“I still think of myself as a bookseller,” McCune, 51, confides over a steaming cup of coffee in the cozy upstairs tearoom at Crazy Wisdom Bookstore in Ann Arbor, Mich.
“The same skills you have to have as a buyer at a bookstore are necessary as a sales rep,” McCune explains. “You're talking to people, trying to guess in 15 seconds what they're going to like, what's going to be a good fit. It's just like being a handseller again, except I'm doing it with booksellers.” As well as working with store buyers, McCune “handsells” to floor staff at many of her stores through regular bookseller presentations. She also enjoys speaking directly to customers at her stores' book club nights.
Another of McCune's tools for booksellers is a weekly newsletter she writes with her take on Harper's new releases, including pre-pub feedback from booksellers about current galleys.
“I love my job,” McCune emphasizes. “For me, it's like one nice long busman's holiday. What could be cooler than hanging out in bookstores? And, because I'm the rep, I get to hang out in the backrooms, and ask nosy questions,” she adds, before suggesting that we make the rounds of a few more local bookstores. After visits to Shaman Drum and Common Language, she firms up plans to take a road trip the next morning to visit one of the four Schuler's bookstores.
McCune's life has centered around bookstores since her days as a graduate student at the University of Washington, when she part-timed as a bookseller at Elliott Bay. She later settled in Western Massachusetts and worked for 13 years at several stores there, including the Odyssey Bookshop, Food for Thought and the Jeffrey Amherst Bookshop.
In 1995, wanting to live closer to two of her five siblings and participate in the lives of their growing families, McCune applied for a position as development manager for the Little Professor Book Centers at their corporate headquarters in Ann Arbor. The company oversaw the operations of more than 100 independent bookstore franchises across the country throughout the 1990s.
“The day Little Professor offered me the job was the day my nephew Riley was born. I took that as a sign,” she recalls while driving to Schuler's Books in Okemos.
“It was interesting to step back from retailing after working at it for 15 years and kind of advise,” she says of the two years she spent consulting with the Little Professor stores. “But I'm not very well suited temperamentally for office work.” She returned to bookselling, managing and buying inventory for Websters Books—later the second location of Nicola's Books—until the site closed in 2001.
While on a sales call in late 2001, John Mesjak (then a PGW rep; now with the Abraham & Associates Midwest commission rep group) dropped by the gay/lesbian bookstore Common Language and asked owner Lynden Kelly, who is McCune's partner, 'Why isn't your girlfriend applying for the Harper job?'
Today, McCune reps HarperCollins's trade adult titles to an eclectic list of accounts. Her territory extends from the northern Michigan resort towns lining the shores of Lake Michigan, down through the state, continuing in a straight shot south, through Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi. She services bookstores of all sizes, ranging from large accounts like Partners Book Distributors, National Association of College Stores (NACS) and the Joseph-Beth/Davis Kidd bookstores, to smaller stores like McLean & Eakin Booksellers in Petoskey, Mich.; Carmichael's in Louisville; and Square Books and Lemuria in Mississippi.
McCune's accounts also include all of the independent bookstores near her home in Ann Arbor: Common Language, Shaman Drum, Crazy Wisdom and Nicola's Books.
“When she worked for me,” says Nicola Rooney, “I always recognized she probably knew more about books than I did. As a sales rep, she knows our store so well. It's quite a unique relationship.”
“I don't think you're going to find many reps who've gone through that many phases of the business,” insists Bill Cusumano, Nicola's longtime book buyer and a former colleague of McCune's. “She's done franchising, she's done buying. Some reps have never even been booksellers. It makes a difference.”
But it's not only McCune's former colleagues who sing her praises; last year HarperCollins named her in-house sales rep of the year. Jeanette Zwart, v-p of HarperCollins's field sales, who supervises all 17 field reps, noted, “Somehow, she makes bookstores think she's working for them, while increasing HarperCollins sales. She has an unerring sense for which book to put in which bookseller's hands.”
Ten Michigan and Ohio booksellers recently spoke to PW about McCune, and all emphasized her understanding of the bookselling business, her empathy with booksellers, and her unswerving commitment to servicing her accounts. Words like “partner” and “friend” cropped up repeatedly in almost every conversation.
“She's got an emotional attachment to the booksellers' side, as well as to the publisher's side. And that makes all the difference,” said Michele Sulka, v-p of marketing for the five Joseph-Beth and two Davis Kidd bookstores.
“Kate makes us feel as if she's part of the team,” said Carol Schneck, marketing manager at Schuler's. “She's there to help us do our jobs better.”
“The buying process with Kate is not a sales call. It's a conversation, a very informed conversation,” explained Karl Pohrt, owner of Shaman Drum. “Sometimes I'll want something, and she'll say, “Oh no, that's not for you.' She's honest.”
“Kate is the master of finding hidden gems, pushing them, and giving them the love they deserve,” Sulka added, citing The Children's Blizzard and Beasts of No Nation as two recent examples of books that did not immediately appeal to Joseph-Beth booksellers, but sold well at the stores due to McCune's advocacy.
“She fights very hard for all of her clients, not just for us,” said Susan Capaldi, manager of McLean & Eakin. She described McCune's role in making this small, off-the-beaten-track store a regular stop on HarperCollins author tours, which has drawn such authors as Ann Patchett, Terry Gamble and Laura Lippmann to the store. “She treats us like we would like to treat our customers,” Capaldi adds.
“I was short-staffed once during a huge sale,” recalls Deb Covey, previously the manager at Books & Co. in Cincinnati and now a book manager at Joseph-Beth. “I asked reps to come in and help us sell books and Kate was one of four who showed up. She happily recommended other publishers' books to customers, not just her own.”
“She's invested in us,” said Jen Reynolds, Joseph-Beth's events coordinator, who described how McCune went far beyond her rep duties by helping Joseph-Beth staff open the Pittsburgh store in 2004 and a Charlotte store the following year. “She actually helped us carry stuff, did the grunt work and helped pull new book sections together. That's not glamorous work, it's getting dirty. There's not many people who would do that.”
But it's Shaman Drum's Pohrt who best sums up McCune's qualifications as Rep of the Year: “This business—it's still about people and the connections you make. In my store, Kate represents the face of HarperCollins. But I'm convinced that when she goes to HarperCollins in New York, she represents my interests. That's why reps are necessary. And that's why Kate is a very good model. She understands that. Plus, she's a very nice person.”