Since the launch of Workman's B. Kliban Cat Calendar in 1976 and Abrams's Miss Piggy Calendarfour years later, the gift market has grown increasingly important for book publishers. Not only do large houses like Random House and Chronicle, the two specialty market leaders, look to stores outside the book trade for a significant percentage of sales, but some mid-sized houses won't even sign a book unless it has crossover appeal to gift stores.
Smaller regional presses are beginning to explore gift sales as well, often through book distributors. This year Independent Publishers Group produced its first gift catalogue and hired a commission force to sell to the gift market. At the same time, Simon & Schuster eliminated its commission gift force and opened its inhouse book reps' bags a little wider to accommodate children's, adult and gift titles. What do these changes mean for commission gift reps, and how has the business of repping gift books changed?
For some of the gift rep groups who were there practically at the creation of specialty sales, like 29-year-old Ruth Stein and Associates in New York City, the biggest changes have less to do with how they do business—Ruth Stein still writes out orders by hand and uses carbon paper—than the fact that everybody's in it. "We used to be the only one at the shows, now they all come," said Stein, referring to the added emphasis publishers are placing on the specialty market by having their own booths at gift shows.
Stein still sells to any outlet that's not a bookstore, from churches and synagogues to botanical gardens and the Metropolitan Museum, which this year put four of her books in its holiday catalogue. Although Stein calls on accounts and has two reps, in Long Island and Westchester, most of her customers come to her house; her living room is her showroom. Early birds are served breakfast; those who linger get lunch.
However, that way of doing business is fast disappearing. Most rep groups, like Krikorian Miller in Newburyport, Mass., which was also founded in 1977, by Irwin and Judy Miller, have invested heavily in technology. Six years ago, Krikorian Miller developed KM 2000, a sales automation system, to track the 50 lines and 60,000 products it represents. Its database, which includes covers, enables the company to sort by subject and create customized sell sheets and catalogues. "Children's, gourmet and lifestyle books are among out bestselling categories," said Irwin Miller. KM will tailor its offerings for accounts. If a store specializes in duck decoys, Miller said, KM will present books related to ducks and even print out a catalogue.
Recently KM took its computer technology another step forward with Live from KM, a laptop computer sales automation program that it will launch in January 2007. Reps can e-mail the buyer at an account, who then sees the rep's screen on her computer. With this technology, Krikorian Miller's reps can make remote sales calls from home or the road. Krikorian Miller has 16 reps covering the New England states and New York State from Westchester north.
For less road-oriented groups, showrooms continue to play a key role. Earlier this month, Stephen Young, who heads the Stephen Young group, nearly doubled the space he devotes to books in his Los Angeles showroom, from 1,800 to 3,000 square feet. Young also has a showroom in San Francisco. The remodeling gave the company more room to face out books, just one more sign of the health of the book business in specialty markets.
Young, who started his gift rep force in 1965, didn't add books until the early '90s. He concentrates on just a few product lines—home accessories, high-end personal care products and books and paper goods—and sees little overlap between the books he sells to shoe stores, garden centers and furniture stores and those that sell in the book trade. "The only kinds of books that sell in gift stores are illustrated," he said, "principally cookbooks, gardening, pop culture and children's books. The books we sell and where they're found are much more impulse items. It's doubtful people go to the outlets we sell to intending to buy a book. They go for a sofa and come back with a book."
The variety of outlets that Young can sell to has increased, despite consolidation that has driven out what he estimates to be about 40% to 50% of the stores that were around 20 years ago. "When we first started to sell books," said Young, "we heard, 'I don't sell books. There's a bookstore two doors down.' We don't hear that anymore. It's become a permanent category in the gift market."
If books are everywhere, so are potential accounts. When Ted Weinstein, cofounder with his wife, Betsy, of 31-year-old Ted Weinstein and the Company He Keeps, which has a showroom in Seattle, Wash., was looking to replace the fireplace in his living room, he noticed an old spinner rack with barbecue books at the store. "I'm going to buy a stove and sell them books," said Weinstein, who would like to bring Peter Workman with him when he sells Workman's Steven Raichlin titles. Weinstein, who also represents Candlewick, Random House, Sterling and HarperCollins, said his biggest advantage over trade reps is the amount of time he spends in the territory. "Most of the trade reps live in California and come up here once or twice a year. We're out in every store."
While most gift reps will go to any store except bookstores, Anne McGilvray and Company, founded in 1975 in Dallas, Tex., sells sidelines to independents and chain bookstores. A number of the company's vendors make products that tie in with books, like MerryMakers, which does a Walter the Farting Dog plush. In addition, McGilvray operates two toy stores in Dallas, Froggie's 5&10 and Tadpole's (see sidebar).
Sixteen-year-old ISBN Sales in Yardley, Pa., is one of the few—possibly the only—gift rep groups that sells books exclusively. ISBN does, in fact, sell to some bookstores, said president Sandy Speicher, who cofounded the business with her husband, Rick. In addition, Scholastic recently turned over all its teacher resource stores to ISBN.
While it's too soon to tell whether other publishers will follow Scholastic's lead and turn over more accounts to rep groups, one thing is certain—gift reps, as well as other publishers, are watching S&S's rep experiment very closely (PW, July 24). Before it sent its reps out at the beginning of September to sell the full range of S&S titles, they underwent extensive training on prospecting and opening new accounts, according to Frank Fochetta, v-p of field sales and special sales. "We look at this as a long-term proposition," Fochetta said. S&S has already had some successes—a rep in Philadelphia got an order for 5,000 copies of a custom edition of Carlos Eire's memoir, Waiting for Snow in Havana—but Fochetta acknowledged that "at the end of the day, it's cultural change, which is why we're giving it two years."
S&S is supplementing its field reps by covering smaller gift accounts through telephone sales and will open its first three showrooms in Los Angeles, Chicago and Atlanta in January and February. A showroom is also slated to open in Dallas in the spring. As part of this second phase, Fochetta and the three field directors will begin traveling extensively with reps and in the spring will undergo more training, a category backlist review.
No matter who's doing the selling, the key to the specialty market is taking the time to understanding the customer's business. Every door may not be open, but it's at least ajar. In the gift business, said Anne McGilvray, "there is not a store out there that you don't have a book for."