Stu Abraham, head of Abraham Associates, the Midwest commission publishers’ rep group, praises Roy Schonfeld as a “quiet and modest” man, “a mensch,” who supports his colleagues, serves his publishers and advocates for his accounts to the best of his abilities.
“He does an amazing amount of work and makes it seem effortless,” Abraham insists. “He takes responsibility for everything. But he knows when to turn it off and how to enjoy his life, his friends and his family.”
Abraham hired Schonfeld in 1992 as one of his rep group’s first two employees, when, after the Chicago-based Abraham/Welch Associates group was dissolved, he formed Abraham Associates. Headquartered in Minneapolis, the group currently consists of four sales reps and two administrative staff, who rep a diverse list of books, calendars and sidelines in a 13-state swath across America’s midsection. Not only does the group rep for Consortium, D.A.P. and Adventure Publications’ client publishers, but they also sell Candlewick, Chronicle, Lonely Planet, Lerner and about 10 other publishers, including several university presses.
Schonfeld’s four-state territory radiates outward in three directions from his home in Euclid, Ohio, a Cleveland suburb, and includes 120 independent retail accounts in Ohio, Michigan, Indiana and Kentucky. While he reports spending a significant amount of his time visiting 26 accounts in the Greater Detroit—Ann Arbor area, with its concentration of bookstores, museums and wholesalers, Schonfeld’s driven 150,000 miles in the past five years, spending 50% of his time during each 12-week selling season (January—March and June—August) on the road.
“A lot of people don’t become reps because they don’t want to spend time in the car so much, or live in hotels,” Schonfeld says. “It isn’t for everybody. When I started this job, I’d never done much driving. I didn’t like to drive. Now I love it.”
Schonfeld’s accounts range from Snowbound Books in Marquette, in Michigan’s remote Upper Peninsula, to Carmichael’s Books in Louisville, Ky., and from tiny Appletree Books in Cleveland Heights (his local bookseller) to Joseph-Beth Books, headquartered in Cincinnati, Ohio, with five locations in four states. There’re also children’s bookstores, like Cover to Cover (Columbus, Ohio), Pooh’s Corner (Grand Rapids, Mich.) and Kids Ink (Indianapolis, Ind.). And, of course, there are the museum stores, including the Detroit Institute of Art and the Wexner Center for Visual Arts in Columbus.
“They’re eclectic lists and a variety of accounts,” Schonfeld says, describing his work life as a constant “juggling” of publishers and accounts, picking and choosing which books to spotlight when meeting with buyers.
“Some stores, like Shaman Drum [Ann Arbor], Horizon Books [Traverse City, Mich.], and Carmichael’s will order a lot of my publishers, while I’ll go to other accounts, and they’ll buy only Adventure Publications or children’s books,” he explains. “You have to pick and choose for your accounts, not just show them all your books. But you can’t favor one over another; you have to give all of them their due.”
But as Abraham, half in jest, reminds PW, Schonfeld, 61, “wasn’t born a middle-aged book rep. He did have a life.” After graduating from Miami of Ohio University in 1968, the Brooklyn native spent a “frustrating” year in the Peace Corps, having to contend with Colombia’s governmental bureaucracy while trying to help that country’s people. After a subsequent six-month stint with a model city/antipoverty program in Columbus, he enrolled in the political science Ph.D. program at Ohio State.
“I really enjoyed it,” Schonfeld recalls of his sojourn in academia, which lasted for six years. “I liked teaching. But the competition was incredibly tough, and there were very few jobs. There were a lot of people better than I at it.”
Losing interest in his research on the concept of “equality” in contemporary political science and dropping out of the program at the ABD (All-But-Dissertation) stage, Schonfeld landed a part-time job at a local college bookstore, the Student Book Exchange, across the street from OSU’s campus. He stayed there for the next 10 years, working his way up to trade book buyer. When the Exchange eliminated its trade book section to focus on textbooks and T-shirts, Schonfeld moved to Cleveland, where he took a job as a buyer with the Book Cellars, a regional five-store chain.
“It closed a year after I left there,” Schonfeld recalls of his 18-month tenure at the Book Cellars. “It was a good bookstore chain, but it just couldn’t compete” against Borders, which at the time was aggressively expanding its operations beyond Michigan into neighboring states.
According to Abraham, who at the time had only a passing acquaintance with Schonfeld, Penguin rep Mike Burke recommended that he hire him. “Every time I see Burke, I thank him for making that suggestion,” Abraham says, more than 15 years later. “It was a good move.”
While Schonfeld loves what he does, telling PW that “the job itself is very enjoyable,” with “plenty of good people to talk to, a lot of good bookstores to sell to,” he mourns the changes he’s seen in the industry over the past 15 years.
The entire business of repping has changed, Schonfeld notes, describing it as having once been a “relaxed, 'let’s talk about books’ culture.” Schonfeld recalls spending four or five days in some of the larger cities, calling on buyers, enjoying leisurely conversations, even going to lunch with them to continue the discussion. These days, Schonfeld says, due to a combination of fewer bookstores and more demands on the time of both the remaining booksellers as well as reps, “buyers don’t have time to talk to you and you don’t have time to really talk to them.”
“Everything is streamlined now,” he complains. “It’s one of the negative impacts of the consolidation of the book industry.”
While Schonfeld considers himself more rushed these days in his meetings with his accounts, the booksellers who nominated him as PW’s Rep of the Year don’t see it that way. Karl Pohrt, Shaman Drum’s owner, describes Schonfeld as “effectively communicating his excitement about titles without being pushy.”
“Under Roy’s tutelage, the sales call becomes a process of discovery instead of a chore,” Pohrt wrote, adding that Schonfeld’s “generosity of spirit” in providing pastries “from a wonderful bakery in Cleveland,” in addition to the usual ARCs and finished books, also have endeared him to Shaman Drum’s staff.
Mel Corroto, the co-owner of Beehive Books, which opened five months ago in Delaware, Ohio, wasn’t surprised to hear that Schonfeld had been named Rep of the Year. A former Borders employee, Corroto did not know the essential services reps provide booksellers before she met with Schonfeld, the first rep to visit her 2,800-square-foot store outside of Columbus. “He came in, and explained how it worked,” she said. “I had a lot of questions. He was very informative and gentle, guiding me through the process.”
Shaman Drum’s Pohrt sums up best the qualities that have made Schonfeld a successful and effective sales rep, declaring, “Despite the hyper-marketing and commoditization of everything in our culture, books are sold one at a time. Bookselling remains intensely personal. Roy understands this.” And, Pohrt adds, “He treats people as professionals.”