PGW rep Peg O'Donnell has just arrived in Boston from her home in Keene, N.H., a quaint town two hours north. Depending on traffic—and the status of Boston's massive highway expansion project, the "Big Dig"—the trip could take her anywhere from two to three and a half hours. Granted, that's not much of a commute for someone who puts 40,000 miles on her car annually and habitually drives three hours each way to make a single sales presentation. As PGW's New England sales rep, she's responsible for some 80 accounts across Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut. Behind the wheel of her Volvo, the green one with 143,921 miles on the clock and a license plate that spells PGWREP, she looks at ease, almost at home. Indeed, the car is so homey it has its own kitchen-size trash can, complete with bag, fitted right behind the driver's seat. "People may giggle when they see it," says O'Donnell, "but it's so much more practical."
She's come to town to cohost a dinner with Morgan Entrekin, president and publisher of Grove/Atlantic, honoring author Madeleine Blais on the publication of her memoir, Uphill Walkers. A dozen booksellers are expected tonight at the restaurant Biba, and, says O'Donnell, it's opportunities like this that can really make a difference in how well the book sells. Blais's first book, In These Girls, Hope Is a Muscle—a chronicle of a year in the life of the Amherst High School girl's basketball team—won a Pulitzer Prize when it appeared as a magazine article in the New York Times magazine and was a bestseller for Grove when expanded to book length. While the publisher would love a repeat success, Uphill Walkers is a very different kind of book—a memoir about growing up in a large Irish Catholic family in rural western Massachusetts and the struggle of living with a schizophrenic brother. Both Grove and PGW know that that book is going to need a push—and they're hoping to drum up a wave of support in the Northeast, where people will immediately identify with the setting. O'Donnell herself can appreciate the tale—she was born in New Hampshire, into an Irish Catholic family, with three siblings who are all certifiable "geniuses," including a brother with mental health difficulties. She says, "I love being able to introduce authors like this to booksellers. The book is so wonderful. It's one of the things that I really love about my job—working with the writers, especially if they are nice. And most of them are. Most of them are grateful."
At the dinner she mingles mercilessly, making sure everyone is meeting the author. It's quite a group—about a dozen of her most important clients: Tim Huggins from Newtonville Books and John Strymish from New England Mobile Book Fair, both in Newtonville, Mass.; Jack and Bess Moye from Cabbages and Kings in Chatham, Mass.; Mike Katz, buyer at the College Hill Store, Providence, R.I.; Christy Johnson, events coordinator at the Concord Book Shop in Concord, Mass.; Dana Brigham, co-owner of Brookline Booksmith; Carole Horne, buyer at the Harvard Book Store, Cambridge, Mass.; and Bob Hugo, who owns several stores—the Andover Bookstore, Andover, Mass., the Book Rack in Newburyport, Mass., the Spirit of 76 Bookstore in Marblehead, Mass.—and also co-owns the Water Street Bookstore in Exeter, N.H. With so many different personalities on show, including a handful of journalists and publicists, it is clear that O'Donnell's live-and-let-live attitude is what enables her to get along with the wide variety of people she meets along the way.
Entrekin takes a moment to reaffirm what everybody else in the room seems to think of O'Donnell: "She's one of the best reps in the business," he announces. For her part, O'Donnell takes the compliment lightly, replying, "I like the relationship I have with Morgan. I sell his books, he says nice things about me."
Nothing They Don't Need
When PW first catches up with O'Donnell, early in the day at Brookline Booksmith (PW's Bookstore of the Year in 1998), she looks fully prepared—for business, for some serious chat and for lunch, which she suggests we have at a sports bar a few doors down from the store. First she takes us on a quick tour of the store, pointing out a number of PGW titles on prominent display, including Grove/Atlantic's Crawling at Night ("A very strange, but very, very beautiful book") and In the Fall ("A wonderful book. We had higher hopes for it."). It is early April; O'Donnell has just finished selling the spring list and the books are shipping now.
At lunch, she exudes kindness and honesty, qualities certain to put booksellers at ease. O'Donnell, who is 46 and has smile lines around the eyes, is youthful and energetic. She wears the jacket sleeves of her blue blazer rolled up above the elbows and her spiky hair is tipped with blonde highlights. Speaking in short, staccato sentences, she exudes, above all else, assurance. She's equal parts casual and formal, straightforward and coy—a chameleonlike quality that surely serves her well in the role of salesperson. But it is very much a role, for as O'Donnell explains the art of repping, it's much more subtle than simply convincing booksellers to sign on the dotted line for multiple copies.
"The first commitment is to the books and the bookstore," she explains. "You're not going to sell them something they don't need. When I go to a store, my biggest hope is that, for the most part, I want to find myself on equal footing with the buyers. Maybe some buyers have the fear that they are going to be oversold by some aggressive sales rep, but for me, I am so not a hard sell. I want to be treated as a colleague, no more no less. We're all in it for the same reason: to help move books. I really feel I have that with most of my buyers."
O'Donnell joined PGW in 1992 and has seen the company grow to include a publishing arm as well as a sales team representing more than 120 imprints. She is not shy about expressing her tremendous respect for Charlie Winton and the way he's developed the company. O'Donnell says that when she first received the telephone message telling her that she had won PW's Rep of the Year, she had to listen to it four times before she could believe it. Then she called her best friend, PGW's Patricia Kelly, who won Rep of the Year in 1999. "It's so funny," she says, "because at sales conferences we're always the biggest goof-offs together, sitting at the back of the room giggling through the whole thing."
Well, she must have been paying some attention. Repping PGW's list of 700 new titles each season could be overwhelming, but O'Donnell takes it in stride. She tells PW, "One of the things I really love about my job is the diversity of books. Working for PGW is great. It's one of the most bizarre groups of books, every year, and it never gets boring." Her love of books is evident and, as one might expect from a PGW rep, she champions the offbeat as well as the commercial.
She admits that, with so many books, it's impossible to read everything on the list. This is where her relationships with booksellers and ability to get them galleys becomes essential to doing her job well. O'Donnell says, "Reps can't move a book. Only booksellers can. And the biggest influence I've seen on sales in the course of my career is the 'staff recommends' tables. People want direction." As does she. With 80 stores to cover in a 13-week selling season, the order in which appointments are scheduled can make a difference in her efficiency. "Booksellers are a great source for correcting information we may have wrong," she notes. Plus, they help her focus on which titles among the vast selection are likely to sell best—information she incorporates into later sales calls. And while O'Donnell refuses to single out any one buyer as having the best eye, she does say that in her previous job as a commission rep in the south for Roghaar Associates, she would always schedule her very first appointment with buyer Erica Isendorph at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill bookstore. She says, "Erica used to be able to tell me, 'you'll sell this book to that kind of store.' I used to tell her, 'you get this so much better than I do.' "
A Lifelong Bookseller
O'Donnell started off in the book biz with a part-time job as a bookseller at a Doubleday bookstore in her hometown of Garden City, N.Y. After a year she went to St. Michael's College in Burlington, Vt., for a B.A. in English and Theater. Afterward, she moved to Berkeley, Calif., where she worked in the now-closed Pellucidar Books, and later managed Pendragon Books in Oakland.
"Bookstores were where I felt I could fit in," says O'Donnell. "At the time, I liked to drink and smoke and I could do that and still keep my job." O'Donnell then landed a job selling remainders up and down the West Coast for the now-defunct Western Book Distributors. Shortly thereafter, she took a job as managing editor of Creative Arts/Black Lizard Books, calling it "a great job for someone who had to be maniacally organized." It wasn't until 1989, when Black Lizard was bought by Vintage, that she committed to repping and moved to Raleigh, N.C., to go on the road for Roghaar Associates. She stayed three years, until she signed on with PGW and headed north to New Bedford, Mass. Recently, she decided to trade the rocky coastline for the beauty of rural New Hampshire.
O'Donnell has stuck with repping for so long because it gives her opportunities unavailable elsewhere in publishing. "One, I have personal freedom," she says. "I can come and go and I can work without someone always looking over my shoulder," she says. "Two, I get to meet all kinds of wonderful, interesting people. Three, the money is pretty good. I'm not rich, but it pays better than most jobs in books."
Underlying it all is a love of books. On her own time, O'Donnell loves to read young-adult titles and is passionate about the genre. "It started when my mom died, about seven years ago, and I went into a really deep depression and I just didn't feel like reading. I picked up a YA novel and loved it because it was easy to read at a point in my life when I couldn't concentrate on anything. And I've just been reading nonstop." Among recent titles she most admires are What Jamie Saw and How Many Stones by Carolyn Coman (Front Street Books) ("She's an amazing, amazing writer," says O'Donnell), The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky (Pocket), and the Lemony Snicket series. She's also really "jazzed" by a new YA novel distributed by PGW called Time Stops for No Mouse by Michael Hoeye (Terfle Books). "It's both the author's and the imprint's first title, so I'm really excited to help them out," she says.
Resting for No Man—Or Mouse
By the time we finish lunch and drive across town to visit Newtonville Books, a modest, three-year-old store in suburban Boston, we've already popped into the Boston University bookstore—one of O'Donnell's main accounts before B&N took over management—and Tower Records to hunt down an obscure blues CD, Eva Cassidy's Life at Blues Alley, which she's been jamming to on the car stereo and wants to deliver to Tim Huggins, a native of Mississippi and big blues fan. Indeed, when we arrive at Newtonville, it's evident O'Donnell has done her job well—a large stack of Time Waits for No Mouse is the centerpiece of the children's display and another dozen titles from the PGW frontlist are prominent throughout the store. Tim, who is in his early 30s, credits O'Donnell with being a guide to the New England book market when he opened the store.
"I remember her sitting at my kitchen table and going over all PGW's front- and backlist," he says. "This was before I even had an office for us to work in—and she just stayed for hours and hours going over those catalogues. We're talking about thousands of titles." In turn, O'Donnell respects what Huggins has tried to accomplish—building a literary boutique just down the road from the mammoth New England Mobile Book Fair and within a few miles of a Borders and a Barnes & Noble, as well as a handful of college stores. Later that night, at the Grove/Atlantic dinner, Huggins repays this respect when he supplies PW with a note praising O'Donnell. It reads, in part: "The best sales reps are the ones who understand the frontlist, the backlist, your bookstore's market and your vision for competing in your marketplace. The best sales reps elevate my work as a bookseller by being a teacher and student during sales meetings, listening to my sales history and relaying valuable information and advising me of good books and authors to discover and hand sell. O'Donnell personifies what it means to be a great sales rep."
Perhaps it is O'Donnell's instinct to champion the outsider that makes her such a perfect fit for PGW's hybrid list. She can muster as much enthusiasm for an obscure children's book as for a blockbuster adult title, for a musty, dusty warehouse full of books as for a tidy, tiny suburban shop. When we step into the Mobile Book Fair, O'Donnell admits that, compared to Newtonville, this is a much more significant account, on par with her other largest ones—Harvard Book Store, WordsWorth and Booksmith. As a school and library supplier as well as retail store, the Book Fair is organized not by title or author, but by publisher and distributor, with approximately 40 feet of shelf space devoted to PGW books. Still, that doesn't make the Book Fair an easier sale for O'Donnell. According to Jon Strymish, Mobile Book Fair's manager, O'Donnell's job as a rep is harder than most, because "PGW doesn't have the quality control a publishing house has and there's no guarantee that a line is going to be of good quality." Over the eight years he's been buying PGW titles from O'Donnell, Strymish has "really come to trust her opinion. " He adds, "She's read a lot of the books and doesn't oversell things." As she climbs up the shelves to retrieve a couple of her favorite PGW titles to show off—among them The Angle Quickest for Flight, a recent title from Four Walls Eight Windows, and PGW's own Avalon Press's Such Desperate Joy: Imagining Jackson Pollock—she discusses what else she sees up there: "I like to talk about PGW as a whole, but obviously Grove/Atlantic is our number-one publisher. Still, there are so many gems." Pulling The Four Agreements from the shelf, she says, "Amber-Allen was part of New World Library and branched off and has had two bestsellers including this, and the Deepak Chopra. They have enormous billing for such a small little press...." She continues, pointing out titles from an eclectic range of publishers including Steerforth, Ecco Press, Viz Communications, Total Sports and Travelers Tales.
O'Donnell concurs that repping PGW can be a little difficult. "I'm like a filter," she says. "I realize that I'm going to go into that store and they aren't going to take every single one of these books. They've only got so much time, and I have to present it to them so that they're going to get exactly what they need."
Some buyers would agree that what bookstores most need are more reps like O'Donnell.