Last summer, many industry observers considered Bruce Joshua Miller to be rather quixotic, vigorously tilting at the University of Missouri’s administration by leading a letter-writing and social media campaign after the university’s May 24 announcement that the 54-year-old University of Missouri Press’s scholarly publishing program would be dismantled and its editor-in-chief, Clair Willcox, fired.
Since Missouri rescinded its decision on August 28, and reinstated Willcox six weeks later, however, Miller has been lauded throughout the academic and book publishing worlds as, in the words of Johns Hopkins University Press director Greg Britton, “our David against a formidable Goliath.” And he’s PW’s Sales Rep of the Year.
PW received a record number of nominations for the 2013 award; the most impassioned, by far, were those for Miller, 58, a commission rep based in Chicago, who does business as a sole proprietor. Miller Trade Book Marketing represents 26 scholarly and independent presses to the trade in the Midwest—including, for the past 20 years, UMP, which publishes about 30 titles annually.
The words “hero” and “heroic” appear repeatedly in Midwest booksellers’ nominations, as well as those from less typical nominators for this award—university press directors and their marketing managers. UMP’s consulting director, Jane Lago, notes, “He served this press, and simultaneously all university presses, as an informed, engaged, articulate champion of what scholarly publishing does best.”
“During the fight to save UMP Miller did what ‘great’ reps do,” insists University of Mississippi Press marketing director Steven P. Yates, who’s worked with Miller for the past decade. “He brought people together and found common ground between them over that blessed human circuit of expression and passion, the books of one press.”
Bookseller Matthew Lage of Iowa Book in Iowa City, who describes Miller as repping with “a cheerleader’s push, good humor and a light but firm touch,” adds, “In my 22 years as a buyer I haven’t seen such effectiveness on the part of a publisher’s representative. Had it not been for Bruce’s efforts, I doubt [UMP] would continue.”
Authors and scholars nominated Miller as well. Florida State University professor and UMP author Ned Stuckey-French, who first encountered Miller when both had letters criticizing the University of Missouri published, and almost immediately partnered with him to lead the charge, says that “the publishing community has no better friend.”
It wasn’t just about coming to the aid of one university press in peril that drove Miller to action, Stuckey-French explains; it was of the “utmost importance to the book industry and American letters” to “stand up in support of good books, fine scholarship, and public higher education.” Even other reps nominated Miller. Penguin Group regional sales rep Brian Wilson, who also lives in Chicago, did so because Miller “has always exhibited genuine care alongside impeccable integrity for book publishing and books in general.”
Bibliophiles in the Family
Miller’s love for books, just like his activism, might be genetic. His parents, Jordan and Anita Miller, who founded a small press, Academy Chicago, in 1975, are both bibliophiles. The Glencoe, Ill. home that Miller grew up in has always been filled with books— as is the house on Chicago’s North Side that he’s shared since 1993 with wife, Julia Anderson-Miller, an artist and director of design services at Illinois State Medical Society. “There was a lot of stimulating conversation concerning books when I was growing up,” Miller recalls, laughing at a memory of his older brother, Mark Crispin Miller— now a New York University professor, author, and activist, who’s currently leading the opposition to NYU’s “2031” expansion plan— once labeling the family’s bookshelves, “just like a library or a bookstore.”
“Our parents were always very politically engaged,” Miller explains, “There was always a sense that you had to make your own decisions, come to your own conclusions. We were encouraged to form our own opinions, then express those opinions.”
After graduating in 1976 from Hiram College in Ohio with a degree in English, Miller spent the next three years helping his parents build Academy Chicago. He remembers performing “whatever needed to be done,” which included editorial assistance, loading and unloading trucks, and making “a few” sales calls.
“I always wanted to be a writer,” he admits, “but I had to make a living. I didn’t have the patience after college for editorial work. I wanted to do something that would get me out and about, involve some exploration.” After interviewing in New York City for sales positions with several publishers, in 1980 Miller decided to set himself up, “repping for anybody who’d hire me.” Besides Academy Chicago and Caedmon Records, his first clients included about a half-dozen alternative and feminist presses, as well as the Subterranean Company, a small press distributor. “For five years, I traveled the Midwest by myself for weeks at a time,” he says. “I’d drive across Iowa and Nebraska, then down into Kansas and back through Missouri, or the other way around.”
In 1985, his younger brother, Eric Lincoln Miller, joined him, and the two started picking up university presses, beginning with the University of Georgia Press, whose marketing manager at the time was Doug Armato. “The legendary George Scheer, who repped for my parents in the South, said to Doug, ‘Why don’t you give these Miller boys a chance?’ So Doug hired us,” Miller recalls. “Word spread that there were these two young guys just starting out who really liked university presses. It became our main thing. There was a natural attraction: we’re both bibliophiles and some university presses are more willing to hire a smaller group.”
Armato, currently director of the University of Minnesota Press and one of those nominating Miller as Rep of the Year, confirms Miller’s account. “I first hired Bruce in 1986 and I’ve hired him every place I’ve worked since; he’s that good,” Armato says, describing Miller as “a tireless ally and reliable sounding-board” with “that cynical outer rind shared by all great reps.
“I can’t count the number of times that independent booksellers have spontaneously told me how much they trust him,” Armato continues. “Having a rep with that level of trust and respect selling your books is the best asset you can have in the market.”
After working together for 26 years, the Miller brothers parted professional ways in 2011, as Eric wanted to concentrate on publishing regional titles with Wicker Park Press, the small press he founded in 2002.
Repping Solo in the 21st Century
“Last year was my first solo year since the 1980s,” Miller notes, explaining that while it requires more time on the road, it’s possible to cover a 13-state territory effectively, as there are fewer stores now than there were during the bookstore heyday in the 1990s. Also, he points out, some buyers have become “attuned” to e-mail and phone appointments. His accounts are primarily trade bookstores across the Midwest, as well as art museum stores, specialty stores, and the “handful” of university stores still ordering books directly. While he makes stops in the region’s major cities, including Minneapolis-St. Paul, St. Louis, and Cleveland, he also regularly visits smaller towns, like Iowa City and Oconomowoc, Wis.
“I’ll go to anybody who wants to order a book from me; it’s not fixed,” he emphasizes. Miller’s instinct to protect his constituents once again comes into play, as he explains why publishers’ reps have become more essential, even as the numbers of bricks-and-mortar bookstores have dwindled. “Booksellers need to know about the unusual books to distinguish themselves from just databases,” he says. “They need to know about the kinds of books any rep sells, but especially commission reps, because we have such a varied bag, where booksellers are going to find things that aren’t in every store—like the university presses.”
Now that the kerfuffle over UMP that consumed him for more than four months has subsided, Miller spends his spare time blogging about “print, art, politics, commerce” at brucejquiller.wordpress.com, and editing Curiosity’s Cats: Writers on Research (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2014), whose contributors—including Stuckey-French— explore undertaking “nondigital research that requires you to get off your ass.” It’s Miller’s second book published by a press that he also represents: he edited Take Them at Their Words: Startling, Amusing and Baffling Quotations from the GOP and their Friends, 1994–2004 (Academy Chicago, 2004).
Three blocks north of Miller’s home, Women & Children First’s front window currently displays a sign (with headshot) congratulating a man who has been the bookstore’s good neighbor and regular customer for 20 years. When Miller and PW stop by on a chilly April afternoon, the store’s two co-owners talk about how Miller comes in once a week or so to share industry news, tell them about books they might otherwise overlook, or just to make suggestions about the store’s layout. In remarks that sum up his strengths, co-owner Linda Bubon notes that, “I’ve watched him interact with staff here. He’s so supportive, so kind, so helpful. He pays attention and he cares so much.” Ann Christopherson, also co-owner, agrees, “He’s a good rep. It’s all the industry involvement as well that makes Bruce stand out.”