I have a good friend who used to spend much of his time travelling around the world going to the subsidiary companies of his conglomeration reminding staff of what John Cleese would have referred to as the bleedin obvious. It wasn’t that my friend had chosen this as a special subject rather that people need to be reminded of it. I laughed at myself this week when contemplating upon the role of the travelling sales representative (rep)in the English Language trade book industry.
I have sold books directly into stores in most English markets and know quite a few representatives. These last two weeks I have been spending time with Exisle’s new sales team in Australia and that has required a lot of travel and quite a bit of time and obligatory long drives and hanging around in airports.
I think the day after the first rep started work they were going out of fashion. They cost too much money, bookstores doesn’t want them, chain stores doesn’t want to see them as they would like to make their own decisions, even about regional books when they are snugly locked away in Dilbert Land central miles away from it all. If a particular customer needs a rep can we afford to keep that customer? Can’t we do it all by phone and email? Oh and what other nonsense have I heard over the years? We only buy from the big publishers and we use their catalogues- is sometimes heard- but not often now as that kind of bookseller didn’t survive Amazon and its competitors. If you think about how could they?
The bookseller’s offering has to be considerably more than about price. They are not going to win a price war with discount chains and on line business so they need to differentiate. That requires personality and knowledge of their customers and acute observation as to what moves out their door and willingness to try new things. If you just have the same products as everyone else though more expensively you are redundant in the market. If you have an interesting and appropriate stock range you can both serve and build a market. The best booksellers know that it is the additional purchases their customers make, wholly unplanned that makes them profitable. Notably some of the chains in Britain and the USA are allowing reps back into stores and devolving some buying power to their branches thereby enriching their offerings. A good friend Bill who plies his trade in New England’s book stores is determined to ensure that his customers see him as a source of profit they may not otherwise find.
So how can a slenderly resourced business pick out what to stock? There are over 10,000 English books published each year there is more than enough to choose from. Far too much. So what can a bookseller do? He has to make their judgements about what to order based upon a variety of factors and listening to reps is one of them. Representative nearly always carry several imprints into store and if only by nuance, and often much more, have effectively curated what they have to sell to suit the customer. The bookseller sifts through this curation. Straightforward really but it depends upon a few things that can’t happen much by email and phone.
The rep has actually got to know what they are talking about. When a representative carries a lot of lists they don’t always keep on top of it all so publishers are righty wary of working with over supplied representatives. The bookseller has actually got to trust the rep does she know what s/he is on about, had she actually read any of the book has her head office told her anything useful? There are some booksellers who actually read through all the catalogues and gigabytes of publisher’s propaganda and these folk are impressive. They will know more about the books than the rep but most don’t. Some booksellers don’t trust their reps and read through their materials while the rep quietly waits to answer questions. It also has to be said that some booksellers, mostly junior folk or small stores or both make a point of being rude to their reps. But don’t worry those folk don’t stay around for long unless they are lucky in their location.
A good rep has a combination of her publisher’s and bookseller’s interests at the centre of her work. Neglect a publishers list and they lose that business. Over sell to a bookseller and they lose their trust. But the part that I find particularly delightful is that everyone in the trade book business is there because they like it and professionals talking about books and earning a living at the same time is a wonder. The book industry is not particularly well paid but there are many other benefits. One of those is of course the relationships made and the relationship between a rep and a bookseller is a wonderful case of mutual interest.
Reps of course gossip. Particularly with other reps. When I was repping Central London several hours a month were spent awaiting the Buying God’s stamp of approval at the old Foyles store. Reps those days were often middle aged men with large bags, worn suits, cigarettes and hangovers. Those in London enjoyed some status as the London rep’s their head offices were generally there and of course London sold more books than elsewhere. Each week there was an early morning conga line of these folk stretching from the Buying God’s den onto the street waiting for the magic stamp. In a very un -British way everyone spoke to everyone else and rumours quickly became facts known in a few hours by much of the industry.
Incidentally the conversation wasn’t always about books and gossip. The prized skills of the rep were discussed in heated fashion and the ability to turn on the car’s ignition, light a cigarette, move out of the parking bay, turn on the radio and put the seatbelt on in one -instant smooth flow was much applauded.
Representative’s view of head offices is no more charitable than head office’s view of them- probably less so as most publishers know what reps do, or are supposed to. But reps are more wondering about what half the people in their offices do. I think booksellers think the same and to be quite honest with you I am not so sure myself.
One thing I am sure of is that reps will remain, they will continue to be unfashionable and indispensable. The rep is dead long live the rep.