The Best Book Club Ever

Most companies which sell things to the public have retreats and gatherings, both to pump up employees and to trade information. But none are more vital than the book business’s Sales Conference. Those two words are pronounced with a reverence that implies the capital letters, and there’s no article necessary. It’s not “a sales conference,” or “the sales conference.” It’s “Sales Conference.”

It’s been a while since I was in the game, and the bookselling world has evolved so much in the interim that one can plausibly wonder whether they still have Sales Conferences. (Spoiler Alert: they do.) I’ll stick with them (and cockroaches) until that day when the last bookstore gives up, and we’re all on a sunsetty beach dealing with the monstrous crab-like creatures in H. G. Wells’s far future. I’m gonna speculate that might still be some years off, so let’s go ahead and roll.

Things have indeed changed, but in my day Sales Conference occurred three times a year, so that the publisher could introduce four months’ worth of new releases – the “season” – to its reps. You featured the Spring, Summer or Fall list (there is no Winter in book publishing) about nine months before the first books on the list would actually be released. This gives the newly-informed reps time to go back to their “accounts” and solicit orders, thus creating the info they need to help you determine the print run for each individual title.

Big accounts, like the largest chains and “wholesale” outlets for mass market paperbacks, are serviced monthly. But the reps from around the country whose territory includes independent bookstores generally make their presentations seasonally, which is why you used to have three Sales Conferences every year. (Random House, the largest trade publisher, now has one teleconference and one in-person Sales Conference every year, no doubt reflecting (1) penny-pinching and (2) the waning influence of independent booksellers, a national tragedy.) Since every competitor is also yakking the bookseller’s head off, an independent really can’t hear pitches any more frequently; there’d be no time left to actually sell books, which we all want her to do. The rep goes through the list, leaves a catalog, some covers and an order form, and follows up on the phone for the good or bad news. To quantify retail customers’ future interest, the account needs to know the five Ws of journalism (Who, What, Where, When, and Why), and also what the publisher is going to do to advertise and promote the title. In some cases, print and broadcast ads have already been created, just to prove the publisher is serious, and bound galleys or spiffed-up “advance reading copies” let the bookseller taste the final product for himmerself.

At the “home office,” preparing for Sales Conference was a frenzied affair, and it never ended, because there was always one looming. You’re forgiven for thinking life inside a big publishing house is a “long day’s journey into Sales Conference,” as a wag once put it. (You know this particular wag personally.) The most important books – that is, the ones we expected to sell the most copies – needed to be accompanied at Sales Conference by every bell and whistle we could think of. But every trade cover (meaning titles which are sold by the book “trade,” or hardcovers and trade paperbacks) had to be designed, at least tentatively, so it could appear in the seasonal catalog. I say tentatively because one of the action items at Sales Conference is the cover design: if the reps hated one and could explain why, we’d go back and rethink.

BDDlogoSometimes those bells and whistles included a star author. Shortly after he retired from the military in 1991, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf Jr. granted the rights to publish his life story to us, Bantam Books. (Five million simoleons didn’t hurt our cause.) That year, we held the December Sales Conference of Bantam Doubleday Dell (don’t ask: okay, the Germans first acquired Bantam in 1980, then added Doubleday and Dell, which is probably how we got top billing in the conglomerate, but even BDD became history when our common owner, Bertelsmann, bought Random House in 1998) near the General’s home in Tampa, partly to present this major coup to the reps. One night he was our featured speaker and honored guest.

The General was an American hero after leading CENTCOM in Operation Desert Storm (you know, the Bush invasion that was necessary and successful, the one with the exit strategy), and not only were we licking our chops at the prospect of selling a gajillion copies, we also couldn’t wait to meet him (and thank him). The afternoon of his big speech, Bantam brass gave us some ground rules. This man is very friendly, you’ll like him personally, but under no circumstances do you call him “Norm.” You address him as “General.” Sure enough, he turned out to be the kind of guy who walks up, sticks out his mitt, and says, “Hi, I’m Norm Schwarzkopf.” Your knee-jerk reaction to such affability would be something like, hey, Norm, how’s it hangin? But I didn’t hear a single BDD rep break protocol.

After his speech, the General threw it open for questions. Not having been asked to censor anything, one rep inquired, “After liberating Kuwait, why didn’t you just go in to Baghdad with all those troops and finish off Saddam Hussein?” (A question some right-wing hawks have continued to ask ever since.) I will never forget the stoic response. “Two reasons,” the career soldier intoned. “First, those were not my orders,” sounding very much like an individual who would have gladly kicked Saddam’s ass across the desert and back again if they had been. “Second, that would have threatened our international coalition,” Iraq being a sovereign nation and all. How soon we forget, eh?

We all loved our late-night “hospitality suite,” essentially an open bar full of book reps who only saw each other two or three times a year. Sure enough, the General popped in himself. I know this because I was intent on the last moments of a Trivial Pursuit game against Walter Mayes, a Bay Area rep who is so good at remembering things that he lasted a whole week on JEOPARDY! Several also-rans recognized futility when they saw it and gave up in favor of refills, but they wandered back, and by now we had a little crowd. There were only two players left, and I was one! I flubbed a 50-50 question that would have defeated the legendary Walter and caused bards to write folk songs about me ever after. It was intense, bro. Actual sweat. I’m sitting there waiting for the next question (an unbiased third party, Bantam marketing whiz Betsy Hulsebosch, was reading the cards, from the brand new edition, all fresh to us), but all of a sudden nothing is coming out of Betsy’s mouth.

I look up, and everybody’s staring at a point well above my head. I turn around, and there’s our guest of honor, beaming with a satisfied smile, an ice-cold brewski in his hand. Walter says, “Care to join us, General?” He didn’t even hesitate. “Wouldn’t be fair. I might be one of the answers.” This quick-witted vet ruined my chance to beat Walter Mayes, because we had to quit laughing before we could continue, and by then my game face was all smudged. Grrrr. Walter won.

I should also note that there are good celebrity authors (I name Richie Havens) and bad celebrity authors (no names, but all they care about is the paycheck). Gen. Schwarzkopf stood for maybe two hours while a photographer snapped grip-and-grins with every single rep at Sales Conference, and even home-office folks like me, one by one. Then he went back later and inscribed every single photo. The autographed shot of the General and me – after a nice bit of framing – was one of my mom’s proudest possessions until her dying day. (FYI, the resulting book was a titanic international bestseller.)

I’m told that Sales Conference was even grander back in the day, at least at BDD. They used to hold the December Conference (kind of a summation, plus there’s the always glittering Fall list; in book marketing, Xmas is the sweet spot) in a warm clime, maybe Mexico or a Caribbean island, before the IRS decided to stomp down on all ex-national corporate shindigs. So, for the General, Florida.

My very first Sales Conference ever was the very last one in which Fred Klein, a revered Bantam editor, cheerleader, force of nature – led a glee club. Yes, they used to fire up the sales force any way they could. Steve Ballmer tried electroshock therapy one day at Microsoft by bounding up onto the stage and screaming a la Howard Dean, hyperventilating, the whole drill. There’s a widely circulated video of this presentation. I know this because “Stanley Bing,” the business humorist, played it for us before himself bounding into our Sales Conference and telling us he wished we were that fired up. Me, I don’t ever want to be that fired up. Bing’s ironic point exactly.

Absent a star – and there usually was one, but not enough to fill the entire three days of Sales Conference – we would do anything to attain and hold the reps’ attention. Book presentations at their best drone on and on, even when it’s your livelihood. And let us just say that some book-publishing presenters are, um, more comfortable at the microphone than are others. Ah, Tom, adroitly said! We tried everything, even sending all the presentations out on video ahead of time and just discussing the books when we met in person. The cold hard fact was that we were now asking these poor schnooks to sit through two Sales Conferences, and that’s if they even bothered to watch the video! (Some publishers may still do this; it’s much cheaper, after all, and god bless em. But I would wager that nobody’s yet found satori, not even that Random House teleconference.)

avonlogoI got an offer to move to Avon, best known for romance paperbacks. It was owned by the Hearst Corporation, which had tried to sell it and its hardcover sister, William Morrow, without success. So Hearst decided to double down and turn Avon into a general trade publisher, with a hardcover list and all. Who wouldn’t want in on that?

We tried to codify our business by adding “imprints”: one was for science fiction (“Eos”), one for literary fiction and nonfiction (“Bard,” reviving a storied imprint: “of Avon,” get it?), etc. We also created a pop imprint: both nonfiction about leisure culture (arts, sports, etc.), and also hip outlier fiction. We called it “Spike.” (Before the TV channel!) It was an imprint with a tude; I still think the notion is plenty viable – cool reality and unreality together.

For the Hearst Book Group Sales Conference introducing “Spike,” we had Suzanne Vega as a celeb (we were pubbing her book of poetry and general writing), but we needed something to show people what we really had in mind. We were trying to, you’ll pardon, think different. What we were presenting was an imprint that wasn’t so much a genre as it was a point of view. So we decided to illustrate that bent from the first moment. Usually you launch such a program with a speech extolling all its virtues, etc. etc. I’ve heard plenty of them, some better than others. We decided to go boldface.

As the Senior Editor co-running the imprint, I was introduced from the dais, went down the steps to a lectern at auditorium level, and began delivering a speech. It was something about how leisure culture had developed from the age of the Etruscans – I just Scotch-taped together as much stultifying banality as I could find on the Web – and I talked and talked and kept on talking. Beyond boring.

To make things even worse, above and behind me, on the dais, my colleagues started to gradually, visibly, lose interest. One flipped through some computer printouts. Another whispered into a cell phone and left the stage. Two guys (including my boss) started thumping folded-paper field goals. I lost my voice, stopped, and asked a rep in the front row for a glass of water. By now, some bemused audience members were squirming on my behalf. But up on the stage, behind my back, our marketing director held up a huge sign: WE’RE REALLY SORRY ABOUT THIS and a moment later, TOM HAD HIS HEART SET ON A SPEECH.

As I blathered on, in front of more “secret” signs, it gradually dawned on the crowd that we’d planned, even rehearsed, this whole doggone thing. Their mortification slowly turned into relief: then, at long last, they blurted out the laughter they’d been suppressing because they’re nice people and didn’t want to hurt my feelings. The final two signs urged them to shut me the hell up the only way they could (and join in the jest as well): GIVE HIM A STANDING OVATION and, a moment later as I finished the final tiresome sentence, NOW. I didn’t dump the gag all day. I said to my boss upon regaining the dais for the formal presentation, “I was a little nervous at first, could you tell? But IT WENT GREAT!” while conveniently “forgetting” to cover the mike with my hand. (If you ever attend a show at the Hudson Theater, well, that’s where this happened. It was only a rentable meeting space at the time, but I still performed on a Broadway stage!)

Even at the celebratory party that night, I refused to bust the Andy Kaufman-ish premise, continuing to act naively proud that I had killed with my absurd speech. Everybody there was in on the ruse by now, but you couldn’t prove it by me. I’m sure some of those reps still remember that Sales Conference opener, because it was so unusual. Spike as a notion was serious, but it also wielded a big hunk of brain-wasabi called irony, and our modest dash of performance art woke them the heck up. An editor who had given an earnest speech at the previous Sales Conference walked up later and asked if I had been making fun of that particular oration. Not at all: I was making fun of The Giving Of Speeches in general. (Just between you and me: all I was trying to do was get their attention. Screw speeches!)

harperYou know that cartoon where the fish is eating the smaller fish, but there’s a bigger one eating him, and so on? That’s business. So it was that, barely a year after the Spike launch, we Avonistas found ourselves presenting at Sales Conference to our new owners – for the Hearst Book Group had been acquired by Rupert Murdoch’s HarperCollins Publishers. (How many big trade publishing companies are there left? As of the day I originally posted this, there are six: Random, Harper, Hachette [used to be Warner], Macmillan, S&S, and Penguin, and that may well be reduced to four before the end of the year.)

During the debilitating transition period, our Harper overlords actually forgot one of my books at the original Sales Conference run-thru (they later had to insert a quickly-printed erratum page into the seasonal catalog). I said then and there, they’re gonna remember this frickin book at Sales Conference, mate, and I carefully rehearsed what turned out to be essentially three minutes of stand-up comedy.

When I’d finished introducing my book to half a roomful of reps who couldn’t have cared less (the other half had been there for my Spike speech), for the first time I’ve ever seen at any Sales Conference, my presentation actually got a hand. Reps, strangers, were still slapping me on the back at dinner that night. But, most important, they remembered my frickin book. Too much? Maybe. But I was desperate, homes. Thus goeth Sales Conference.

Like I said up top, I’m not sure whether the Sales Conference stakes are still as high as they once were; it’s lots easier these days to pass along information from a distance. But there will always be a need for human contact. One example. When I was an Avon newbie, I went to the Hospitality Suite at my first Hearst Book Group Sales Conference. A guy was behind the bar, chuggin a blender. A really friendly and articulate guy. A really well-read guy. I could tell all this just by watchin him serve whatever the hell it was (he had a specialty drink; I still don’t know what it was because I demurred – see, this was my first Hearst Sales Conference) and listenin to him talk.

This turned out to be Mike Spradlin, who turned out to be our rep for Borders, at the time one of the biggest accounts in the universe. Furthermore, Sprad turned out to be so well respected among his peers – and his Borders buyers – that he was widely considered one of the best book reps in the whole country, bar none. Not just by us, by his competitors too. (Sprad used to announce himself on every New York trip by sticking his head in my office, no matter who was in there with me, and dorkily asking, “You guys playing cards?” like Flounder in ANIMAL HOUSE.) Well, you may have heard that Borders went out of business. But you can’t keep a good man down, and now “Michael P. Spradlin” is a New York Times bestselling author of books for young readers, with many doting admirers, including all of us: we were proud of him then and we’re proud of him now.

Yet to this day I cannot think of my friend without getting that picture of him and the blender at Sales Conference. That’s enough reason to have ‘em right there. I say humanity deserves occasional physical throwdowns among about 100 people, all in the same room together, who, despite the best efforts of schlock culture to convince them otherwise, steadfastly continue to believe books are da bomb. Damn. That must be why we still have Sales Conferences. Hey: I’m startin to like ’em again! T-Doop out.


4 Responses to The Best Book Club Ever

  1. stephen s. power says:

    What was the question you lost on?

  2. Tom Dupree says:

    Well, you don’t exactly lose at Trivial Pursuit, the other guy wins. But the heartbreaker, as I said, was a 50-50 yes-or-no question a few moments earlier that would have given me the game. I had no idea and guessed wrong. It was so traumatic that I’ve blocked it. Something about population in an ill-considered country.

  3. Tom, thanks for these insider views into the industry. It’s been really fascinating for me to read.

  4. Sprad says:

    Tom thanks for the shout out and the memories. I had a name for the drink which cannot be repeated in a family publication such as this. Over time, it simply came to be referred to as ‘the Spradlin’. And when a handful of bleary eyed peeps would stagger into the meeting rooms the next day, they complained of being ‘Spradlined’. It became a verb. I think those ten years at Hearst were most fun I ever had in my career. I enjoy writing, but I miss publishing. Both the people and the books. And yes the sales conferences.

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