Minneapolis-based Macmillan house rep Tom Leigh hopes the third time will be the charm: he’s been nominated twice before for PW rep of the year, in 2008 and in 2013. “The worst-case scenario is, if I don’t win, I’m emulating consistency,” he says. “Accounts expect reps to be consistent.”
It’s been a long and winding road for Leigh that led him first to Minneapolis and then to Macmillan, for which he currently services indie stores in Minnesota, northern Wisconsin, Iowa, Colorado, and Nebraska. The Queens native went to NYU, where he switched majors three times—from civil engineering to English literature to history—before graduating in 1984. The plan was to attend graduate school and then teach.
Leigh decided to take a year off between college and graduate school, a decision that changed his life. “I took a part-time job in a bookstore and stayed and that’s why we are having this conversation right now, while I’m sitting here surrounded by books,” he says.
The bookstore was Barnes & Noble, “then very much a tristate-area chain, including stores all over New York City,” he says. He worked his way up to assistant manager at a larger B&N in Greenwich Village. He met his future wife there in 1986—she was a B. Dalton executive on a business trip from the company’s Minneapolis home office. B&N had just acquired Dalton, and the two companies were preparing to merge their buying infrastructures.
After moving to Minneapolis, Leigh wanted a change from retail, and found a position in Princeton University Press’s sales department in 1989. It didn’t end well. “It was a huge territory,” he explains. “It was I-35, from Minnesota down through Texas. Within a year, I said ‘It’s not for me—it’s not a first-timer’s job.’ ”
Leigh spent the next two years working as a buyer and bookseller at Odegard Books in Minneapolis. After it closed in 1992, he became a buyer for Musicland, as the now-defunct entertainment company “was jumping into books” by launching music and book concept stores.
When Musicland ran into financial difficulties, Leigh decided to give repping another shot. “Getting paid for talking about books with people who love books—I could do that, even though there’s more to it than that,” he says. “It’s also building and then maintaining trusted relationships with buyers and booksellers, which really is all about finding shared connections, be it books or life experiences. It’s never simply buying and selling, but listening and learning, while at the same time advocating for our books and authors.”
Ken Holland, director of sales for Holtzbrinck, hired Leigh as a rep in 2000 to service stores in Minnesota, northern Wisconsin, Iowa, and Nebraska. In 2007, Holtzbrinck changed its name to Macmillan, but Leigh’s territory remained the same until 2020, when he added Colorado after another rep’s retirement. “I have the Upper Midwest, Colorado, and Nebraska now,” he says.
Since the onset of the pandemic, Leigh, like many, has been doing much of his work from home. He hopes to schedule more road trips this spring. Noting that some stores are now minimally staffed and can’t handle in-person meetings, he says he doubts he’ll be driving 10,000 miles around his territory each year in a Subaru Forester, as he did prepandemic.
Despite these changes, Leigh is sanguine about how he does business in the Covid era, explaining, “It’s all about understanding that the ‘new normal’ can be different for every account, and the reps have to be okay with that. It requires closer communication between the rep and the account. Collaboration and consultation are both important: ‘What do you need and what would work best?’ ”
“Trusting relationships is the backbone of repping, and that is more important now than ever before,” Leigh adds. “In-person meetings are even more valuable whether they happen once, twice, or whatever each year. But working remotely never means being unreachable.”