A revolutionary sales path for wine producers?

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How the book trade might offer the wine trade a revolutionary way of maximising sales potential.

Wine is a hugely competitive marketplace, and getting distribution in the UK is extremely hard. But there might be an online platform that could make it much, much easier. In fact, it has the potential to offer wine producers a revolutionary way of finding their optimal route to market.

But first, the context.

I recently finished writing a novel. Now I want to get it published. There are thousands of other aspiring novelists like me all trying to do the same thing. Getting published requires first finding an agent (of which there are hundreds) who sell it to publishers (of which there are dozens) who then sell it to bookshops (of which there are a few national chains, plus hundreds of independents).

Most winemakers are facing very similar proportions for their sales path. In both cases, the quantity of product (wine or books) exceeds the number of sales opportunities by several orders of magnitude.

The standard convention for submitting a novel is to send the first three chapters, a synopsis and a covering letter to a small shortlist of agents. Selecting these agents involves reading the directory published in the Writers and Artists Yearbook, identifying those who are most open to the sort of book you are writing (sci-fi, horror, erotica (and no, before you ask), speculative, etc) and then researching their websites to ensure you know exactly what they are looking for. Agents receive up to 100 submissions a week and therefore have to assess the prospects of each novel quickly. Considering that agents might only take on ten new clients a year, it’s inevitable that most submissions are rejected.

Again, there are strong parallels with the wine industry in the UK. Around the world, there are tens of thousands of producers making wine, for whom Britain offers a big potential market. It may not be the most profitable (just as having a novel published is rarely lucrative for authors), but the UK is prestigious, well-established and politically stable (cough) - so there is no shortage of producers wanting to sell here.

For such producers, finding an importer who will represent their brand to wholesalers, retailers and restaurants is the first step. To achieve this, producers might submit their wine to critics and/or competitions; attend trade fairs; employ PR agencies; and submit samples direct to importers. In each case this is a costly, time-consuming and largely unpropitious exercise - since, just as with novels, most wines are assessed very rapidly, and the majority are rejected.

However, authors have a way of maximising their chances via a website called AgentMatch. This platform offers a way of quickly and efficiently identifying those agents who are most appropriate for the specific submission of each author. By cataloguing and analysing every literary agent in the US and UK, and building a search engine allowing authors to filter this data (by genre, location, client list, etc) they allow authors to maximise their chances.

An equivalent site would offer the same potential to wine producers. Imagine how useful it would be to know which of the big UK importers is looking for a Rhône-style red at £8.99 RRP, or are building up their Chilean range, or which small importers have the biggest portfolio of natural wines. Rather than speculatively buying space at trade fairs and leaving things largely to luck, producers could focus their energies on going straight to the people who want exactly what they are selling.

AgentMatch’s business model is that writers pay a subscription to access its website. As well as the agent match tool, there is additional content such as tutorial videos, online workshops, webinars, live submission assessments, discussion forums, interviews with agents and so on. It creates a community of writers who can benefit from sharing information - and on the face of it, improves professional efficiency for both agents and novelists.

The wine equivalent could offer the same kind of content: live tasting assessments, workshops on what UK drinkers want, analysis of the trade structure, discussions of profitability and so on. It could expand to offer a complete portfolio report for importers or retailers, interviews with buyers and critics - and it could roll the model out to other territories.

The trade structure for wine and novels is remarkably similar. For both industries, knowing who is the best match for the product in question (thriller or history; Shiraz or Savagnin) is vitally important for both producer and merchant. The proportions in the supply chain are similar. Also, both winemakers and novelists produce their products relatively infrequently. While some wine courtiers offer a similar service (such as Charles Sydney Wines in the Loire), there is a golden opportunity for a more comprehensive online service with a subscription business model.

It’s not my sector of the industry, so I’m not going to do it myself - but I really hope somebody does.