Even among sales reps, who typically don’t mind a commute, Kurtis Lowe of Book Travelers West relishes a road trip. When his longtime friend Jonathan Evison, previously published by Workman’s Algonquin Books imprint, “needed a smooth handoff to Dutton” for 2022’s Small World, Lowe says, he ferried Evison on a three-day, 24-bookstore tour of the Pacific Northwest. Lowe doesn’t rep for Dutton, but he saw an opportunity to recommend backlist Evison titles from Workman, whose books Lowe has long sold.
Similarly, Lowe and novelist Kim Fay toured the West for Fay’s new Love & Saffron. “Kim and I met as seasonal gift wrappers at Elliott Bay Book Company in 1989,” Lowe says, and they stayed connected; she’s godmother to Lowe’s child, Blu.
Recently, Lowe visited the soon-to-open Lemon Hill Café and Bookstore in Montesano, Wash., to advise proprietor Jennifer Skoglund and her family on the finer details of Edelweiss book orders. “I was able to look her in the eye and say, ‘Don’t worry; we’re going to figure this out,’ ” Lowe says. “I delight in this kind of energy, this American hopefulness around business. One of my jobs is to be excited with them.” He cites Workman founder Peter Workman, a mentor who encouraged him to “celebrate successes and potential and puzzle out the trouble spots.” Like Workman, Lowe says, “I want my people to thrive, and I give them the best advice I can.”
As a Book Travelers West staffer since 2000, and head of group since 2008, Lowe covers Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington. When the pandemic kept him closer to his West Seattle home, he converted his garage into a combination of office and book display, the better to showcase titles during online pitch meetings. His current clients include Workman, a handful of indies, and three Pacific Northwest university presses. With Hachette’s September 2021 acquisition of Workman Publishing, Lowe is bracing for “a lot of changes, reevaluation, new efficiencies,” he says. “Workman has been 40% of our income—that’s a big hit.”
To strategize for this uncertain future, Lowe has partnered with two fellow commissioned reps—Fujii Associates managing partner Eric Heidemann and Como Sales owner Maureen Karb—to form National Book Travelers. “We’ve seen so many publishers get bought by other publishers. There will be a pause, but they’ll continue on,” Lowe says. He sees potential in models like that of his client Cider Mill Press, which is distributed by Simon & Schuster, but maintains its indie reps. Cider Mill founder and publisher John Whalen “gets feedback from us reps,” Lowe says. “He sees individual Cider Mill Press orders and he keeps seeing growth quarter after quarter.”
Lowe says reps are essential because they serve as “that connector between the publisher and the bookstore. I help publishers see trends, and I see what indie bookstores need.” He expresses immense respect for booksellers. “Because of the slim margins, to have a bookstore is one of the boldest, most courageous things you can do,” he says. “I talk about my bookstores because I care about them; I see them as my responsibility.”
As a rep, Lowe says, “I love selling books together, and finding a story to tell about the publisher and the bookstore. I love being that connector.”