In the not-too-distant past, being a good sales rep was as straightforward as the ABCs. As Alec Baldwin’s character explains in the film Glengarry Glen Ross: “(A) always, (b) be, (c) closing. Always be closing!” But with the advent of technology, the way reps now sell involves creating a partnership that connects publishers and booksellers.
As HarperCollins field rep Anne DeCourcey—PW’s 2017 Sales Rep of the Year, who also was named the 2016 New England rep of the year, and the 2015 and 2010 HarperCollins rep of the year—notes, “The key and most unique aspect of this job is the relationship building.” It’s also, she adds, “what brings me my greatest joy. It’s not always [talking] about HarperCollins books. It’s life; it’s politics, especially when you’re on the road so much. You have to have that connection.” That can mean discussing the challenges of parenting adolescents, taking a ritual trip to the coffee shop with buyers, or enjoying a beer at lunch with Josh Christie of Print in Portland, Maine, who wrote a guide to Maine beer.
“I temper corporate expectations with trust in the relationships I’ve got,” DeCourcey says. “I best manage myself and honor a buyer’s decision when I’ve got a good feeling for who my buyer is and trust that they have their customers and booksellers in mind.” That doesn’t mean she doesn’t push a buyer to up an order for some books. DeCourcey says that she gets especially excited when one of those books works, like Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik’s Notorious RBG, which some buyers initially met with skepticism. And if a book turns out not to be right for a store, she points out, “that’s why books are returnable.”
DeCourcey’s a longtime book veteran who says that she’ll die in this industry. In part, that’s because she found out how “wrenching” it was when she left the business briefly to sell advertising for a TV station in Colorado, a decision she regards as “the worst mistake.” What she missed, she says was “community. There can be such joy in putting the right book in the right hands.” She comes from bookselling stock. Her mother, Marilyn Hollinshead, is a children’s book author and owned Pinocchio Bookstore in Pittsburgh, where DeCourcey worked part-time after graduating from Oberlin College. DeCourcey’s name can even be found alongside those of her sisters, Ellen and Dana, on the dedication page of Will You Sign Here, John Hancock? by a friend from Hollinshead’s writing group, Jean Fritz. Before becoming a rep, DeCourcey worked at the now closed Barillari Books in Somerville, Mass., and at the Children’s Bookshop in Brookline Village, Mass., as well as for the New England Booksellers Association.
DeCourcey says that despite her bookselling background, she prefers being on the publishing side, where she had earlier stints at Penguin and Norton, among others, before joining HarperCollins in 2007. “I am in complete admiration of booksellers who can put a book in someone’s hand. Bookselling to me was terrifying. I felt woefully inadequate in front of someone age nine looking for the next book,” she says.
DeCourcey says the thing that has changed most in recent years is the sheer busyness of being a rep: “The size of the list and the size of the territory—and the expectations... I do more marketing. I need to follow through and make sure we get IndieNext nominations and people are reading galleys. It is incredibly busy.”
Over the past five years, Harper, and other publishers, have begun to emphasize the sales rep’s role in getting as much buzz for a book before and around on-sale date. That translates into more staff presentations, consumer talks, and help with preorder campaigns. Then there’s keeping up with the sheer volume of books. Harper has a three-season year, and publishes roughly 600 titles a season.
Then, too, there is back-office work. “There’s an outdated perception that once we’ve made our sales calls, we play golf,” DeCourcey says. “That’s a misperception, since I don’t particularly like golf. And once I come off the road, I need to prep for the next season and finish up.”
That prepping can take the form of finding YouTube links for her Edelweiss markups to engage booksellers viewing Harper’s digital catalogue. Sometimes she plays so much loud metal music to find the right songs that her kids will come downstairs to her basement office and ask, “Mama, are you working?” Musical interludes such as a duet with Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga for Life Is a Gift: The Zen of Bennett or viewing parenting comics by Terri Libenson for her debut book, Invisible Emmie, enliven DeCourcey’s sales calls, which can take anywhere from two to eight hours, depending on the buyer and the store.
Despite these changes, DeCourcey still heeds three pieces of advice that she was given by John Dally and Gary Hart when she took her first rep job, with Penguin: “Don’t suggest numbers. Don’t take the prime parking space right in front of the store. And thank the account. They just spent a good portion of their time and budget.”