A Sales Rep With No Regrets

From Publishers Weekly:

The year was 1978. I had just graduated from high school and was eager to begin the next chapter of my life. I was always interested in becoming a police officer, so I began the process. Law enforcement personnel came to my home to meet with me and my parents. It was a great meeting. Unfortunately, the meeting ended with them measuring my height. Apparently there was a height requirement. I failed because I was too short.

My mother suggested I further my education, so I registered for college to get a business degree. Since classes didn’t start until fall, my sister suggested that I apply for a job at the nearby wholesaler Gordon’s Books, which was then based in Denver. She had worked there briefly and loved the owners. Gordon and Blanche Saul were awesome! So, against my parents’ wishes, I decided to get a tuition refund and continue my career with Gordon’s. Within a short time, I was promoted to supervisor of order entry. It was great getting to know different booksellers and helping teachers and librarians with their book budgets.

Gordon’s was sold to Howard Bellowe, who, in 1991, would go on to sell it to Ingram Industries, which hired many Gordon’s employees. In joining Ingram, I became one of the first inside sales reps for the company, working for the famous Art Carson, our v-p of sales. I managed a small sales team in Denver and handled all new business. When Ingram decided it wanted its inside sales reps to be located in its LaVergne, Tenn., headquarters I was laid off. A year later, in 2001, the warehouse was closed. After 21 years working in wholesaling, I was looking for my next adventure.

Shortly after I left Ingram, Bill Preston, who had been my manager at Gordon’s, called me. He was the vice president of sales for Baker & Taylor, which had a sales office in Colorado. He wanted to know if I was interested in coming to work for him. I turned him down because I did not want to go through another layoff. After all, B&T was not based in Colorado. I was in my first week of training at the Rocky Mountain News when Bill called again: “I can’t believe you would give up all these years in the book industry,” he told me. And so began my career with B&T. I was its first inside sales rep.

During my time with B&T, I went on to manage sales teams in various offices. When (as I had feared) B&T closed its Denver office, Bill allowed me to work remotely. I went back to managing a territory, which was a blessing, because I missed working with my wonderful indie bookseller accounts. In 2019 B&T decided to close its retail division and, after more than 19 years with the company, I was once again looking for a new opportunity.

In early June of that year, on the Sunday after BookExpo, I was sitting at my computer working on my résumé when an email popped up from Cindy Raiton, president of sales for Bookazine. Many of my wonderful bookseller accounts had approached her at the show suggesting she talk to me. I flew to Bookazine’s headquarters in New Jersey to meet with Cindy and the owners. I was immediately impressed with their operation, kindness, and dedication to independent booksellers. I was soon hired, but less than a year into the job, Covid hit and I was laid off.

So here I sit today, too young to retire but with no idea of my next journey. I have not had to look for a job since 1978, so I am feeling a bit overwhelmed. Being laid off once is awful, but being laid off three times—well, there are no words.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG has two thoughts:

  1. The treatment the author of the OP has received sounds quite a lot like the publishing industry as PG knows it. Author or employee, the big boss runs the show and a great many people are expendable.
  2. A good sales person is often capable of selling a variety of different things. Convincing a potential customer to choose the product or service you’re able to provide is a skill that requires some knowledge of the market, but is most dependent upon people skills, intelligence, the ability to build lasting relationships based upon trust and understanding the commercial needs of others, expressed or unexpressed.

Some people with excellent sales talents become an Independent Sales Representative, AKA a Manufacturer’s Rep. PG doesn’t know if the book business has any, but, if they don’t, it might be a good idea to consider.

For those unfamiliar with this term, an independent sales representative is almost universally paid on a commission-only basis and usually sells to customers in a specified geographical region. Basically, she/he is part of a company’s sales, marketing and customer service team, but may live anywhere and doesn’t usually have an office of her/his own at the company.

One of the nice things about working as an independent sales rep is that you don’t have to work exclusively for a single company. Skilled independent sales reps typically sell a variety of products that don’t compete with each other. Sometimes, they’ll sell several different products needed by a particular industry, so a sales call can involve taking orders from a single customer for more than one type of product provided by different manufacturers who the sales rep represents. In contrast, an inside sales employee can usually only sell what her/his employer manufactures.

If one company terminates an indie sales rep, he/she still has the other companies’ products to sell to generate an income, so the impact is different than what happens to a full-time inside sales person who is laid off.

One other benefit of taking this path is that, typically, there is no cap on the amount of money the rep can earn. If the commission is 7%, the rep receives 7% of $1,000 or 7% of $1million if that’s what theindie rep sells during a month, quarter, year, etc.

Inside sales jobs involve the situation described in the OP. You’re an employee of a company and have a boss. Typically, you’ll be assigned a sales quota and a territory (a “territory” can be a geographical area or a line of business, e.g. nuts, but not bolts. An inside sales person often receives a base salary and benefits plus a commission on sales she/he makes.

The inside sales person’s boss typically receives a salary plus what is sometimes called an “override commission” based on sales made by the people she/he supervises. If the inside salesperson makes a $1,000 sale, the salesperson may receive a commission of 5% of the sale and the boss may receive an override commission of 2% of the sale.

One of the unwritten rules of a great many inside sales departments is that an inside sales rep shouldn’t earn more than the boss does, a distinct possibility for a really good sales rep who has a lower salary than the boss, but a higher royalty percentage. One of the ways to keep an inside salesperson from earning too much money is to split his/her territory and hiring a new salesperson to sell in the new territory or adding the new territory to the territory of another sales rep who services a less-fertile geographical area.

Over his legal/business career, PG has known some very successful independent reps who have been able to earn a great deal of money from their skills and work. For some standardized products that can be purchased from a number of manufacturers, an independent sales rep can effectively “own” the customer and, should a manufacturer treat the rep badly, she/he can sign up with a competitor and take the customer elsewhere.

While laws in the United States vary from state to state, a manufacturer’s ability to legally limit the activities of an independent sales rep’s activities are almost always more limited than an employer’s ability to limit the activities of an employee or ex-employee, at least for a period of time.

PG knows very little about the details of how books are sold to bookstores and book wholesalers, but if working as an independent sales rep works in this field, the author of the OP might have an alternative means of finding a way of using her connections and sales abilities that might not be subject to periodic layoffs that cut her income to zero.

UPDATE: PG did a bit of online research and discovered the National Association of Publishers Representatives, so, at least for some categories of publishers, apparently an individual can act as an independent sales representative. Here’s a link to the advantages the NAPR says can accrue to a company using an Independent Publisher’s Representative.

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