Bob Barrnett, PW’s Rep of the Year for 2020, never intended to pursue a career in the book business. The Fort Worth, Tex., native fell into it after graduating with a degree in natural sciences from Steven F. Austin University. “I thought I was going to spend my life in a lab,” Barnett says from his home in Louisville, Ky. But when he graduated in 1981, the country was in a recession, the job market was terrible for new graduates, and Barnett needed some money. “I grew up in a trailer park, and my dad was a mechanic for Pontiac, so a bookstore never really crossed my mind. But I’d been out of college about six weeks when a friend who was going off to grad school said, ‘Hey, you can have my bookstore job.’ So I jumped into it.”

Nearly four decades later, Barnett is still in the business of selling books, today serving as sales manager for the University of Texas Press. This year marks Barnett’s 25th anniversary as a rep—a career he fell into much the same way as he fell into bookselling.

A bookseller first

The first store where Barnett worked was J. North Bookseller in Fort Worth, he then moved on to Fort Worth Books & Video, and later to Garner & Smith in Austin. In 1991, when he was managing the books section of the University Co-op at the University of Texas in Austin, the American Booksellers Association put out a call for applicants for the Charles Haslam Scholarship for Young Booksellers. The prize was a paid trip to the International Congress of Young Booksellers, which was held that year in Canada, as well as to the ABA convention in New York City.

Barnett applied, writing an essay on the topic of how independent bookstores could compete with the big-box superstores that were emerging at the time. “I recently went back and dug up that essay,” he notes. “It says exactly the same things that you have been hearing for all these years now: stay connected to your local community, have a strong identity, curate your title selection.”

Barnett won the scholarship. “As part of the prize, I spoke at an author’s breakfast at the ABA convention, where I shared the stage with Alice Walker, Jeffery Archer, and Mary Gay Shipley, owner of That Bookstore in Blytheville [Ark.], 1991’s PW Bookseller of the Year,” he says. “But that wasn’t the important part: in the audience was Mark Brumberg, who later that year offered me the job to manage the Globe, his wonderful indie bookstore in Northampton [Mass.].”

At the Globe, Barnett met Mark Saunders—the late University of Virginia Press director. “Mark was then my rep for Columbia University Press, and we really hit it off,” he says, “bonding over Tex-Mex and Shiner Bock—which were hard to find in New England. When he became sales director at Columbia, he asked me to join him and become the Southern sales rep for the press. But I was reluctant: I was at the top of my game at this really cool indie that was doing really interesting stuff. I still had kind of a Willy Loman viewpoint about sales reps, which I saw as lonely traveling salesman.”

What changed Barnett’s mind was Saunders’s pitch: “He told me, ‘Just as a bookseller handsells to their customers, a rep handsells to bookstores. You’re doing the same work, just doing it at a different part of the chain.’ I’ve thought of it that way ever since.”

Becoming a rep

Barnett and Saunders remained close until Saunders’s death last year at age 52. “I can’t tell you how big a gap the absence of Mark has left in my life,” Barnett says, adding that the relationship changed the trajectory of his career. He moved to Washington, D.C., in 1994 for the Columbia job, where his first sales call was with Carla Cohen, the late co-owner of Politics and Prose. “Mark knew her and softened her up in advance for me,” he recalls. “I have been a rep ever since.”

After Columbia, Barnett went to W.W. Norton, where he would form two more of the most important relationships of his life. The first was with his boss, longtime Norton v-p and trade sales director William Rusin, whom Barnett credits with teaching him “how New York trade publishing worked and what their priorities were.” The second was with Johanna Hynes, now manager of field sales for Ingram—a fellow rep who got hired on the same day, whom he later married.

Norton was followed by an invitation to start the U.S. sales force of Phaidon, from which Barnett moved on to a succession of other jobs, repping for Continuum, Cambridge University Press, the History Press, and now University of Texas Press. In addition, he now also reps for Bloomsbury Academic, MIT Press, University of Iowa Press, the University Press of Kentucky, and West Virginia University Press. For the majority of this time his territory has encompassed the mid-Atlantic, the Midwest, and, predominantly, the South.

Barnett says that selling in the South was a boon to his career. When he started at Columbia, Saunders handed him a dot-matrix printout with some 300 stores—most of which had never seen a rep before—and the keys to an aging Honda Civic, then wished him well.

“The early period in my career, when I was a bookseller in Texas, was the same period of time when BookStop opened and Crown opened,” Barnett says. “And both of those were big-box discounters, so we caught that early. But when I became a rep, the South was still relatively untouched by national bookstore chains, largely because Barnes & Noble had not really expanded there. And there were still some really big stores in the territory too. For example, you could spend 10 days in the Atlanta metro area going to stores—Charis was around then, Emory had a store—and there were two mini-chains, Oxford Books and Chapter 11.”

Adapting to change

“When I first began in 1994, the impact of the accelerated growth of the superstore chains was just beginning, and the ecosystem of bookstores was diverse,” Barnett says. “Fifteen years later, the landscape was altered. Borders closed. The Great Recession arrived. Digital books were introduced, and online shopping became commonplace. Regional chains collapsed and independent stores struggled to retain their place in the industry. Sales forces were reduced, many becoming increasingly reliant on email and telephones instead of in-store visits.”

Barnett says that today, reps face competition from digital catalogue tools, such as Edelweiss, which have made it more convenient for booksellers to get information and put together lists of books to order. Unfortunately, he adds, the digital tools, some of which make predictions about books that should sell based on algorithms and prior sales data, are cold, blunt tools that do not account for the insight that firsthand knowledge of a store brings.

The upside of all this, Barnett says, is “buyers have become more adept at data input and analysis. But the results are not always satisfying, and bookstores risk becoming defined less by their buyers’ choices and more by publishers’ marketing strategies.”

Relationships still matter a great deal, however. “I’ve known Bob Barnett for all 25 years of his career as a rep,” says Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books in Coral Gables, Fla., one of nearly a dozen booksellers who supported Barnett’s nomination for Rep of the Year. “I’ve not met anyone more knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and committed to the books and bookstores he or she represents and services. He truly understands the power of indie and university presses and has turned me on to some of our bestselling titles that I wouldn’t have come across but for Bob knowing me and my store so well.”

Looking ahead, Barnett says the challenge facing reps is how to keep offering a high level of service to bookstores when their doors are closed. “I think the fact I know what stores and their communities were like pre-pandemic will help in a post-pandemic world—one where your ability to travel or visit a store in person will be limited,” he notes. “There has to be value in having that prior knowledge.”

All this means that though the job may change, the fundamentals remain the same. According to Barnett, success as a rep still demands informed and trustworthy conversation, especially when it comes to working with independent booksellers. “More data or smarter analysis is not the only answer,” he says. “Expensive marketing strategies are out of the question and reap mixed results. The best answer will be the opportunity for someone to start a conversation with a bookseller about books, make a connection, and work together to grow their success.”

A successful transaction is always simple, and when it comes to introducing new titles to booksellers, Barnett says, it can often be modest: “I think this book fits your store.” And, if the bookseller agrees, a satisfactory reply will be, “Okay, let’s start with two copies.”

Rep of the Year judges: Hilary and Mike Gustafson, Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, Mich.; Melinda Powers, Bookshop Santa Cruz in Santa Cruz, Calif.; Doug Robinson, Eagle Eye Book Shop in Decatur, Ga.; Nicole Sullivan, BookBar in Denver; Suzy Takacs, the Book Cellar in Chicago; and Meg Wasmer, Copper Dog Books in Beverly, Mass.

Attention! PW Awards Ceremonies Go Virtual

With the cancellation of this year’s in-person BookExpo, PW’s 2020 awards will be given out virtually. The 2020 Bookstore of the Year award ceremony will be held on June 11 following ABA’s town hall, which takes place during the New England Independent Booksellers Association’s virtual Spring Forum (June 10–11). The 2020 Rep of the Year award will be given at the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance’s virtual Discovery Show (Sept. 11–13).