One of the predictions at the advent of the digital age was that it would make many jobs redundant. Among those understood to be most at risk: the well-traveled sales representative. But though digitization has made some parts of selling books easier and more efficient, it has also made sales reps more important than ever.
“With all the noise of the Internet, we reps continue to serve an important role as a sieve to get the books to buyers that are appropriate for their markets,” said Johanna Hynes, field sales rep in the Midwest for PGW.
“We are the cardiovascular system of publishers, because we are the interconnecting thread between booksellers and publishers,” said Teresa Rolfe Kravtin of Southern Territory Associates, who has been a Southeast rep for three decades. “For me, it is all about relationships and the integrity and investment in yourself and what you do. We consider ourselves partners with the independent bookstores and have a role in helping them succeed. It’s not a cookie-cutter business at all. Each bookseller is an individual business with a local customer base.”
Jennifer Sheridan, a children’s field sales rep for HarperCollins, who also acts as a liaison between the New York office and other field and telesales reps, said that one thing that has changed is that she now meets with everyone working in a bookstore, not just the buyer. “Now that many independent bookstores are not just a place to buy books, but are a place for community to gather, I find I am spending more and more time with floor staff, book club coordinators, and events managers,” she said. Sometimes, Sheridan added, she even works directly with customers when she visits children’s bookstores and brings YA galleys to teen reader meet-ups.
The job of the sales rep might seem old-fashioned, admitted Jen Adkins Reynolds, director of field sales for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. But “we are in a people-driven industry,” she said. “Working with accounts the old way, through one-on-one interactions, remains the building block of the business.”
Though the advent of digital catalogues and online ordering tools such as Edelweiss has eased the burden on some reps, it has also created challenges. On the positive side, there is no longer the need to haul catalogues around. And, said several reps, Edelweiss often eliminates the need to review the obvious buy-in titles during appointments. On the downside, Edelweiss presents every book the same way, making the titles look flat and stripping away relevant context.
“Plus, Edelweiss can be information overload for buyers,” said Lise Solomon, a commission rep on the West Coast with the Karel/Dutton Group. She spends a lot of time writing markups and making sure that they are unique to her and her customers. “Now, when I have my appointments, I’m often spending time talking about the books my buyers missed on Edelweiss,” she added.
And it is increasingly easy to miss titles in digital catalogues. “There are now so many more books being published, and there are so many books that clone themselves,” PGW’s Hynes said. “Working with small indies as I do, it is my job to point out small gems. But I still have buyers who need to scroll through a 1,000-plus-title catalogue, and I have to find a way to make sure that they find the books that interest them.”
In this regard, reps are also keen to underscore that they still have the power to “make” tricky books. HMH’s Reynolds pegged the success of two recent titles—Sara Baume’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither and Laura Barnett’s The Versions of Us—to the sales reps’ ability to persuade booksellers to read the galleys. Ultimately, the bookseller-rep relationship is about human collaboration. “We are in a creative business and are selling people creative efforts,” Southern Territory’s Kravtin said. “The more technology we infuse the industry with—whether it’s e-books, digital catalogues, or computer inventory—all those take away from what is essentially at the heart of what we do. You need to be a human being to really communicate. Our job is less about selling now than it is about manifesting and continuing to evolve those relationships.”
One digital-age advance that does promise to change the job of reps for the better is self-driving cars. “Honestly, I’m still as much [of] a long-haul trucker as I ever was,” Hynes said. “Wouldn’t it be great if I could just sit there and read all my galleys while my car drove me to all my appointments? That would be a whole different world.”