export is less crucial as a proportion of overall sales to American trade (or general) publishers than it is to British publishers, but many American academic and scientific publishers do a lot of international business and have therefore to focus on it. The growing international demand for books in English has presented a wonderful opportunity for all English language publishers and Europe, with its large number of proficient English speakers, has been a particularly rapidly-growing market.

The sales department and the author

As you contemplate the fate of your precious book and how it will be dealt with by the sales department, you may well be asking is there’s anything you can do to give your work its best chance. Frankly, there’s probably not a lot you can do except to make yourself available as requested for sales conferences and any other activities. One point in favour of small publishers is that you can sometimes have more influence on how your book is sold. Be as pleasant and co-operative to the sales people as you can. Many bestselling authors have had their careers buttressed by the fact that the sales force loved them. Ensure that any sales ideas or contacts you may have are passed on. Make a point of co-operating with any local initiatives, even if they seem a waste of time, as the support of local reps and bookshops can be crucial. Make sure you work with your publisher to maximise your visibility online, especially through solcial media. But, remember, it’s your book and you should do everything you can to support your publisher in selling it.

Chris Holifield