A Writer's Best Friend : How do you sell another JFK book? A first novel? Just ask these sales reps.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Think the book-buying season peaks at Christmas? Think again.

In late September, while most folks prepare for the holidays, a small army of salespeople are slipping cassettes into tape decks and pondering the real question on every publisher's mind: How to sell you the big books of spring.

Some of the listeners are cruising down California freeways, while others are cooped up in New England motels. When they turn up the tape volume, a jingling Motown chorus of "Spring Is Here" gives way to a British man's jaunty brogue. It's time to lose those winter blues.

"Hi, Harry here, with a daffodil between his lips," jokes Harold Evans, publisher and president of Random House, as the canned rock music fades. "And I want you all to know that we've got a monster of a spring."

For Maggie Castanan, motoring from Berkeley to a Sacramento bookstore, Evans' greeting snaps her to attention. A company sales representative since 1971, she takes mental notes as the publisher describes new titles like a waiter ticking off blue-plate specials. Although the lucrative Christmas season has barely begun, publishing runs on a year-round cycle of selling, and it's not too soon for her to start focusing on spring. The miles roll by.

Back in New York, the audiotapes interrupt a hectic day at the office for Michael Morrison. Unlike Castanan--whose territory ranges from stores in the East Bay to the Central Valley--he sells Random House titles exclusively to Barnes and Noble, the nation's largest book chain. Morrison pays special attention to potential blockbusters on the new list, sorting his way through a recorded spiel that lasts 105 minutes and spotlights 70 spring books.

It's like a long, chatty letter from home. The Random House sales representatives need ammunition to market these new titles, and the audiotapes get them started. But they're just the beginning. In weeks to come, the sales force will meet in New York to craft marketing strategies for each book. They'll also anticipate a raft of real-world problems:

How do you sell yet another book on the JFK assassination to skeptical store owners? Why should merchants care about an unknown first novelist who has little or no chance of appearing on "Oprah"? If stores already have five shelves of gardening titles and you're pushing three new books on roses, the aisles could get crowded.

You need a hook, a pitch to make your product stand out. And that becomes an obsession for the unsung heroes of America's $18-billion book business.

"We're the ones out on Main Street," says Castanan, who along with 56 other people sells books to bookstores for Random House, the nation's largest consumer publisher. "And the home office needs to know what customers want. So I think of us as being on the front lines, the real point of contact."

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Every year, an estimated 150,000 new titles hit the market, and publishers spend millions to win your business, haggling over everything from dust-jacket designs to price and publicity. But there's only so much that can be done behind closed doors in Manhattan. Eventually, these books wind up in your neighborhood store--and it isn't because a few executives wish it so.

Standing between them and consumers are the sales reps. Like an army of literary Willy Lomans, they fan out across America and try to drum up business wherever books are sold. They work long hours for relatively little money, and few experts mention their names when new titles start climbing the bestseller charts. But attention must be paid.

"Sales representatives are very much out on their own, constantly on the road," says Betty Fairchild, who supervises six Random House sales reps in the West. "They drive a lot at night and spend days away from their families. Yet that's the job. That's what's expected."

The work is especially demanding at Random House, which is part of the larger Random House Inc., a publishing conglomerate that also includes Alfred A. Knopf, Times Books, Vintage, Pantheon, Villard, Crown and other imprints. Run by the Newhouse family, whose fortune is valued at more than $10 billion, Random House is known as a tough place to work. Editors and publishers are expected to meet extremely high standards, and sales reps are no different.

They come from a variety of professional backgrounds. Castanan has spent most of her life in the Bay Area selling books, both in stores and for publishers. Morrison comes to the book world with a business orientation, having worked for several publishers as an accountant and production manager.

Random House has 35 reps assigned to different regions, plus 15 salespeople for national chains and six field managers. Like other aspects of publishing, sales work has undergone a revolution in the last 30 years. Once, reps hit the road and sold books at a leisurely pace. The strategies they used were largely up to them. Nowadays, marketing is more sophisticated, with tapes, videos, computers and other aids boosting a nationwide sales effort that is more focused than ever.

Publishers set a financial goal for each book, and it's reflected in the number of copies printed. If a novel is pegged at 15,000 copies, the company is essentially telling reps--and merchants--that it has modest expectations. But if Random House cranks out 250,000 copies, salespeople have a major campaign on their hands. The products have to be moved out of warehouses and onto shelves as rapidly as possible, and each region has its own allotment.

It's not glamorous work. Reps spent most of their time in bookshops, where they meet regularly with owners and try to develop a rapport that might lead to better sales. Do the owners of a Berkeley store hold their noses at copies of Newt Gingrich's "contract with America"? Castanan urges them not to underestimate reader curiosity and to buy 75 copies instead of 25.

Will Robert MacNamara's memoirs be just another book on Vietnam? Morrison begs to differ, telling Barnes and Noble that the former Defense Secretary's testament will be a definitive history of our national Waterloo. After his presentation, orders grow.

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Like other publishers, Random House wants its reps to anticipate sales problems, and humor is an effective tool. At one point on the tape, Evans draws on his background--including his marriage to New Yorker Editor Tina Brown and his 1982 sacking by Rupert Murdoch--to hype "The Magnate," a new novel by Susan Crosland.

"The magnates are media magnates," he explains. "One American, think Ted Turner. One British or thereabouts, think Rupert Murdoch. And a high-flying young woman journalist, think Tina Brown. Wait! What am I saying? She's the meat in the sandwich they both want to consume."

A pitch is unbeatable if there's a sales record to back it up, and reps pay attention to the editors whose voices alternate with Evans' on the audiotape. Outside New York, few have heard of Ann Godoff. But in publishing circles she's a star: The Random House editor had three books simultaneously on the New York Times bestseller list last year, and her backing of a new title, "The Memoirs of Elizabeth Frankenstein," could jack up sales in many stores.

"All I have to do is tell owners that the same editor who brought them 'The Alienist,' 'Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil' and 'Makes Me Wanna Holler' is pushing this one," Castanan says. "That should help."

Some reps are so plugged in, editors actually seek their advice in signing up authors. Morrison says Random House colleagues occasionally send him book proposals to see if they would do well in the Barnes and Noble marketplace.

"I'm sort of a one-stop service," he explains. "I try and gauge if a book sounds right, if they're publishing it at the right time of the year."

When books are ready for market, reps start looking for the perfect hook. It's a language all its own, and they'll spend hours developing a pitch.

In hooktalk, "The Alienist" by Caleb Carr is not a dark, Gothic mystery set in turn-of-the-century New York. It's " 'Ragtime' meets 'Silence of the Lambs.' " A first-person book about women who quit the corporate world to become full-time moms becomes "From Rush Hour to Rash Hour."

Usually, reps have a limited amount of time with owners, spending roughly two minutes per title. Those 120 seconds may seem outrageous to an author who has worked five years on a quality book. But a well-chosen hook can work wonders, especially if you tailor it to the territory.

Norman Mailer's forthcoming epic on Lee Harvey Oswald should be easy to sell in big cities, Fairchild reckons, because the author's name sparks sales. But you might have to work harder in malls. There, she suggests, a rep could make comparisons to Mailer's mega-seller about killer Gary Gilmore, "The Executioner's Song," saying the new book gives Oswald the same treatment.

"You're always dealing with community standards," Castanan says. "When I tried to sell 'How to Avoid AIDS' by Magic Johnson in 1992, I ran into one suburban owner who told me AIDS was not going to be a problem in her community. My mouth dropped open. I still can't believe she said that."

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Castanan got a chance to tell the AIDS story to other reps in New York a few months later. Although they work in the heartland most of the year, salespeople attend regular conferences in Manhattan to bone up on new titles. They also offer real-life perspectives to their bosses.

"As publishers, we can get culturally isolated in New York," says Evans, who took over Random House in 1990. "A lot of people initially dismissed the idea of books by Rush Limbaugh or Howard Stern, for example, not realizing their appeal. That's why we include sales reps in decisions, to help us understand."

Holding dual U.S. and British citizenship, Evans has a keen appreciation of American culture. Before editing the Sunday Times of London, he spent years as a roving reporter in America, and in 1969 helped publish "American Melodrama," considered by many to be the best single account of the 1968 U.S. presidential election. He edited Henry Kissinger's memoirs and, in his spare time, he's writing an ambitious history of 20th-Century America.

Still, Evans needs all the information he can get to gauge shifting public moods. He has an in-house Los Angeles publicity office to address West Coast needs, and he depends on sales reps for similar intelligence nationwide.

In late October, Random House holds a special "pre-sales conference" for some 30 reps, to discuss the books mentioned on its tapes. Meeting in a hotel conference room, the group pores over thick notebooks and runs down background information on each title. They know how well an author has done in various regions and are privy to hard sales figures, which publishers almost never reveal. In this room, there are no secrets.

Mailer's new work commands attention because "Oswald's Tale" has been tentatively priced at $30. Evans thinks that could hurt the book, especially in light of "Harlot's Ghost," the author's similarly priced 1991 novel that--despite strong word of mouth--sold 84,743 copies in hardcover. It was a far cry from "The Executioner's Song," which sold 1.4 million paperbacks.

There's also a spirited debate over the dust cover. Should it be a dark, red-tinged photo of Oswald, or a picture of the New Orleans house where the accused presidential assassin once lived? The group has no illusions about what will sell, and Evans encourages them to speak openly.

"Horrible!" says one rep as associate publisher Walter Weintz holds up the dust jacket for a first novel. The room explodes with laughter when he abruptly tears the cover in half and tosses the pieces over his shoulder. "Get rid of it!" says another rep, hooting down yet another cover, and Weintz complies.

But most books pass the test, like "Breaking the Surface," by Olympic diver Greg Louganis. Because of security reasons, only a handful of Random House officials know in October that Louganis' autobiography--to be published six months later--contains the bombshell revelation that he has AIDS.

Still, Weintz has no trouble convincing the crowd that a gay man's life story has the potential to reach a much wider reading audience.

"This book is a winner," he says. "Every chapter is an Oprah segment."

Weintz rattles off the author's description of one dysfunction after another, including dyslexia, depression, drug abuse, rape, suicide, homophobia and parental neglect. Mainstream press attention will be strong and immediate, he promises, noting that Barbara Walters will tape an exclusive interview.

Beyond that, Evans adds, the gay market will do its share, generating an expected 25,000 to 40,000 in sales. But the reps are most impressed with the guarantees of television exposure, linked to a March publication date.

"TV helps us sell like nothing else," says one sales representative, busily scribbling notes. "That's all some bookstore owners need to hear."

Down the list they go: Is $23 too high for a novel? Evans cuts the price a dollar. Maybe Random House should print 35,000 copies of a book on the Pill instead of 50,000, says one rep, so when the initial run sells out they can print the rest and have an "illusion of movement" in the stores.

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Meanwhile, the hunt for hooks goes on. In a meeting for Villard Books, a Random House division reporting to Evans, the chatter sounds like a Hollywood pitching session. "How Long Has This Been Going On," a novel of New York, becomes "A Gay 'Thornbirds.' " "Bone in the Throat," the story of a chef in a Mafia-run restaurant, becomes "Gourmet Goodfellas" or "Prizzi Meets Puck."

When a book is hot, marketing takes off. But sometimes titles hit unexpected turbulence. Evans oozes optimism about "Special Delivery," the story of the Dilley family and their sextuplets. Media attention will be intense, he says, and there should be no trouble getting TV coverage in May.

Unless the biggest story of all intervenes.

"You might have a verdict in the O.J. Simpson trial by then and that could really hurt publicity," says one rep. "Maybe we should bring the initial 100,000 printing down to 50,000," says another. "Just in case."

The room gets quiet, yet Evans leaves them laughing when talk turns to Gore Vidal's upcoming memoirs. The novelist promises to be his usual outrageous self, sparing no one. Hollywood and New York will love it, but what about Middle America? Evans dings a water glass for attention.

"This will be the hottest , juiciest book you've ever seen," he tells the reps. "You'll never eat breakfast, lunch or dinner in this town again."

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