Last summer, when a new edition of Truman Capote's Summer Crossing was released, a friend told me about her trip to Barnes & Noble to buy a copy. She asked a sales clerk at the front desk to look the title up.
"I'm sure you have it," she told the teenager. "It's by Capote."
Some minutes passed while my friend waited. Finally the clerk turned to her and said, "I'm sorry. How does Capote spell her name?"
I screamed with laughter when I heard this story. It made me gloat for the billionth time over the evident ineptitude of the chain stores and the dumbing-down of their employees.
Then the damndest thing happened: because of the changing demographics in my sales territory, it was folded into another, and the most lucrative publisher I represented had to lay me off. In a single stroke I lost most of my commission income and sank like a stone into poverty.
Three months later my first book, An Alphabetical Life, was published.
This weird confluence of events had me second-guessing my long resentment toward the book chains. I suddenly found myself desperate. Knowing that my financial future depended on making my book a success, I had an epiphany: make friends with Big Daddy or go on the dole.
I've been a book rep for 30 years, selling to the indies in Southern California and Arizona with diligence and pride. For the first dozen years there were easily 120 book accounts in my Rolodex, half of them general trade bookstores. It was a pleasure to work with such exceptional bookstores and enjoy a zaftig bank account to boot.
We all know what happened next: Crown Books arrived with a splash (which some might call a drowning), followed by Barnes & Noble and Borders, all offering deep discounts. The most vulnerable independent bookstores began to close; my territory in Southern California was hit particularly hard because the chains concentrated here first and then multiplied with alacrity. Years passed, each one ringing in a higher body count of favorite bookstores and bringing me closer to the financial brink.
I chose this life of self-employment. Aside from a stint in the 1980s as a house rep for E.P. Dutton, I've always favored the creativity and excitement of being a commission rep. It's lent itself well to my independent nature. It's a risky business, and for many years it paid off, manifesting in a profitable, meaningful journey through the world of books.
By 2001, however, the paradigm shift—from healthy indies to healthier chain stores—had occurred. In a moment of ecstatic greed—and with the publisher's approval—I accepted an order of epic proportions from a wholesaler. The book bombed, the returns were massive and within a year I filed for bankruptcy.
An Alphabetical Life was published in late 2006 and is selling well. In planning my book tour, I decided to hold all my signings at independent bookstores. However, when B&N asked me to appear at one of its Manhattan stores, I accepted. I'm now on the other side of the fence in the book business. To realize my desire to write full-time—and get out of debt—it's essential that my book be sold in the indies and chain stores alike.
My first job in the business was at Pickwick Bookshop in Hollywood, which was eventually sold to B. Dalton, which later became Barnes & Noble. In a sense, my roots lie everywhere books are sold, regardless of who owns the store.
I embrace the idea that books should be available to as many people as possible. If the chain stores are able to penetrate markets—and suburbs—that have spread so far and wide, good for them. And if B&N, Borders and the like can help fill my empty coffers... well, I can no longer afford to be proud.
I don't shop in the chains; my commitment to the indies is unwavering. But I believe there's room for everybody. When I visit Dutton's, Vroman's and other indies this month to sell them the spring lists, I hope to see lively sales and plenty of dedicated customers. May it also be so for the chains.
|Wendy Werris is a publishers' sales rep in L.A., and the author of An Alphabetical Life: Living It Up in the World of Books.|