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An Interview with Our Executive Vice President of Sales

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Mark Voigt "Sporty"Curt Matthews: This is an interview with Mark Voigt (everybody calls him “Sporty”) who has been IPG’s salesperson to the national chain stores for the past 13 years. He calls on Barnes & Noble, both the trade and college divisions, and Books-A-Million. A couple of years ago he was B&N’s “Rep of the Year”. These are, of course, important accounts. Sporty also used to call on an account called Borders. What in the world happened to Borders, Sporty?

Mark Voigt (“Sporty”): Borders had a lot of issues. At one point, they really were the leader in data management for book retail, and everyone looked at how their system worked and admired it. But over time they really just got outstripped by their competition. Here is an example of how far behind they fell: if for instance a copy of Thoreau’s Walden sold on the first day of the quarter, it would not be replaced until after the last day of that same quarter. So their stores were too often out of stock on key products. An additional misstep was that they trained their customers to wait to buy until they could buy at a discount. If you were on the Borders email list, you could count on getting some percentage off pretty much every week and, in many cases, twice a week. This hurt their margin, and then they were of course unable to reinvest in the infrastructure to improve their ordering.

CM: I have been told that instead of spending money on IT, they spent it on old-fashioned marketing executives from the grocery-store business.

MV: This is true. Additionally, it didn’t help that at one point they were changing CEOs every six months.

Borders Bookstore


CM: Let’s focus hard now on Barnes & Noble. What do you do to prepare for a sales call there? How many buyers are you talking to? How do we supply our title information to them?

MV: Calling on Barnes & Noble is still one of my favorite parts of my job.  The people there obviously love books and have built a big company based on that love of books. But they also have very strong business acumen, without which they wouldn’t have built such a strong company. They are terrific at what they do.

What it takes to sell them is a lot of preparation, much of which happens long before I go in and meet with a buyer. Some of this preparation I do myself, but I also get a lot of help from the IPG staff. It is a question of gathering the correct data, transmitting the correct data, auditing it and making sure things are set up on their system, ready to order, before I walk in the door.

CM: Do they want to know about comparable titles?

MV: Oh yes, everybody who buys books for any company wants a comparable title analysis, and they want it to be based on a truly relevant comparable title. We strongly encourage our client publishers to do comparative title research in order to solidify their own marketing plans, and we gather this information and augment it when we need to. This is quite demanding research.

CM: So how do we get our title information—the buzzword now is “metadata”—to B&N? Do you fill out title cards or take along a floppy disk?

MV: That was the old days. Now all the title data is sent months in advance of my crossing their threshold, through our weekly automated ONIX feeds. (ONIX is a metadata distribution protocol developed by the Book Industry Study Group.) There are still a few buyers who still want to see the metadata on a piece of paper, but more and more we are working with them through Edelweiss digital onscreen catalogs. Additionally, a good deal of back and forth through e-mail and phone calls is still required in many cases.

CM: So they bring up on a screen all the relevant information about the titles: cover images, book specifications, prices, author bios, and so on?

MV: Yes, what they will bring up on the screen is all the metadata that we have transmitted to them—metadata that has been pulled from their internal system, including information about those comp titles, and also notes that I have written about our books to call out particular points for special attention.

CM: Do they want to know about publicity plans and budgets?

MV: Yes, that is part of the metadata that we send to them. Usually any publicity that has been already confirmed in advance is part of our ONIX feed to many, many accounts. Marketing budgets are always sent as part of that, and whether or not co-op is available for particular titles.

CM: How many buyers do you talk to on a typical visit to B&N?

MV: I generally go in with twenty to twenty-five appointments set up for each visit, which is pretty much every buyer in the building every time I’m there. A complete sales call takes two full days. Each buyer is an expert in a particular subject area or genre, and because IPG has titles in almost every category, I have to see all the buyers.

Barnes & Noble Bookstore


CM: So, when you get the books sold in, do they want follow up in regard to review attention and publicity hits? And if so, do we have a formal method for getting that information to the buyers?

MV: Absolutely. They want to hear what is being done to support the titles they have brought in. It is just as important to keep a buyer apprised of publicity developments after a book is in stores as it is to keep them apprised of publicity developments when a book is just shipping into stores.

The value of publicity really cannot be overestimated. If I go to a buyer with a book from a publisher that has a great track record for getting good publicity, that buyer will remember that, and they will buy the new book accordingly. Not to go too heavily into tooting one of our in-house publishers’ horns, but each and every B&N buyer knows that Chicago Review Press’s publicity department delivers great results, and this means larger initial buys than would otherwise be the case. Of course there are other IPG client publishers who are also known for generating excellent publicity.

CM: What do you have to do to schedule a meeting with a buyer?

MV: To get an appointment you are required to have at least five new titles to present to each category buyer. If you have fewer than five titles, you will not get an appointment. A smaller publisher working just one category will often not be able to meet the five-book minimum.

If a publisher is doing ten good new books a year with two titles in five different categories, they will never meet the minimum, and even their high-quality books will not get proper attention. This policy can seem unfair to indie publishers.

CM: Why is B&N so tough about this?

MV: There are just so very many books being published.  On the days when I am seeing eleven different buyers, those buyers are usually seeing eleven different reps. If there were no rules to the game, they would simply be buried in book presentations. An important function of distributors like IPG is to solve this problem.

CM: People often think the big stores are mainly interested in high profile titles. Is it a problem for you to get B&N to pay attention to the niche titles that are the bread and butter of most indie publishers?

MV: In some instances, that is true. If there is a book that is extremely specialized, something like “stamp collecting in Outer Uzbekistan,” that is a book that’s going to have a limited retail presence. But most of the books that are on the list I sell have an identifiable geographic or subject-driven market – that is, there are identifiable store locations where these titles can be placed and will sell through.

CM: So Barnes & Noble knows which stores are especially good at handling certain subject categories, and of course regional books will sell best in the regions they focus on.

MV: Yes. They rank their stores’ performance by their general sales volume, by their traffic, and by their sales within a category. So, a store could be an “A” store for sports books, and a “C” store for political science. As a book’s topic becomes more specialized, more rarefied, it will only go to “A” stores in its category. But usually some copies will get shelf space in some stores.

CM: Will B&N deal with a publisher who can’t do EDI and ASN, and the rest of the electronic ordering alphabet soup?

MV: In general, no. Barnes & Noble has very specific trading criteria that their vendors must meet. Again, this is a matter of efficiency—if Barnes & Noble received a paper invoice for every title that they carried, it would literally be truckloads of paper!

CM: Let’s turn now to Books-A-Million. I understand they are quite a different kettle of fish.

MV: They do not carry as wide a variety of books as B&N. There are titles I can place into many B&N stores, but which I would not expect to be stocked in any of the Books-A-Million stores. They have a different customer profile. They are a little more focused than B&N on bestsellers and high profile titles. But they do function as a general bookstore, and they do not reject out-of-hand titles where I can explain to them why their customers will come in and buy a copy.



CM: And is the necessary preparation similar to that required by B&N? I assume they don’t have quite as many buyers because they’re a smaller outfit.

MV: Right, they don’t have quite as many buyers, so consequently each buyer is buying more subjects; but we’re still basically trying to sell them the same number of titles, and the preparation is just the same.

CM: And are they similar also, in that they insist on being dealt with electronically?

MV: Oh yes, absolutely.

CM: So let’s talk about the “R word”—RETURNS. Famously, the national chains’ rate of returns is much higher than in retail bookselling in general. How bad is it?

MV: Usually their returns are about 50% greater than is the case with smaller retailers: 30% versus the 20% we generally experience. But every now and then the returns are terrible. For instance B&N earlier this year changed their formula for what titles would stay in stores. They made the decision that if a specific title had not sold out of a specific store in a year and a half, it was returned to the publisher. That hit a lot of publishers very hard and it hit us as a distributor pretty hard as well. The good news is that that process is finished, and that it did free up space—space in the stores as well as space in their buying budget. So buyers were given a little freer rein to look at new books, which means their product mix is probably better now.

CM: Is there a future for the bricks-and-mortar national chain sort of bookselling? Or is the failure of Borders a harbinger?

MV: I think that Borders’ failure was the result of a combination of special factors. Part of that was definitely competition from online booksellers, most notably Amazon. It has to be noted that Borders gave Amazon the online chunk of their business for the first five or six years, and they were never able to regain that business. They basically said to their main competitor, “Here, why don’t you take this chunk of my business, and then maybe give it back to me later?” Well, we know how that worked out.

I do not think that the Borders’ failure is a harbinger of much of anything. Both Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million will remain primarily focused on books, but they are exploring new sideline products to sell and are refining the supply chains that link them to their vendors. This is the work they need to do to stay relevant in a fast changing retail environment.

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