A few months after walking away from my book-repping career, my new boss calls to me from across the room. “Listen to this,” he says. “It’s from a Friars Club roast I wrote for Milton Berle in 1980.” I turn toward him attentively. He reads from the script. “Our next speaker is Robert Culp, the co-star of I Spy. He’s just completed a new disaster movie in which the entire world is destroyed. It’s called The Day Orson Welles Farted.” It takes us 10 minutes to stop laughing, and all the while I’m considering the turn of events that brought me to this job where I’m the assistant to a legendary comedy writer.
I was a publishers’ sales rep in Southern California for 32 years, a lifestyle and career I thought would take me, swilling coffee and writing up orders, all the way to my deathbed. Over the decades, I drove to appointments at Southern California bookstores in eight different cars. At an average of 16,000 miles a year, I drove some half a million miles and spent about a thousand nights in hotel rooms by myself while covering my sales territory in the southwestern U.S. and, for a time, the Rocky Mountain states.
The publishers I represented ranged from grand, revered houses to publishers of soft-core pornography and books about a rabbit called Miffy. I can accurately say that there were more than 100 publishers I sold for in all during good economic times and bad, and along the way worked with authors who won awards, received terrible reviews, made the bestseller lists, bombed, triumphed and even rose from the dead. My sales bag was nothing if not mixed. Every title stood a chance with me, even the ones I hated, because as a book rep, my job was to imagine a buyer for every book—and then help the bookstore owner do the same.
I worked with every kind of book person imaginable and developed a fondness for all of them, even the ones I hated; people who ranged from sophisticated to clunky; witty to humorless; expansive to cheap. They weren’t all my type, but I knew some felt the same way about me. Still, in those cases, we forged a mutual tolerance for one another because of our shared love of books.
I loved my job. If books had given me a sense of destiny when I was a child, the book business, and the notion of somehow being involved in it, provided the path. I went from being a girl to a young woman to a wry and cantankerous soul over the years, and I know that who I am today is the result of both nature (my father was a writer) and nurture (every book person whose desk I sat across from helped me find some unique element of myself).
A few years ago I stopped loving my job. Publishing and bookselling began to change in ways I could not abide as a book rep. For years I’d had the charming bits, and gradually I came to know the cheerless. I made a lot of money, and then lost most of it when my stores began going out of business. I wrote a book about it, and by the end realized it was the eulogy for my career. Within a year of that, it was time for me to move on.
I don’t miss the driving, the L.A. traffic, the lugging of catalogues and order forms, or the sadness of watching bookstores struggle to survive. It’s the people I miss, although even that becomes farce: Margie Ghiz closed Midnight Special a few years ago; Doug and Dave Dutton folded their eponymous stores recently, too. The incredible Richard MacBriar, UCLA’s book buyer, retired last year.
Now I happily spend my days with a brilliant old gag writer as wry and cantankerous as me, archiving his film and television scripts. His dusty office is filled with books, reminding me of the back rooms of the stores I used to sell to. The circumstances have changed, but the intention—to work, live and surround myself with words—will always remain the same.
Wendy Werris, PW’s West Coast correspondent, is the author of An Alphabetical Life: Living It Up in the World of Books.