If there’s any upside to the pandemic, says Kurtis Lowe, head of the Seattle-based rep group Book Travelers West, it’s that the interactions between publishers’ reps and bookstore buyers have become “more thoughtful and thorough.” According to Lowe—whose territory covers a number of western states and Alaska, and whose clients include Workman, Baker & Taylor Publisher Services, Capstone Publishing Group, Cider Mill Press, Quarto Publishing Group USA, and Sterling Publishing—sales meetings that lasted for hours as reps and buyers paged through paper catalogs together are now spread out over days, even weeks, a process that both reps and booksellers consider much less taxing. Reps and buyers were already used to doing more business remotely via Edelweiss, a trend that escalated with conference calls and virtual meetings when the nation underwent lockdown.
Because Edelweiss has streamlined the ordering process, buyers are ordering larger quantities of books and ordering them more frequently, Lowe says. Store visits still take place, but they are more focused: Lowe uses the face-to-face time to talk with buyers and update them with new information. He also makes a point to walk through the bookstore, checking out the shelves “to see what’s exciting and what’s missing,” he says. “I’m making the most of in-person meetings.”
Lowe also makes the most of screen time with his accounts. According to several booksellers PW spoke with recently—as well as this reporter’s own observations during a Zoom videoconference call with Tegan Tigani, a buyer at Queen Anne Book Company in Seattle, which Lowe invited us to join—while Lowe may not be unique among publishers’ reps in using Zoom as a component of his hybrid approach to doing business, he has fine-tuned his sales pitches, elevating these Zoom video calls to performance art.
For the past 18 months, Lowe has been staging these Zoom sales calls that typically last between two and three hours in his garage that he converted into a book showroom filled with displays. He holds up finished samples “of what’s working or what’s exciting,” while also providing on-screen close-ups of book jackets and of interiors as he discusses their sales potential with buyers, providing tidbits about the book, the publisher, and/or author as needed.
The displays are grouped by publisher or distributor, aimed at making it easy to write a single purchase order for a publisher. “On each display, it’s all Workman or Cider Mill Press or Quarto or Microcosm,” Lowe says.
“People like a visual,” he points out, “and I’m showing them books they’ve never seen before.” Lowe explains that while he talks about select titles in person with buyers, he goes through all offerings “title by title” on Zoom calls, describing this process as the most efficient use of his time with buyers. “This allows me to do custom presentations that are not harnessed to an in-person visit,” he adds. “I can get much more creative, I can respond to the changes in the market. Edelweiss is wonderful—but Edelweiss plus this is a big deal.”
Each call begins with Lowe catching up on news with the buyer before he starts discussing the books that he wants the buyer to consider ordering for their store. “Once I lock them in with those images, those mnemonics, of seeing the physical, then we move over to Edelweiss, so they have a richer template,” he says. “If we’re flagging, we can set another time for the rest of it. The energy level remains high throughout.”
“Live interaction is what it’s all about,” Lowe insists, when asked why he does not simply record his Zoom presentations. “I pitch books [on Zoom] with more of a flourish, more depth, and also specifically for that store. When I do a presentation, it might be easier to do one for many people, but nothing matches the attentiveness—my responsiveness and the buyer’s responsiveness—if it’s tailored directly to them. Every single store is different, and a live one-on-one is irreplaceable.”
While Lowe emphasizes the benefits of Edelweiss, he also points out that the digital catalog platform has a downside: it “discourages much discussion” between rep and buyer. “I am reclaiming some of the book talk that my buyers and I used to enjoy so much. That’s why there’s the camera showing the finished books and me pointing out this and that. It’s really important.”
Having a book display room already set up as Covid erupted was not prescient on Lowe’s part, but rather serendipitous. Lowe had completed the transformation of his finished garage into a book showroom in the fall of 2019, six months before the pandemic. He’d intended to host area booksellers there, he says. “But then two things happened in March 2020: the pandemic and the bridge to West Seattle went out,” he says, restricting access between the area Lowe lives in and the rest of the city. Zoom’s emergence presented Lowe with the perfect opportunity to make good use of his new showroom at a time when reps everywhere were scrambling to fulfill their responsibilities to their accounts from their homes.
Tom Nissley, the owner of Phinney Books in Seattle, describes Lowe’s Zoom presentations as “quite a show. He’s zipping around his room, and it’s obvious that he’s thought about what you can do in terms of displays. But then he works with some very visual publishers that you can’t get across in the same way with just a phone call.”
Queen Anne Book Company’s Tigani says after the Zoom call we participated in that Lowe’s approach is “pretty unique.” Of all the reps she works with, she says, “he’s the only one who’s got a dedicated office/showroom. A lot of my reps have home offices, but like many of us, they’re juggling for space with their families working across from them. He’s really settled into his little book shed and has fun with it.”
Despite the popularity of these Zoom calls with his accounts, Lowe resumed in-store visits in June, describing those as one of the most essential responsibilities of a publishers’ rep. He says that he is fully committed to following store protocols when calling upon buyers: for instance, Liberty Bay in Poulsbo, Wash., was “business as usual,” while Eagle Harbor Book Co. on Bainbridge Island, Wash., required a mask.
Lowe intends to continue scheduling Zoom presentations even after the pandemic passes, explaining, “We all get so tired of Edelweiss, so I like to mix it up. It’s got to be a combination of Edelweiss and personalized buying, personal interaction.”
Like Lowe, both Nissley and Tigani emphasize the primary importance of rep in-store visits, but also value Lowe’s Zoom calls and intend to continue requesting them. “It would work with him to continue to do the Zoom meetings,” Tigani notes. “It would mean that he doesn’t have to lug all his stuff around with him. As long as he still comes into the store, which is so valuable to us because he can see how we set things up. Kurtis gets out into his territory a lot and sees the stores, so he knows the challenges we face.”