The Covid-19 pandemic has been difficult for commission sales reps, many of whom were on the road in the midst of their spring selling season, with a few already selling fall lists, when the nation started going into lockdown. As bookstores closed their doors and publishers canceled author tours and postponed new releases, the reps returned home.
Looking ahead to the rest of the year, many reps are concerned about the health of their independent bookseller accounts and the challenges faced by the independent presses they represent, as the compact fall selling season will see a flood of titles from large publishers. Reps also must work to remain solvent in a business in which face-to-face interactions are key, income depends upon accounts selling through the product, and payments from publishers can take from 30 days to several months.
PW spoke with more than a dozen commission reps representing eight groups. Despite the emotional and financial impacts of the pandemic, all said their primary concern is that the independent bookselling segment remains healthy. “My business is going to be way down, but as long as indie bookstores come back, that’s all I care about,” declared Maureen Karb, the head of Como Sales, which operates from Maine to Florida.
“It’s an ecosystem,” said Karel/Dutton Group rep Mark O’Neal, who lives in San Diego. “An indie’s financial situation affects our financial situation.” And while some reps noted that their loss of income is offset to some degree by a drop in travel expenses, several principals disclosed revenue declines ranging from 10% to 64% compared to last year.
Though the reps PW spoke with anticipate that the third quarter will be abysmal, with heavy returns, they described their greatest challenge as not being able to meet face-to-face with buyers in stores or with publishers at sales conferences. And the conversations they’re having are about the sustainability of publishing and bookselling than about the books themselves.
“It’s been a balancing act,” said Kurtis Lowe, the head of Book Travelers West, explaining that his group is making sure publishers treat booksellers as partners. “We’re advocating for both. Retailers know they need gross margin in order to be profitable, and publishers need to offer terms that they can live with.”
Lowe said that since late March, he and his colleagues have been “very busy helping accounts manage receivables” as well as providing information on everything from publishers’ offers to emerging sales trends, such as growing sales of gardening books. “It’s a challenge, keeping on top of all the changes,” he added. And though his company’s revenue is down, Lowe said he is starting to see accounts open up and order. “Little by little, it’s happening.”
Lise Solomon of Karel/Dutton, who lives in San Francisco, said that she had not finished her spring selling season when the Bay Area went under lockdown on March 16. “I’m treading water, as spring orders were put on hold or canceled,” she said. “March and April statements are close to zero, and in some cases, negative. We travel at our own expense, and now we’re going to have to eat returns. We’re terrified.”
Solomon noted that, as a rep for small presses, even after stores reopen she may not be able to schedule in-person calls. She predicted that there will be a “pecking order” as to whom store buyers will want to see in an abbreviated selling season. “Of course they’re going to want to see the PRH reps first,” she noted.
Chip Mercer, the head of Southeastern Book Travelers, said 2020 began as a solid year before the retail landscape changed in March. Describing the “entire spring season” as having been put on hold, he reported that he already is making “some major account” appointments for the fall. “A lot of my territory is rural and hasn’t been impacted as much as the Northeast. We’re expecting things to return to some degree of normality as it heats up. We have the potential to have a great fall if everyone opens back up and if everyone has confidence to get out and about.”
John Mesjak and Stu Abraham, reps for Abraham Associates, which serves the Midwest, reported that their priority this summer and fall is to, in Mesjak’s words, “push publishers to give booksellers what they need to help them and make it profitable when they come back. We want bookstores to be confident enough to order direct. We see that as part of our job: to help the transition as much as possible.”
All of the reps PW spoke with, even the old-school reps, emphasized how much they have come to rely on Edelweiss—especially with publishers being more selective about sending out catalogues, galleys, and ARCs. “Edelweiss has become the currency of communication with all accounts,” said veteran rep Chris Kerr of Parson Weems.
Edelweiss will continue to be an important tool for booksellers, especially since a number of reps predict that the fall selling season will not only be conducted virtually but that there will be multiple, shorter calls with each buyer. “They’re not going to make blanket buys for the whole season,” O’Neal said. “They’ll buy two months at a time.”
Lowe said that he’s already seeing buyers ordering month by month. “I think they’re sorting the fall list and then creating the [purchase order] by release date.”
Abraham said that unlike in typical fall seasons, booksellers “won’t want to speculate as much or want a deeper frontlist.” He added, “People are going to be more interested in the top titles rather than in the hidden gems that you discover while browsing.”
Parson Weems co-owner Eileen Bertelli, who serves the New England/Mid-Atlantic regions, maintained that even the major publishers the group represents aren’t immune to these problems. “People are going to be much more careful. Bookstores are going to buy fewer copies even of bestsellers like Stephen King.” The process of stores reopening “is not going to go from zero to 60” once the pandemic ends, she added. She thinks that it “may take a season or two” before stores “build up enough reserve” to operate in a sustainable way.
On the other side of the country, Lowe agreed, noting that maybe there is an upside to the crisis: perhaps the industry will become more efficient by making full use of technology and permanently adopting new best practices like videoconferencing. Streaming doesn’t just save time and money, Lowe said. “These kinds of things add another dimension to our relationship with our publishers as well with the accounts. Let’s make the most of the tools at our disposal to keep publishers and booksellers connected, to advocate for them, to promote the right books, and to keep everybody in business.”