whitefox: helping brands, thought leaders and writers create beautiful bespoke books
Talk us through an average day as Sales and Business Development Director at whitefox.
One of the joys of being part of a small team means that you work across or interact with almost all of the functions at one point or another during the day. That’s both professionally satisfying and strengthens the abilities of the team to better serve our authors.
More specifically, in my role that works out to be a daily mix of strategy, execution of plans, and the old bugbear of admin tasks. My first activity is to check overnight sales from our warehouse to review activity and then probably check in on a few retailers, too. We have a quick daily team meeting to flag any issues, share advice, and discuss what’s happening across various projects. From that point, I might be developing a sales strategy with a client, discussing a project with a potential client or building that proposition for them, or working with editorial on projects we’ve agreed and are managing. There are sales pitches to be made to retailers in the UK and outreach to be made to foreign publishers if we’re providing that service. And of course we’re always reaching out to interesting people and businesses where a book project could be a useful tool (marketing + revenue) for their brand or business. Inevitably, there’s a bit of fire-fighting that pops up unexpectedly. And I won’t bore you with tales of invoicing and forecasting, the tweaking of metadata, the submission of grids and spreadsheets to retailers. It isn’t what makes publishing a ‘glamour industry’, but it is very important.
For those unfamiliar with the process, how does a book find its way to a retailer?
There are two related but important steps here. The first is developing a really compelling set of metadata around the project. Part of this is the straightforward bibliographic info like ISBNs, format, pricing etc. But the other side is crafting, really crafting, a compelling description that both captures readers AND is search-friendly. Keyword analysis, category selection and a great cover is also important.
If you’re aiming for digital-first or digital-primary publishing, this can be done very close to publication date (but we’d advise that there be a sensible marketing effort to build to that point).
For those authors whose goal is to see their book in a bookshop, the focus then moves to timing. While all of the metadata aspects above would still apply, we’re then working with submission schedules for retailers and wholesalers. This means we have to have all the data and a great vision for the project settled six months ahead of publication (nine months for international distribution). In a digital world, this catches many people off-guard. It can be disregarded and smaller stores and independents (or direct-to-consumers) can be focused on, but to have a chance to appear in a chain store in a meaningful way, meeting deadline requirements is a must.
Closely related are the marketing and publicity efforts, which will dovetail with sales and build to publication. That point – publication – is the culmination of a great deal of planning and effort. It’s not the starting point, which can come as a surprise. With 4,500 books published in the English language every day it isn’t an ‘if you build it, they will come’ scenario.
What are your predictions for the future of book sales after COVID-19? Will we see a rise in ebook sales, or will bookshops be packed?
It’s been interesting/terrifying/transformational. The impact of CV-19 has pushed readers to ebooks and audiobooks, as it was a safe and convenient way to experience literature. The uptake is bound to level off, but what I think it will have done is to push the size of that readership up considerably. For myself, it’s been audiobooks that have suddenly filled the gap as daily schedules have changed. Without a commute, which is where I do a fair amount of reading, I’ve found that I’m listening to audio while I do domestic tasks. So rather than reading on the Tube, I’m listening while I wash up dishes.
No matter how you sugarcoat it with stories of the interesting ways to get books to customers under lockdown, the impact on physical retail has been harsh. Bookstores won’t be packed again for a while, unless there’s a total disregard for social distancing.
What I think this has illuminated is that bookshops are important to individuals and communities. It has highlighted just what a wonderful experience it is to browse and be surrounded by others who share your love of books. It’s suddenly become considered a luxury experience – a genuine treat. I’ve clearly seen, and I do hope it’s replicated across the nation, that people have woken up to just how wonderful it is to have a bookshop in your neighbourhood. Where we live, we do not and frankly, it sucks. People see that they need to focus locally and support these places or the next time you walk by, it’ll be a betting shop or estate agent.
Imagine you are speaking to an aspiring author just setting out on their publication journey. What do they need to know about the sales and distribution process?
I would emphasise that it is part of the whole which makes up the publishing process. Editorial, design, production, marketing, publicity, sales – none of these are discrete functions. They all feed into and off of one another, so it takes a lot of planning and clarity around what the aims and goals are for publication, how to identify an audience and how to reach them.
What makes a book ‘sellable’?
A clear idea of who will genuinely want to read (and importantly, buy) this book, and why that’s the case. If this is absolutely crystal clear, it is from where the editorial, design, and all other functions are built. A great cover, clear with its message (non-fiction) or genre markers (fiction) is very important in the age of online retail, but that’s always been the case in the physical world, too.
How does working on self-publishing projects at whitefox differ from your previous experience in traditional publishing houses?
The biggest shift is the acquisitions process. With whitefox, we’re advisors and service providers. We’ll advise a client with total objectivity about their project and they, the client, hold the power over the final decisions. They can take on as much or as little of that advice as they choose and, in the end, we’ll execute their decisions and vision.
With a traditional publisher, there are thresholds to meet on revenues and in acquisition you’re competing with other authors for a finite number of slots within a seasonal publishing programme. Should a project make it through that process, the power of control and the benefit from sales is completely with the publisher.
An interesting side effect of this kind of dichotomy is that books that are quirky or interesting but don’t fit a ‘norm’ or reach the 10,000 copies-sold threshold can become very successful as self-published books. Traditionally published books can often fall into very safe little boxes of sameness.
What is a little-known fact about sales and business development in the publishing industry? Tell us something that would surprise people about your job.
I’ve yet to meet a bookseller who says, ‘God, I hate books. I guess I’m just in it for the money.’
The people buying books for bookshops – large or small, chain or independent – genuinely, genuinely would love to buy a few copies of almost everything they’re presented with during the pitch process. They love books. But obviously, there are constraints and requirements. They have to make tough choices.
Finally, what have you been reading during lockdown?
I started off big – Mary Beard’s SPQR: A History of Rome, Max Hastings’ Vietnam. That didn’t last all that long. So I’ve moved on to re-reading a few things, such as Ursula K Le Guin’s Tales from Earthsea (both in print and as an audiobook). I have just started working through Asimov’s Foundation series, which I knew nothing about and am absolutely entranced by.