It’s All About the Books: An Interview with Gary Lothian, Sales Representative for Ingram Content Group

How long have you been a sales rep for Ingram, and how long have you worked with Ooligan Press?

I’ve been a sales rep for Ingram since 1999, so it’ll be 15 years this August. And we’ve been representing Ooligan Press as one of our IPS clients since 2009, I believe.

And I’ve actually been helping you guys out before you were a client with IPS. Kent Watson often asks me to come in and speak to his class about the Real World 101 of selling books to bookstores—about how it’s done and what I’m up against and what each store is up against and everything like that. So I’ve been involved with Ooligan probably almost as long as I’ve been with Ingram.

How and when did you first enter into sales work? Was it something you were always interested in, or did you find yourself gravitating toward a career in sales by happenstance? Did your prior education or life experiences lead you to this occupation?

Actually, it was a bit of a happenstance. I started working at a bookstore in 1979 after leaving seminary. I was really not skilled to do anything else but work in a bookstore because my educational background and my life experiences to that point had been very academic and not really leaning towards another career. So I walk into a bookstore and ask the woman there if she was looking to hire someone and she said yes. And I have been in publishing ever since in some way, shape, or form.

It seems to be a trend with liberal arts majors, yeah? We’re usually steeped in academia, and then we go out looking for a job—

—Yeah, exactly. It’s like, what do you do with an English degree? You go to work in a bookstore.

So you’ve worked for Ingram for 15 years now. What’s your favorite part of your job, and why?

The best part is the finding of a book that you’re really excited about. I see anywhere from 400 to 500 books in a season, of which I read about 80-100. I try to give my enthusiasm to the book buyer so that they can bring a book into their store and hopefully be just as excited when they try to sell it to their customer. So, for me, it’s the discovery of new books.

For instance, this season you guys have The Wax Bullet War, and it is fantastic. I read the whole thing. I think it’s one of the most nationally commercial books you guys have ever done. And I know it’s got some support from Barnes and Noble—they’re wanting to do an in-store display with it, which probably has never happened for Ooligan before. It’s finding those kind of things and having those kind of experiences that make my job fun and unique.

You’re selling a different line basically every four months, so you’ve always got new stuff coming down the pipeline that you’re going out and selling, and everything is constantly changing. I get to go out and sell something different every time I do it, and that’s just the most enjoyable thing you can do. I mean, it’s not like you’re out there selling widgets; you’re actually selling something you have a passion about.

In contrast to what we’ve just been talking about, what part of your job would you identify as your least favorite?

Well, it goes back to what I just said about my favorite part: when you’ve got a book that you’re really excited about and that you’ve generated some enthusiasm for and you’ve gone out and really sold it as well as you possibly can, and then it doesn’t work in the marketplace … that can be especially heartbreaking sometimes. You know that the book is good, you know the author’s done a good job, you know the publisher’s done everything a publisher can possibly do to promote it, and for some reason it just doesn’t click in the marketplace. And there’s absolutely nothing you can do when that happens. It’s kind of like … it’s just the fate of the gods, you know? You can only do so much to propel a book into the marketplace.

Actually, that kind of leads into my next question. Sales isn’t often regarded as the sexiest part of publishing—and perhaps wrongly so. Why would you encourage Ooligan students and others interested in publishing to familiarize themselves with the sales world? What opportunities are available to them through a career in sales?

Well, the fact of the matter is that you’re in a real world marketplace doing something that you feel changes and betters society. If I wanted to make a lot more money, I could go sell TVs or stereo equipment or something like that, but it’s much better for me—both emotionally and mentally—to sell a product that I am absolutely passionate about and that I want to get other people excited about at the same time.

Each store has a finite amount of money they’re willing to spend. They also have a finite amount of space. What you have to do is make the argument that your book is worthy of their bookstore and worthy of their money. And that’s a Real World 101 kind of situation that, if you’re going to be in publishing, you need to know. You need to know about marketability and how to sell and what makes a book click with buyers and what doesn’t make a book click with buyers.

Back in the the ’40s and ’50s, publishing was considered a gentleman’s profession. It was something that women and men went into out of a love of books. And now with the homogenization of the book world—you know, with Penguin now being owned by Random House and so much consolidation—there’s not as much of a diverse spread as there use to be in publications. With certain people taking over larger and larger shares of the market base, it becomes a challenge to get your book out there and placed in bookstores. And I think understanding what makes a book sell—talking to booksellers, learning what they sell, why they sell it, what they can sell—is a very useful pastime.

Yeah, I think those interpersonal skills are something we could really benefit from a little more in the program.

And that, I think, is the reason why Kent has had me come in to speak to his classes. I would go in and I would show them numbers about how a book sold. And I would say, “Okay, well, for a small press, this is actually a really good number!” And they would kind of look at me and go, “Wow, but that’s not a very big number.” And I would say, “No, sometimes it’s not. But it went out, it found its market, and it succeeded in the marketplace as far as the potential for that specific book went.”

That kind of touches on my next question. What factors do you have to take into consideration when working with Ooligan’s upcoming publications as compared to some of your other clients?

Since I’m the Pacific Northwest sales rep, you’re in my backyard, which definitely gives me a leg up. For instance, when you guys republished Cataclysms on the Columbia, that was a huge book for me. People had been wanting that book for years, and it had just not been available. As soon as I started going around to my independent bookstores, they were like, “Oh wow, they’re bringing this back. That’s fantastic!” Now, the rep in New England probably didn’t have that experience—but for me, it was a very timely, very good book for my marketplace because it was a known classic and there was already a demand for it.

Yeah, Scott’s book has consistently been one of our bestsellers.

It’s a great book that deserved to be brought back into print, and I was very pleased that you guys decided to do that.

As students of the program and staff members at Ooligan, we often hear about IPS, but I’m not sure all of us (myself included) know about the employment opportunities available with Ingram. Can you talk a little bit about the company as a whole and what working at a place like Ingram has to offer?

Ingram is the world’s largest book wholesaler and one of the largest book distributors in the world. We represent some 80 or 90 different publishers through the book trade marketplace. And we have a wholesale side with warehouses based in different locations all across the country where we house not just IPS books, but all sorts of books for bookstores everyday.

We also have a very large library division, a periodical division, and an e-book technology division. And something we are going to be adding in the near future is the distribution of used textbooks. Plus, we have the largest print-on-demand facility. Now you don’t have to carry inventory because the books literally live in cyberspace and you can just tell us exactly how many you want, which means there’s no overhead and no waste on that end at all.

So we’re a very diversified, very large company, but it’s all centered around information in some way. Which is actually why we’ve changed the name: we’re now the Ingram Content Group. Because it’s not just about paper books anymore—it’s ebooks, it’s data files, it’s electronic textbooks for classrooms and college courses, and that sort of thing.

There are nine field reps, like me, who are based all around the United States. We also have three inside sales people who do mostly phone/email marketing. We also have a Christian division, with two representatives there. So, we probably have one of the larger sales forces out there in the marketplace actually calling on bookstores every day.

That’s interesting. I think a lot of students who come into the program are focused on the editorial side of things, and we’re not always aware of some of the other options available to us.

Being given a book when it’s finished—when the author has worked on it, when the editor has worked on it, when the cover design people have worked on it—and showing your book buyers something that hopefully you’ve read and you’re excited about, that’s where the passion lies for those of us who do it. It’s a totally different kind of passion than the editor’s passion or the author’s passion. For instance, having read Sean’s book, it’s obvious that he is a very passionate man and he wrote a very passionate and touching memoir. And being able to convey that to my customers makes it worthwhile for me.

Going off that idea, name one book you wish you could read again for the first time.

That’s simple: Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin. It’s one of the most lyrically beautiful books I have ever read in my entire life. It’s a beautiful love story, an adventure story. I think it came out in ’79 and I still re-read it every two or three years because I enjoy what he did with the language and the beautiful narrative that he wove. It’s my favorite book, and if I could read it again and have that initial oh-my-god feeling that I had when I read it for the first time, that would be a great and wondrous time.

Because you’re reading all the time for work, is it harder to find the time or desire to read for pleasure?

One of the challenges of being a sales rep is that you get a whole list to go out and sell every three months. And I try to read as many of them as I possibly can, because an informed bookseller is a better bookseller. But I also try to balance my reading with books that I want to read just for pleasure. For instance, I took time off at Christmas and read six or eight galleys that we’ve got coming out so that I would be better prepared to sell the books. But at the same time, I also went and read some books that are from other publishers because they interested me too. I mean, I’m in the book business by choice—it’s all about the books.

Last week I was up at the Winter Institute, and they had this galley room where you could just go and pick up any galley you wanted of all these forthcoming books from different publishers. It was like being a kid in a candy store. And that’s one of the reasons why I try not to refer to books as product—because I don’t view them just as product. They’re special and unique and unlike anything else. Maybe music is close. But really, with nothing other than music and books is there as much passion involved in the manufacturing, the packaging, and the selling of whatever it is.

You were asking about job prospects and things like that earlier, and one of the difficulties is that once somebody gets a job in the publishing business, they don’t usually leave. So there’s not a lot of turnover—at least not at my level of the publishing industry. Most of the sales people, once they get a job, they keep it. Like I said, I’ve been doing this for 35 years, and I literally cannot imagine doing anything else.

Is there a question you wish people would ask you about your work—in other words, is there anything I have failed to ask you about that you’d like to share?

It’s all about the books. It’s all about working with the authors and the publishers and the buyers and the book people. Believe me, I fully recognize that this is a business. We are all doing this to make money. I don’t have any pie-in-the-sky notions about the noble cause. It is a business, and the more we can learn about the marketplace and the books that are being produced, it makes us better people. For instance, I wouldn’t go into a bookstore and try to sell them a book if I didn’t think they had a chance of reselling it to their customer base. It’s a community, and that’s one of the things that’s really, really important. We’ve all been at this for a long time. We all know each other. We’ve all watched each other’s children grow up. And that’s something unique and special that I don’t think you would find in any other industry.

Cover Votes and Conference Calls

This week has been a busy one for The Ninth Day; we had our all-press cover vote on Monday! But…we can’t show you the cover yet. I know, I know, I’m sorry. It was voted in more as a concept rather than as a final product, so we will wait to unveil it until it’s completely done.

We also had a conference call with Ingram Publisher Services, our distributor, this Friday afternoon. Luckily, Abbey reminded McKenzie and me that the call was at 3 o’clock…Central Time. I definitely would’ve called in two hours late wondering where everyone was!

The conference call included seven people: McKenzie, Abbey, and me from Ooligan, and four Ingram employees, including Keith, who manages Ooligan’s account, and Gary, the Northwest sales representative.

McKenzie and I pitched The Ninth Day to the sales reps, explaining the plot and our marketing plans.  It was wonderful to hear that they enjoyed Blue Thread and were intrigued by the idea of a companion novel. They were also excited to hear that Ruth is still doing events for Blue Thread, even while in the midst of editing The Ninth Day, and that she is already starting to think about the marketing for The Ninth Day. We are incredibly lucky to have an author who is enthusiastic about pitching and participating in marketing ideas, making our job that much more fun. In the end, they didn’t have too many questions or suggestions for us, which we were assured means we did a good job.

On to collecting all our marketing ideas into a formal plan while finalizing the cover.