"Jason is sarcastic as heck," says Michele Sulka, v-p for marketing and communications of Joseph-Beth Booksellers, who, with Jen Reynolds, is hosting PW and Jason Gobble for coffee at the company's corporate headquarters in Cincinnati, Ohio. "So when we saw in PW Daily for Booksellers that he said winning PW's Rep of the Year award was 'the fulfillment of a dream,' we all raised our eyebrows."
Gobble smiles and replies, "Well, you have to say something.... Next, I'll be going for Miss Universe."
Six feet tall, with a boyish smile, clad in jeans and a plain shirt, Jason Gobble appears to be the willing-to-please, boy-next-door type, the kind of person one can't help but like. Only his shoes, a pair of fashionable chocolate-brown lace-ups with contrasting tan strips, don't quite fit with his all-American appearance. Clearly there's more savvy to this man than his big smile.
Gobble sells adult hardcover titles for Penguin Group, as well as Penguin's Tarcher, Avery and Gotham imprints in paperback, to bookstores in Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, Michigan and western Pennsylvania; he made the four-hour drive up to Cincinnati from his home in Nashville the previous night. It's a trip he's accustomed to making at least a half-dozen times each year to visit Joseph-Beth Booksellers, which, with seven stores in Gobble's region, is his biggest customer. Coincidentally, Joseph-Beth was PW's Bookseller of the Year in 1996.
Michele Sulka and Jen Reynolds, the two Joseph-Beth staffers who are meeting with Gobble and PW, know Jason well. Not only does he sell to them, he was once offered the job of small press buyer for the bookseller, but declined in favor of going with Penguin.
In some ways, Gobble seemed destined for a job working with books. The eldest of four children, Gobble says he was, in a manner of speaking, raised by books. Married at 17, Jason's mother had him when she was only 19. She jokes that she relied on Dr. Spock's Baby and Childcare for advice when he was growing up. Most of his siblings work for the family business, a trucking company with a fleet of 150 big rigs. Ironically, he's is the only one who spends much of his time behind the wheel, putting some 15,000 miles per year on his Toyota. "Sometimes," Gobble deadpans, "I imagine that my Camry has 18 wheels."
Only 36 years old, PW's Rep of the Year got his start in the book business as a teenager working at the Village Bookstore in Columbia, Tenn., his hometown. After moving to Memphis and graduating with a B.A. and M.A. in English from the University of Memphis, his first job was at the advertising agency Archer/Malmo, where he proofread ad copy for Dover Elevators. But he found "editing elevator specifications too high stress" and left after six months.
From there, he returned to the book world for good, starting on the ground floor as an assistant manager of a Bookstar in Memphis. After 18 months, he was enlisted to help open a 25,000-sq.-ft. B&N superstore in Nashville. "I enjoyed that experience. It was like building your own library," Gobble reports. Despite the pleasure he took in the planning, the day-to-day operations of running a superstore were less appealing to him. Gobble then moved to Ingram, initially as an assistant in the purchasing department, where he bought backlist from Bantam Doubleday Dell. In the late '90s, he advanced up the ladder to become a national accounts manager servicing Barnes & Noble and Crown Books during the chain's last year in existence. ("Crown's closing was in no way related to me," he avers.) Nevertheless, Gobble found he preferred buying to account management and soon returned to the purchasing department to buy Random House backlist.
But perhaps the trucker family's blood helped make the life of sales rep look appealing. Nashville is home to a surprising number of sales reps, most of whom service Ingram, and Gobble knew many of them. Chris Mosley, the Penguin rep for Ingram, told him about the Penguin job selling to independent stores in the Midwest. After she recommended him to the bosses in New York, Gobble was hired. On his first official day of work in April 2000, he flew to New York for sales conference. He mastered his new job quickly and, in only his second year, won Penguin's internal award for Hardcover Sales Rep of the Year.
Gobble notes that the Midwest is home to some of the most dynamic booksellers and wholesalers in the country. He ticks off names such as Partners Book Distributors in Holt, Mich.; Carmichael's in Louisville, Ky.; Montgomery Books in Cincinnati; and, of course, Joseph-Beth. "It's not that they get a lack of respect," says Gobble of his Midwestern clients. "They're just not the publishers' first thought. Unfortunately, this territory is not the first that comes to mind when one reads the words 'major media tour' on the back of an ARC." All in all, Gobble says, he'd put his stores "up against any in the country."
Accordingly, Gobble views himself as an advocate for his stores to the Penguin publicity and marketing departments in New York. "Part of my job is getting my area and my stores the attention they deserve. It's not like people immediately think 'Ooooh, let's send an author to Detroit.' My biggest argument is that if somebody shows up in Grand Rapids, Mich., it's a big deal. If they're the 19th person that week at Elliott Bay, well, big deal."
Bill Cusumano, owner of Nicola's Books in Ann Arbor, Mich., thanks Gobble for bringing Sara Paretsky and Randy Wayne White to his store, where a more obvious choice might have been home-town chain Borders. "His most recent coup is Nevada Barr," says Cusumano, "as the result of three years of making the case for us."
Gobble does not hesitate to extend his respect to even the smallest stores. For example, he goes out of his way to serve Aspinwall Bookshop in Pittsburgh, Pa., which is a single room on the farthest edge of his territory. "They have everything there a good reader needs," he says with admiration. "They understand bookstores don't have to be everything for everybody."
Likewise, booksellers at some of the smallest stores are his biggest admirers. Mary Jane Barnwell, owner of the Island Bookstore on Mackinac Island in Michigan, says succinctly: "He is great. He knows which books we should read and which books would do well in our stores. Of all the reps I've had, he has been the most passionate about books."
At Gobble's suggestion, McLean & Eakin in Petoskey, Mich., stocked a few extra copies of Turtle Warrior by Mary Relindes Ellis, a novel about a boy growing up in rural Wisconsin published by Viking. The store has since handsold 175 copies of the book.
His single largest customer, however, is Joseph-Beth, which has seven stores: Davis-Kidd Booksellers in Memphis, Jackson and Nashville in Tennessee, as well as the Joseph-Beth stores in Lexington, Ky.; two stores in Cleveland, Ohio; and another in Cincinnati, near the company's corporate headquarters.
Joseph-Beth has Ingram do most of its buying. The remainder of frontlist book buying is done by five business managers, each of whom covers one category: children's, humanities, fiction, health/well-being and work. Jen Reynolds handles fiction while Michele Sulka buys humanities.
Reynolds says Gobble is such an effective rep because his familiarity with the chain's stores enables him to distribute his list among the seven locations, a skill that makes her job easier. "For example, I think Jason understands how the Tennessee stores have a much different flavor among them. Likewise, there are things that come up organically in our company—such as the fact that religious books do much better in our southern stores than in the northern stores—and he gets that."
Gobble deflects the praise, commenting, "It's not a big deal to know where things are and how different they are. But I must say that one of my favorite conference stories was when someone held up a map of the United States to show the location of Cincinnati and they placed it in Alabama."
Reynolds describes Gobble as "one of the two or three reps we really listen to"—but only when he's not being sarcastic. "He can be a cynical man," she adds, "so when he says that he loves a book, we know to take him seriously." She offers this example: "I serve on the board of the Great Lakes Booksellers Association. At meetings, we go around the room and talk about what we're reading. Well, the last time we went around the room, every single person said they were reading Shadow of the Wind [by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, published by Penguin Press in April] because Jason had told them to read it. He's the rep for some of them, and for some of them he's not." She also reports that at least four booksellers at Joseph-Beth's Cincinnati location are reading the book. The store has put in an initial order for 120 copies.
A 550-page novel translated from the Spanish, Shadow of the Wind may not the most obvious candidate for a Midwestern bestseller. But buyers pay attention to Gobble's suggestions. Last year, for example, he persuaded Joseph-Beth buyers to get behind a Dutton book that had only a modest first printing: The Grits (Girls Raised in the South) Guide to Life by Deborah Ford. Gobble calls the book "crackerbarrel" and not to everyone's taste, including his own. Nonetheless, Grits sold more than 1,000 hardcover copies at the Davis-Kidd stores alone and became one of Joseph-Beth's top five nonfiction bestsellers for 2003. It continues to sell more than 20 copies per week.
Another Gobble suggestion, made early in its enchanted publishing life: The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. On Gobble's advice, Joseph-Beth booked Sue Monk Kidd for two readings and was among the first stores to host the now two-million-copy—selling author. (While one might assume that Joseph-Beth gets preferential treatment, Gobble protests, "I don't have cities with multiple stores, so I don't have to make a lot of those Sophie's choices. If an author goes to Lexington, Joseph-Beth gets them. If they go to Louisville, Carmichael's gets them.")
Even Neil Van Uum, the sometimes combative owner of Joseph-Beth, has kind words to say about Gobble: "I think we're blessed with a number of really good reps. They are the conduit to New York and understand bookselling. I do jokingly refer to him as 'Perfect Jason.' I just think that he goes the extra mile—he thinks about our business evenings and weekends, and we think of him as a partner." Gobble's experience in bookselling and buying may be most valuable in helping him translate the publisher's agenda for the bookseller. "Sometimes we get spun at sales conference," he explains. "You'll hear someone positioning a book as the next Da Vinci Code, and you know someone else may have a different idea about the book." Accordingly, often than not, he says he finds himself refashioning what the publisher says to suit his market. The house might say that a title "has great breakout potential," when it actually means "this will sell in the South."
One example of Gobble's "editing" involves next month's much-anticipated Crossing California by Adam Langer, a novel set in Chicago with strong Jewish themes. "First off, the publisher is pushing the book as a Jewish Corrections, but I don't exactly agree with that description," Gobble says. "I think of it more like Freaks and Geeks in book form, or The Russian Debutante's Handbook. Fortunately, this is a book that I think will work in hardcover, and I make sure to tell booksellers that. As far as Joseph-Beth is concerned, I look at all their stores and start with Cleveland. Of the seven stores, they have the best Jewish market. Then I think of selling to Cincinnati and Nashville, because those two stores sell the most literary books. After that, you're down to individual booksellers in individual stores who can handsell the book."
On the Road
On meeting Gobble, it's evident immediately that he is passionate about books. In our afternoon meeting, he plugs several titles from other publishers, including Candyfreak by Steve Almond from Algonquin and You Remind Me of Me by Dan Chaon, published by Ballantine.
He gets most of his non-Penguin reading suggestions from his Nashville book club, which counts several sales reps as members, as well as from other reps with whom he does bi-annual breakfast sales presentations at five Joseph-Beth stores. These reps are Karen Hayes from Random House, K.C. Smythe from Time Warner, Steve Kronenberger from Simon & Schuster, Charlie Boswell from Heinecken & Associates and Kate McCune from HarperCollins.
Contrary to what one might expect, Gobble doesn't read while traveling for sales calls. "Initially, you think you'll have a lot of time to read, but you forget that you're driving and working all day, and by the time you get to the hotel, you just go to sleep. The movie Lost in Translation captured the feeling of being on the road. Once you start to see the dirt in the rooms, traveling loses its romance." To counter the inevitable feeling of dislocation, he stays almost exclusively at Hampton Inns, where he appreciates the free Internet access and the ability to get Hilton HHonors points. "The sad thing is, you rack up a ton of flight miles, but the last thing you want to do when you have time off is go on a trip somewhere," he notes.
Instead of reading on the road, he listens to music from the well-stocked CD case he keeps under the passenger seat of his Camry. Gobble says his adopted hometown of Nashville has a great music scene and, accordingly, much of his musical library consists of local singer/songwriters, including the Josh Joplin Group, Pernice Brothers, Josh Rouse and Matthew Ryan.
Gobble says that he sees real challenge of being a sales rep as "finding a way to sell the midlist and first novels." He adds, "I would hate to do my job without the bestsellers."
He speculates that inertia in the publishing and bookselling community may be inhibiting the industry's ability to grow: "My only concern with bookstores is that they don't go by what they could sell, but by what they think they are going to sell. They limit themselves, and it worries me sometimes. It's their market and money, and I respect their decision, but I wonder sometimes if it doesn't become a vicious cycle."
Likewise, Gobble says, publishers and editors would understand the market better by going out on the road to see firsthand what bookstores and customers buy. "Have you ever wondered how different publishing would be if everyone in New York had to spend one week out in the Midwest selling books?" he asks. "There was an editor at Tarcher, Wendy Hubbart, who traveled with me in northern Michigan. She said that she had no idea it would be like this. She just assumed everybody would buy three of whatever was in the catalogue. Reality was totally different."