In an industry in transition it seems fitting that PW make a change of its own and for the first time in the 20-year history of the awards allow two sales representatives to share the honor. Ann Kingman started working at Dell in 1986 on the day after Bertelsmann purchased the company—and was told not to expect her job to last more than six months. Michael Kindness, who was recently named this year’s Random House Field Sales Rep of the Year, joined the company 12 years ago after buying books for Waterstone’s in Boston, Mass., and managing Wellesley Booksmith in Wellesley, Mass. They share the New England territory for part of the Random House adult list, and they’re the voice and creativity behind the Books on the Nightstand podcasts and blog, which can be found in the iTunes store and at booksonthenightstand.com. They also know every frontline bookseller in their territory, and what they like to read.
In a blog post earlier this month on Shatzkin Files, publishing consultant Michael Shatzkin dubbed Kindness and Kingman “the two reps who are the poster children” for Random House’s Rep 3.0 program. Introduced quietly three years ago and only being made public now, Rep 3.0 is a new way for Random House to continue to support bricks-and-mortar stores by repurposing its sales force. Instead of focusing only on frontlist and backlist orders, Random House reps provide marketing and publicity support for bookstores’ key titles. This includes interacting directly with customers, once the sole domain of booksellers.
Madeline McIntosh, president of sales, operations, and digital at Random House, is a big fan of both reps. “What makes the choice of Michael and Ann such a thrill for us,” she says, “is that they epitomize an exciting and fresh approach to the role of the Random House field rep. They have pioneered a redefinition of the role of the rep that emphasizes partnering with accounts on marketing outreach and direct outreach to the readers themselves. They have proven that the most exciting innovations for our industry involve both person-to-person contact and an enthusiastic embrace of the ways that technology can extend that relationship to benefit a broader human network.”
From a bookseller’s perspective, Random House’s shift in emphasis from stack-’em-high to sell-’em-through has made their reps—including Kingman and Kindness—more important than ever. In her nominating letter, Emily Crowe, manager and fiction and gift buyer at Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, Mass., wrote, “[they] display a caliber of both professionalism and innovation that is peerless.... They are the finest reps I have ever had the pleasure to work with, and they are the ruler against which all other sales reps are measured (and usually found short).” Carole Horne, general manager of Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass., values that Kindness and Kingman have become “true partners” with the store. “If the role of the rep is changing, as it surely is,” she says, “they will be the model for the future.”
In fact, they already are. Many reps Facebook, blog, Pinterest, and Tweet, but Kindness and Kingman have taken it a step further with BOTNS, which they launched in 2008. The podcasts/blog came about, they explain, after a rep-pick presentation at Tatnuck Booksellers in Westborough, Mass., when a customer asked then owner Larry Abramoff if the pair could write a column in his monthly newsletter. “Customers trust what we’re saying,” says Kingman. “But we only see them once a year. How do we talk to customers more often?” Rather than write a bookstore column, they joined some of the earliest rep bloggers online and received three Book Blogger Appreciation Week Awards in 2009: Best General Review Blog, Best Book Club Blog, and Most Eclectic Taste. Although they frequently recommend Random House titles, they discuss other books as well. “We cover a broad range of topics,” says Kingman. And they are careful to only recommend books they like, such as Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones, and Butter or Jim Lynch’s Truth Like the Sun. They know that their listeners could tell if they were faking it.
For Kindness and Kingman, extending a rep’s reach through social media and getting together with readers online and face-to-face is a better use of their time, and the buyer’s time, than sales calls where they discuss how many books to order up front or whether to order a book at all. “That’s thanks to [online ordering/catalogue system] Edelweiss, the unsung hero. Without [Edelweiss] we wouldn’t have the luxury to dream up these things,” says Kingman, referring to not just BOTNS, for which there are nearly 180 podcasts, but also their work connecting bookstores, readers, and libraries to each other. She and Kindness also credit other Random House departments for making it easier for them to reach the end reader.
“A lot of what we do is working in teams,” adds Kingman. “A lot of bookstores may be called on by telephone sales, but we’re the people on the ground. That’s a crucial piece.” It means that she and Kindness don’t have to call on every account in their territory. They can also rely on the warehouse for quick turnarounds on orders so that they don’t have to worry if a store has enough inventory to last a month. It can be replenished within days.
Plus, as reps, Kindness and Kingman see themselves as uniquely positioned to talk with consumers. “Our whole career has been talking about books in ways that get people excited. That’s a skill that reps have. It’s a measure of Random House’s confidence in what we do beyond just taking orders,” says Kingman. “We believe that sales reps have a responsibility to grow new readers and to evangelize reading as a pastime.”
To help achieve that objective, last year they began holding a gathering with their listeners in conjunction with Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, Vt. Booktopia, as the BOTNS retreat has been renamed, came about in what Kindness describes as an idle moment when the two were staying at the Inn at Manchester, for a sales call at Northshire. Kindness thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if someone drove two hours to be with us [at the bookstore].” When he and Kingman posted their idea of having listeners join them and a select number of authors in Vermont to talk about books, they were surprised by the response. They capped attendance at 100 and sold out within weeks, more than nine months before the event.
“We really had no idea what we were doing,” says Kingman. “Afterwards, we figured out the benefits: people who are passionate about reading don’t have other people to share that with.” And because book lovers are used to hearing Kindness and Kingman every week, they felt comfortable attending. In addition to raising awareness about books and reading, Booktopia helps sell books. When Other Press author John Milliken Thompson toured for The Reservoir last summer, many of the people who came to hear him were brought by friends who had met him at the April retreat (Other Press is distributed by Random).
This year Random House asked Kindness and Kingman if they would offer more retreats in other communities, in addition to one at Northshire held earlier this month. Working with other field reps, Kindness and Kingman scheduled two more Booktopias: one at Square Books in Oxford, Miss., in June, and the other at Bookshop Santa Cruz in Santa Cruz, Calif., in October. Even though this kind of programming—bringing together readers and authors—could be considered something that bookstores more traditionally do, Kindness and Kingman are adamant that they are not stepping on the toes of booksellers in any way. “We very strongly value that relationship,” says Kingman. “None of this could have happened without bookstores. We view ourselves as partners with bookstores. We’re a crucial connection to the end readers. It’s only recently that people are realizing readers want to know what happens behind the scenes [in publishing]. That’s a lot of the value we bring. That’s our role, to bring a peek behind the curtain. We want to keep readers excited.”
Citing New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg’s new book, The Power of Habit, Kindness attributes part of their success as reps to Random House. “He has a whole chapter on embracing adversity,” explains Kindness. “Companies poised to succeed see adversity as a cause to change.” For Kingman, the transition in what it means to be a rep is personal. She needs to ensure that reps thrive; her 10-year-old daughter wants her territory when she retires.
PW extends its thanks to the jury for this year’s Rep of the Year Award: Becky Anderson, co-owner of Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville, Ill., and PW Bookstore of the Year 2011; Sarah McNally, owner of McNally Jackson Books in New York City; Linda Barrett Knopp, general manager of Malaprop’s Bookstore in Asheville, N.C.; co-owner Michael Tucker and staff at Books Inc., headquartered in Berkeley, Calif.; Roberta Dyer and Sally McPherson, co-owners of Broadway Books in Portland, Ore.; Carole Horne, general manager of Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass.; and Lanora Haradon, owner of Next Chapter Bookshop in Mequon, Wis.