Hilary Emerson Lay, manager of the Spirit of '76 Bookstore & Card Shop in Marblehead, Mass., would have recommended Ronald Koltnow for Rep of the Year much sooner, she says, but she assumed he had already earned that distinction. After all, as she wrote in her nominating e-mail, “he is one of the most well-read and truly bibliophilic reps I've ever known.” Among the other selling points she singles out: when Koltnow visits the store, he endears himself to customers and gets them to buy more books; he goes out of his way to introduce himself to new staff members and ask about their reading habits; and “he's just an incredible person.”
Kirsten Cappy, founder of Curious City in Portland, Maine, which promotes children's authors, and a buyer for a Maine literacy organization, agrees. “There's not a moment when he's not making a connection,” she says. “It's as likely for a package of galleys to come for a bookseller as an owner.” Adds Jon Strymish, buyer/manager of New England Mobile Book Fair in Newton, Mass., “Isn't Ron Rep of the Year every year?”
One of Koltnow's colleagues once told him that he figured out Koltnow's sales secret: you like everybody, and they like you. Actually, says Koltnow, “as a rule I go in with an attitude that I'm here to serve customers.” It's something the 57-year-old Gemini from Akron, Ohio, learned handling customer service for Blue Cross and Blue Shield. He earned a master's in English from the University of Akron and began selling books for Waldenbooks in 1975, before moving to B. Dalton. An ad in PW led him to Putnam, where he took his first job as a sales rep in the late 1980s. In 1990 he went to Random House, where he has been for the past 20 years, mostly in New England.
“I found a home in bookselling,” says Koltnow, “because getting others to read the books I love is just plain thrilling.” Plus, as former girlfriend Anna Currence, who went on to become CEO of Crown Books, told him, “You always go into every bookstore anyway. Why don't you get paid for it?”
Even though Koltnow was a co-recipient of NEIBA's Saul Gilman Award for Outstanding New England Sales Representative and earned Random House's Bud Fairbanks Award for excellence in sales and marketing, he doesn't see himself as a sales guy. In recent years a number of publishers, including Random House, have begun renaming sales representatives as district sales managers. The new titles reflect changes in book buying as well as the smaller territories that have resulted from the loss of regional chains and multistore independents. Koltnow likes to quip that he's lost more ship-to's than any other rep in the business. At one time his accounts included Village Green, the Paper Cutter, Price Chopper/Friar Tuck bookshops, Lauriat's/Encore, LearningSmith, and Waterstone's, which have all closed.
“The truth of the matter,” says Koltnow, “we're not sales reps. We're field consultants. My focus is less on the selling than on finding a home for the overall range of titles. Bonus is no longer based on individual numbers. They look for creativity and relationships.” Koltnow builds on his relationships with booksellers to get the right books into the right hands, whether it's a frontline bookseller or a store buyer. For him, Staff Recommends are every bit as important, if not more, than book reviews in getting consumers to buy a book. A good hand-seller can establish a title in a store or region. “Most books have really been made by people raving about them on the store level,” he says. “That's why IndieBound is so effective.”
In addition to seeking out booksellers who will appreciate and turn others on to books on his list, Koltnow crafts memorable blurbs to help booksellers hand-sell them. His description of Lee Rourke's The Canal (June)—“The Bartlesby the Scrivener of the 21st century”—is so dead-on that Melville House, which is distributed by Random House, has begun using his blurb to promote the novel. As an inveterate moviegoer whose reviews have appeared in Washington, D.C.'s City Paper as well as more scholarly tomes like Magill's Survey of Cinema, Koltnow frequently uses movies as a reference point for new books. “Apart from being fun, it gets the buyer invested in the characters and, by extension, the book,” says Koltnow. Years ago, when he was selling a biography of John O'Hara, he offered to lend booksellers a video of The General Died at Dawn, in which O'Hara makes a cameo. He also has a copy of Day for Night, in which Graham Greene has a cameo.
When Koltnow makes a connection with a bookseller, he likes to say that he or she makes his job easy by spreading the word for him. At a recent sales call for The Passage, a buyer's first question was, is that the book Michele Filgate at RiverRun Bookstore in Portsmouth, N.H., has been tweeting about?
Every season Koltnow chooses one book as his personal priority title. When Naeem Murr's The Perfect Man came out, it became his spring 2007 selection; he gave an ARC to Betty Sudarsky at Wellesley Booksmith, who sold over 300 copies of it. This spring's pick, Howard Frank Mosher's Civil War odyssey, Walking to Gatlinburg, was nominated as a March Indie Notable. Of course, as Koltnow concedes, not every book works out. Despite generally good reviews, the 2008 translation of Juan Eslava Galán's The Mule didn't sell as strongly as he had anticipated.
An Old-Fashioned Rep?
If old-fashioned means stack 'em high or sitting for hours with a buyer and going over every book in a paper catalogue, Koltnow is anything but. “I think of myself as a business consultant,” he says. “We reps sell credibility and expertise. My values are not old-fashioned, but the way I approach it is. The secret of selling anything is trying it and telling a friend about it.”
Part of what distinguishes Koltnow's sales approach is the sheer amount of research that he puts into each book before he visits the buyer. It's not just a matter of checking sales histories and comparable titles. He looks up where the author lives, grew up, vacations, and attended school. He combs the material to find the right bookstore/author connection. “I'm not content to read a book. I'll do more research,” says Koltnow, who averages one a week plus chapters of many more that he downloads onto his Sony Reader.
As a foodie, he looks forward to books with a cooking connection. For Aki Kamozawa and H. Alexander Talbot's upcoming Ideas in Food (Dec.), he discovered that the authors met at Ken Oringer's Clio Restaurant in downtown Boston, which he regards as valuable information for placing them at the right bookstore, plus maybe an opportunity for a dinner out. Koltnow's taste ranges from Oringer and Barbara Lynch, whom he regards as Boston's top chefs, to a monthly bowl of borscht at Zaftig's in Brookline, Mass., with Strymish and Brookline Booksmith backlist buyer Mark Pearson.
Koltnow approaches tracking down authors with the same gusto as reading their books. “I can't say I befriend a lot of authors, but I make contact,” he says. He finds Facebook and author Web sites of particular help. Sometimes, as he did with Washington Post columnist Jason Wilson, whose book on spirits, Boozehound (Sept.), he compares to Steve Almond's infatuation with candy in Candyfreak, he will e-mail the author at work. Wilson, says Koltnow, was taken aback to get a fan letter before the book was released.Some authors do become friends, like Chris Bohjalian (Secrets of Eden, Feb.), who was one of the first of Koltnow's Facebook friends to respond to his industry honor: “You're the Rep of the Year? Holy moly! A thousand congrats—well-earned and I am thrilled for you!”
Nor is Koltnow old-fashioned when it comes to adopting technology, although he proclaimed himself a Luddite in a conversation with Random House head Markus Dohle at last month's sales conference. “All I have is a love of books and a good Jewish/Protestant work ethic,” says Koltnow. “And I think that's all I need.” Not that Koltnow has any desire to go back to his pre-computer days at Putnam filling out order forms in triplicate, a different one for each format. Now, he boasts, if a store has wireless access, he can transmit the order during the visit, and it often arrives by week's end.
Koltnow's boss, David Underwood, divisional director of field sales, northeast-central, for Random House, values Koltnow's old-school approach. “He sells out of passion for what he's read, not home-office expectations. Because he reads so widely and so thoughtfully, his customers trust his recommendations as they would those of a favorite book critic,” says Underwood. “Should Ron ever retire, I am certain he'll still be regularly calling on most of his accounts, as a friend, to motivate them about that great new Crown frontlist title he just read or why that Random House trade paperback backlist book he loves ought to be reordered and tabled upfront immediately.”
But are reps necessary in the age of the Kindle and the iPad? “Definitely,” says Koltnow. “E-books will never replace physical books. I think there's a place for both. A book is a much more meaningful present than a transmitted file, and there are some books—cookbooks, art books, and design books—that will be best enjoyed in a solid format. Book designers will have to get creative, and we may lose some of the thriller market. But there are some books, the Rushdies, the Ondaatjes, Ishiguros, that people will want to have on their shelves. There are more demands on consumers' attention than ever before. It's up to us to keep books sexy. We may not be Grand Theft Auto, but by working together, we can all do this.”