Lise Solomon, a commission rep in Northern California with the Karel/Dutton Group and this year’s PW Rep of the Year, says the thing she enjoys most about her job is “making something of books for which the expectations are low.” Solomon is held in high regard by her accounts in her Bay Area territory as a passionate reader, but Solomon said that is only part of what she does: “It’s also about being a passionate advocate,” she says.
Perhaps the best example of how Solomon’s advocacy has benefitted both a publisher she reps and her own bookselling accounts was Paul Harding’s first novel, Tinkers (Bellevue Literary), which she was recommending to booksellers long before it went on to receive the 2010 Pulitzer Prize. Her efforts helped get the book on the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association’s bestsellers list, which appears in the San Francisco Chronicle.
To generate early buzz for Tinkers, Solomon got booksellers such as Sheryl Cotleur, then buyer at Book Passage in Corte Madera, so excited about the book that Cotleur wanted to include it in the store’s First Edition Club. That meant Solomon had to ask Bellevue to print a special hardcover edition for the store, because the press was only planning to release it as a paperback original. To get the books signed, Bellevue sent Harding, whom they hadn’t planned to tour on the West Coast, to San Francisco. Solomon took him around. And when Harding won the Pulitzer and a PEN/Robert W. Bingham Award, he credited Solomon for taking the novel under her wing and getting the excitement going on the West Coast.
Solomon, who tends to be emphatic about the books she likes, says that she may have been “pushier” about getting Tinkers into the hands of key buyers. In part, she notes, that was because selling that book became “a turning point in taking a strong stand about a book and jumping in all the way, not because a publisher told me to or a sales manager had projections to make.” She went on, “I genuinely believed there was something special about the book, which deserved my wholehearted effort.”
John Evans, co-owner of Diesel, a bookstore, with three stores in California, nominated Solomon as Rep of the Year because of those stands. “Lise consistently represents her presses with clarity, intelligence, and committed articulateness,” he wrote. “This level of committed advocacy for one title is not unique to Tinkers, but occurs regularly and reveals her passionate engagement... with the book world at its most wide-ranging.”
Solomon’s push for deserving books also extends to her past dozen years serving on the NCIBA board, where “part of the point is to be an advocate for smaller presses,” she says.
Solomon’s engagement with books is not limited to a single style or format. Many Bay Area book people remember Solomon’s early push for Adam Mansbach and Richardo Cortés’s 2011 picture book, Go the F**k to Sleep (Akashic), which she read aloud to booksellers at an NCIBA gathering before it came out. Small presses such as Brooklyn’s Enchanted Lion Books also value Solomon’s commitment and publishing advice. “Lise really represents the ideal in bookselling, which is openness and generosity combined with exacting standards, insight, and a fine judgment of what books are and how stories work. Her standards are very high, but she remains open, giving each book a fair chance to claim her interest and her heart,” says Claudia Bedrick, Enchanted Lion publisher and editorial director.
After studying film in college, Solomon began her publishing career in 1988 as an acquisitions assistant at MIT Press, before returning to the West Coast and working for Waite Group, the now-defunct computer book publisher. From there she became a rep at St. Martin’s, representing its paperback lines—one of the few reps to come directly from publishing. “Most reps come from bookselling. I feel like I have to compensate,” Solomon says. Two decades later, she has come to think of herself as not just a rep: “By getting books into the hands of frontline booksellers, I am a bookseller,” she says.
When Solomon joined the Karel/Dutton Group, which sells to accounts in the west, from Hawaii to Alaska and Colorado, she traded a bag filled with Tor, Forge, and Prima titles for one with many small presses. Among the publishers and distributors that the Karel/Dutton Group represents are Consortium, DAP, SCB, Inner Traditions, Gibbs-Smith, and Lonely Planet. In addition, they call on accounts for Abrams not handled by a house rep. “Howard [Karel] and Dory [Dutton] have made a very concerted effort to have exceptional publishers that are hard for booksellers to pass on,” Solomon says. The breadth of the group’s list prompted Paul Yamazaki, head buyer at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, to tell Solomon, “You’re my most important rep.” “His words shifted something for me, that these books are important books,” Solomon says, adding that his comment led her to reevaluate what it means to be a rep.
Solomon’s natural propensity to be collaborative also affects how she thinks about her role as a rep, whether it is participating in the rep community in the Bay Area or organizing a field trip for booksellers to Oliver Ranch in Sonoma County, a 100-acre property that is home to 18 site-specific art installations, to promote Oliver Ranch (DAP/Gregory R. Miller), edited by Joan Simon. “That’s what I love about this industry,” Solomon says. “There are all these pieces working together. It’s not just what I think [about a book]. There has to be this connection of booksellers, the media, and the publisher.” And with more younger booksellers entering the business, Solomon says that it’s become much more important to harness the new energy they bring by getting each of them the right book. “They may or may not end up getting a buyer job, but it gives people an ownership of what they do,” Solomon says.
Like any job, being a commission rep is not without its challenges. For starters, returns are deducted from sales, which means, Solomon says, “you are a little more aware of returns.” She adds, “Yes, you make more if you sell more. But you don’t want to jam in more if it’s going to come back.” In general, she says, “it’s harder being a commission rep now. There was a time, perhaps, when things felt more secure as a commission rep than as a house rep, as the major publishers were consolidating those jobs. But as larger publishers have been taking on more distribution lines, there are fewer small publishers to find homes with commission rep groups.”
For now though, Solomon’s future as a commission rep seems bright. This year, she is celebrating her 20th anniversary as a commission rep with the Karel/Dutton Group, where she is about to become a partner, and her 25th year as part of the Bay Area book community. In June, she will extend her territory and begin calling on booksellers in Washington State, too.
Thank You, Judges
PW thanks this year’s juries. PW Bookstore of the Year judges: Ruth Liebmann, PRH; John Mendelson, Candlewick Press; Rachel Geiger, Chronicle Books; Karen Torres, Hachette Book Group; Jennifer Sheridan, HarperCollins.
PW Rep of the Year judges: Christin Evans, Booksmith in San Francisco and Kepler’s in Menlo Park, Calif.; Bradley Graham and Lissa Muscatine at Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C.; Neil Van Umm at DK Booksellers in Cincinnati, Ohio; Mitchell Kaplan at Books & Books in Coral Gables, Fla.; Linda Marie Barrett at Malaprop’s in Asheville, N.C.; Holly Myers at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle.