Behind the Books: A Conversation with Alex, Sales Assistant at Penguin Random House

Today I’m so excited to share my conversation with Alex Tritto, who is a sales assistant at Penguin Random House. She works specifically with the field reps who sell to independent bookstores across the country – and since you all KNOW how much I love and adore independent bookstores, you can imagine how excited I was to learn about this cool job! Alex has had an interesting journey, starting at the Columbia Publishing Course, interning with a literary agent, and working in editorial at an academic publisher before landing at PRH. I loved hearing about her time at the literary agency- I feel like not a ton of people know about literary agents, which is ironic because they’re the ones who find those amazing books we all read and deliver them to editors at publishing houses. Read on to learn more about Alex and her role in the book world!

College and the Columbia Publishing Course

I always knew that I wanted to study English in college, but I never really knew what I’d do beyond that. When I first got to college, I explored the teaching path but after about two years, I learned it wasn’t for me. I have a lot of respect for teachers, though! It’s a hard job. So, in junior year, I still had no idea what I wanted to do. I was actually sitting on a bench inside the English department building, waiting to meet with a professor, when I saw a poster for the Columbia Publishing Course. That was kind of my “aha” moment, if you will. It was the first time I thought about publishing as a career. I applied to the NYU and Columbia Publishing Courses and ultimately ended up at Columbia. During those six weeks, I learned more about publishing than I could have ever imagined. We had lectures to learn about different facets of the industry, we networked with people at all different stages in their careers, we had assignments and workshops, and it was just a really great experience to get a short but comprehensive look at the industry. I learned about all the different moving parts that go into publishing a book, I got to hear about what an average day looked like, I met veterans of the industry who told us all about their experiences, and it was just a great way to dip my toes in the water and see if this was something I wanted to pursue as a career. And it was!

Getting Started at a Literary Agency

It’s funny. When I first thought about publishing, I knew about authors, of course, and publishing houses. The concept of a literary agent, or literary agency, was completely foreign to me. I think that’s, in part, because literary agents are a bit like the middle man, the person behind the scenes. The job of a literary agent is, ultimately, to get an author’s book into the hands of an editor. That can be a long, time-consuming process. Usually, a writer will submit a query to a literary agent who works with their genre. In that query, authors pitch their book, trying to sell it as best they can. If the agent is interested, they may ask to read some sample pages. From there, the agent will either ask for the entire manuscript or pass on it (for various reasons). Once the author lands a literary agent, it’s the agent’s job to work through the book with the author, making sure it’s in the best condition possible before auctioning it to a publishing house. In a way, the agent serves as a bit of an editor; however, the manuscript they receive and work with is likely to be a lot more jagged around the edges compared to the one that lands on the desk of an editor’s desk. They’re also there to guide the author through the publishing experience. When I interned at a literary agency, my main responsibility was to go through the slush pile (an email inbox where queries are submitted) and see if there was anything I thought might be interesting to explore. If I did find a good query, I’d write a report on it and alert my supervisor — flagging it as something she may want to look into further. Agents get hundreds of queries, so it’s really helpful to have someone — like an intern — clean that inbox up a bit.

Working at an Academic Publisher

Before I started my current job, I worked in editorial at an academic publisher. That job was very different from my current position, in many ways. To start, I worked in editorial, so I actually worked on the content of the books and got the opportunity to edit books on my own. I would commission an author, work with them on the book, provide edits, work with our production team on finding images we could use and, eventually, putting the book together in InDesign for it to be proofed by production. Working with academic books also meant I was always working with non-fiction. It was a great experience, and I learned so much for it. I’m very grateful for my time there.

The Day to Day in Sales at a Big Five Publishing House

My days always look different. I gather data and prepare materials for marketing meetings, I compile reports from our field reps and send them to folks in the office so they can get a sense of what’s happening in the field, I handle the weekly Indie Bestseller List, and I work on projects that pop up as needed. As a sales assistant, I serve as a liaison between the field reps and our people in-house. For that reason, I do a lot of things that may seem unrelated to sales. For example, I send out a publicity update once a week. However, as I’ve come to learn, there is a lot that goes into selling the book. It’s important for our department to be in communication with other departments so we can make sure our reps have what they need to sell to stores and so that publishers know the landscape of independent bookstores. It’s really a two-way street that involves us all working together.

What Skills are Important for a Publishing Sales Assistant?

The ability to pivot is really important. You may wake up one day planning to work on X, but something comes up and you suddenly need to adapt and deal with Y. You have to be on your feet and able to deal with the punches as they come. It’s also important to be organized and be able to work both collaboratively, with your team and other departments, and on your own, focused on your responsibilities. And, of course, you should be passionate about books! No one expects you to read a book a day or to know every literary classic off the top of your head, but you do have to be interested in what you’re working on and stay up-to-date on current trends in the marketplace in order to bring your best self to work every day.

The Best Parts:

There’s so much to love about my job. I’m really thankful that I get to be a part of the publishing process, even if I’m just a teeny tiny blimp within that process. It’s really rewarding to see a book through its various stages and, ultimately, in the hands of a reader. There’s no feeling better than reading a manuscript a year before the book goes on sale, being able to talk with my coworkers about it, and then (in pre-Covid times) be on the subway and see that very book, materialized, in someone’s bag.

The Biggest Challenges:

I think we all have our strengths and weaknesses, and so the biggest challenges vary greatly depending upon the person. For example, I wasn’t (and still am not) an Excel whiz when I was first hired. I hadn’t worked with formulas and macros much, and I also didn’t know all of the terms we use in sales. I remember being embarrassed some time in my first month when I had to Google, “What does POS stand for?” And even when I learned it was an abbreviation for “point of sales,” I still had to figure out what exactly that meant — was it measured in dollars or units? That kind of thing. With time and practice, though, things got easier.

How Covid Has Changed Things:

Covid has definitely changed things in the book world. It’s been especially difficult for my team, as we deal with independent bookstores — many of which are closed, relying only on online purchases, or have very strict restrictions on in-store shopping. Many stores have closed for good, as well. It’s really heartbreaking. That being said, the pandemic has forced us all to adapt and come up with new ways of doing things. As a result, some bookstores are now offering online sales for the first time, we’re seeing greater use of social media tools, and the like. It’s been really incredible to see communities rally around their local stores and how strong booksellers have been, and continue to be, in the face of all this hardship.

In terms of my own job and work experience, I think Covid has taught us all that there’s a lot we can do from home. I know that may sound silly, but when we first started working from home, it seemed almost impossible — how were we going to communicate, how would we send out ARCs (advanced reader copies) to booksellers, how would we hold photoshoots for some of our image-heavy books? And of course, some of that has become really challenging. But we’ve also learned that we’re much stronger than we thought. We can communicate well via Zoom or the phone, we can hold virtual conferences instead of meeting in person, we can host events online, we can access our internal systems from our personal computers, the list goes on and on. That being said, we could never, ever do all of this without the work of our amazing warehouse team — those who are going to work in person and making sure our books are shipped out on time and securely. They are true miracle workers.

Let’s Chat Books! What are your Top Recommendations?

That’s so hard! I could recommend a million books/authors, so for the sake of this question, I’ll note my favorite author, one of my favorite books published in 2020, and two books coming out this year that I’m really excited about. First, I have to mention Jodi Picoult. She is one of my favorite authors, I own all of her books, and have read them all. Her last book came out in 2020 and is called The Book of Two Ways. I highly recommend that one — along with everything else she’s ever written! One of my favorite reads of 2020 has to be True Story by Kate Reed Petty. It’s a psychological thriller like you’ve never read before. Not to mention it’s a debut novel! Petty is a really strong writer, and I can’t wait to see what else she has in store for us! (I do want to be transparent and note that this book does deal with things that may be triggering for some readers, namely alcoholism and sexual assault.) Looking forward, I’d recommend The Downstairs Neighbor by Helen Cooper, another thriller / suspense novel that comes out next month, and Emily Henry’s new book, People We Meet On Vacation, out now. If you liked Beach Read, you’re in for a real treat!

Thank you so much Alex for sharing your story with us! I loved learning about the different aspects of publishing that Alex has experience in, and I also think her book recs are totally on point – I LOVED True Story and People We Meet on Vacation is next on my list! Be sure to follow Alex at @atritto on Instagram!

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