Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Sales Conference

That it happens three times a year, sometimes in person, most often via phone and the web, is purely arbitrary. Big-time publishing is a strange business. Its lists of titles are still grouped into three selling seasons -- spring, summer, and fall. (There is no winter in publishing. There is no winter in books.) From the outside, it appears that it's all about presenting books to the sales force, so they can go out and sell them. But it's really about the attendees presenting themselves to each other, to senior management, and to the books. The books are not auditioning, they have already been contracted for. It's about the people, many of whom work alone and who need to come together periodically to find out whether or not their take on corporate reality is sustainable. In today's climate, much time is spent trying to determine which way the wind is blowing, and whether one's job is secure for another season. Everyone is auditioning.

Held in a big impersonal resort hotel, the in-person sales conference is a place of refuge, where sales reps share war stories and drinks with their peers. Sensitive and intelligent people who have been around for a while find it comforting, to be among their fellows, standing around under palm trees, dressed casually, watching the far lights dance on the Gulf waters, feeling their oats for a few days, though few of them can stay up as late as they once did, or drink as much. And it
is comforting. But it is also strangely sad, a measure of the passing of days, of what no longer is or can be. A place of rumor, where people study each other's faces in the absence of tea leaves or crystal balls.

This year I was a bit player, having come down to conference with my new colleagues for one day and a couple of dinners, hawking a few books for Other Press in a chilly banquet room on a cool sunny day in Florida. The reps were attentive, engaged. Good people. They work so hard. You look at their faces and think to yourself,
it's true, they must love what they do. There aren't many left anymore, traveling sales reps. Stupid Simon just let a bunch go. They're not the only publisher to have done so -- over the years the number of reps has steadily declined, just like the number of accounts they serve. Sure, social media is a cool way to communicate, but there is no substitute for an experienced and trustworthy sales rep if you want to keep a customer connected to the books. In my experience, it's the expensive home office VPs who are expendable, not the guys logging long miles and staying in cheap motels.

The conference organizers too are good people, sweating the details, making sure the publishers' needy egos are assuaged. As in any social gathering, the human beings here display all their naked characteristics, good and bad. Thank goodness the pelicans pay no attention to us.

A wise manager once opined that sales reps who spend most of their time in the field with customers are the least corruptible, and most committed, people in an organization. The ones who allow themselves to get promoted and take a position in the home office, with its politics and pecking orders, lose touch with the very thing that attracted them to publishing in the first place. They start thinking about a career, and stop thinking about the books. I'm not sure that that's always the case, but I was someone who took that path and know how easy it is to get lost in the maze. I see my former colleagues trying to juggle it all. I hope some of them have figured out how to make it work.

It is strange how rituals -- the forms -- outlast intent and content. Sales conference is a celebration of the past and an shared affirmation of the future. It has no business in the present. I couldn't sleep when I was down there. I kept looking out my balcony window at the reddish sky over Ft. Myers, imagining a different world. Knowing all the while, of course, that there is no different world. Publishing will change. I'm not sure about human beings.

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