Like other segments of the book business, the job of sales representatives is being dramatically transformed. "Last year was probably the most austere and crisis-mode period reps have experienced in a long, long time," says Paul Williams, executive director of the National Association of Independent Publishers Representatives. Contractions in the book business in response to the Great Recession led to cuts in sales forces for large houses like Simon & Schuster, while commissioned rep groups that service independent publishers have also felt the pinch. Recently Nolo Press, in Berkeley, Calif., dropped its independent rep coverage for the Midwest. "These decisions," says Jackie Thompson, Nolo v-p of trade, "are sometimes driven more by in-house resource issues than by commission costs. We have a reduced sales support staff and therefore have to carefully assess the amount of time spent on various support tasks, including rep support."

Some rep groups, especially those in New England and the Southeast, have been particularly hard hit. Even those that are doing well measure sales against 2007, the last good year before returns caused by the recession brought a downturn across the board. While some, like Book Travelers West, are starting to see sales come back and were up the first four months of 2010, others are still losing ground. One New Englander, who asked not to be named, said, "It's barely a living," and voiced concerns that Above the Treeline's popular electronic catalogue program, Edelweiss, could be fatal for many small commission groups, since it enables publishers to annotate catalogues electronically much like reps do manually with print catalogues.

That's not to say that the mood is solely one of doom and gloom. Just a few weeks ago, when Paul Harding was interviewed by the New York Times about how his debut novel, Tinkers, became a darling of independents and went on to win a Pulitzer Prize, he credited the efforts of independent rep Lise Solomon with the Karel/Dutton Group. She was, he said, a passionate advocate for the book in Northern California, where she represents Consortium. And paraphrasing a Hollywood movie mogul, NAIPR president Eric Miller, co-owner of Miller Trade Book Marketing in Chicago, notes that the industry's woes aren't something good books won't solve.

Still, the key to the rep business may no longer be synonymous with the key to the car. Independent reps continue to call on as many stores in their territory as possible, but they also tweet, blog, e-mail, Constant Contact, and GoToMeeting, as well as phone, to stay in touch with their accounts. "If there's a rep who can call on an account in person, it usually benefits the account," says Kurtis Lowe, head of group for Book Travelers West, who until last year was the only rep traveling to Alaska. Now he uses what he calls "a hybridization of personalization and electronic contact."

A Trying Time

"It's a search one's soul time," says Ted Wedel, principal at Chesapeake & Hudson in Brunswick, Md. "You've got to focus harder, beat the bushes more, and try to continue to nurture the stores we still have." Reflecting on the evolution of the business over the past three decades and the loss of what had once been his biggest accounts—starting with department stores, then college stores, and now museums—Wedel is convinced that reps will make it through the transition to e-books. "We reps are the roaches of the business. You just can't kill us," he says.

In part that's because as bookstores have evolved, reps have changed the way they do business as well as their mission. Reps now provide stores with a mix of sales, marketing, customer service, and pretty much whatever else is needed. "We resisted bringing computers into a sales call," says Wedel, "because we like the face-to-face. But half the time the buyer is in front of a screen and now a computer is an absolute necessity." Reps use computers to check inventory, facilitate backlist ordering, and even show sample pages for upcoming titles. In addition, reps have found ways to cut costs, not just through Web-based sales conferences but by getting publishers to come to them.

In 2008, when Fujii Associates merged with Heinecken & Associates, it invited publishers to Chicago to meet with the combined group. Last month Fujii asked publishers to the Midwest for sales conference once again, to save money. "I don't mind New York," says Fujii rep Eric Heidemann, "but economically it doesn't work. There's eight of us in the field. This is a little less expensive, and a lot of the publishers bundle it with trips to Follett."

Although it's unlikely that rep groups will see independents and big box retailers grow at a rate they once did, Heidemann remains optimistic about the potential for new ways to grow the business. "We filter, we focus, and we facilitate—no matter in what format a book is sold," Heidemann says. Nor is he worried about e-catalogues taking away business. "I have accounts who didn't buy Harper, because it wasn't on their radar. There was no [Harper print] catalogue, and they have no [field ] rep," he continues. "We're all busy, but that catalogue and sales rep are a reminder."

It's not only Fujii that's doing fine; so is the West Coast–based Karel/Dutton Group. "I can't tell you where I'll be in five years, but three years from now, we'll still be around. Our commissions are equal to what they were in 2007, and our bag is weighted toward illustrated books and children's books, which aren't affected by e-books," says Howard Karel, who attributes the group's strength to a diversified client base that includes three distributors: Consortium, D.A.P., and SCB. Like other rep groups, Karel/Dutton has used technology to cut costs, from $35,000 annually for sales conferences in New York to $6,000 now that most large meetings are on the Web. For Karel, the fate of independent reps is intertwined with that of independent bookstores, and he doesn't see them going away any time soon.

Changing Times for Field Reps, Too

If, as former PW Rep of the Year Roy Schonfeld of Abraham Associates points out, there is no clear consensus how to proceed in this changing environment among independent reps, the same holds true for field reps, or district sales managers. "Traditionally," says Josh Marwell, president of sales at HarperCollins, "the focus was mostly about getting the initial numbers in. Now, it's more about getting galleys into exactly the right bookseller hands to build buzz on upcoming titles, meeting with marketing staff to develop promotional plans and events, and doing presentations to store personnel and on occasion to store customers. That said, the basics of the job remain the same—tailoring the company's new lists to each local market, keeping buyers informed of major publicity breaks, soliciting reorders, keeping a focus on backlist, and in many cases acting as friendly advisers."

At Random House, sales and marketing are both part of a rep's job. "Getting the order is just the first step," says Madeline McIntosh, president of sales, operations, and digital. "We constantly say to our customers, ‘We don't just want to ship you books. We want to work closely with you to help you sell those books through.' " Random House reps, and those from other large houses, discuss trends with accounts and how to grow their business. "In-store marketing, obviously, is growing in importance," adds McIntosh. "We do not have a one-size-fits-all marketing template. One store might want a rep to help them design a summer reading promotion, another to present titles to reading group leaders."

Simon & Schuster, too, has come to rely on the marketing savvy of its reps as much as their sales expertise. As field sales director Michael Croy notes, reps are expected to isolate the perfect titles for accounts as well as to identify how stores can best use all of S&S's electronic and print assets. The one thing on which Croy and his colleagues, both in-house and independent reps, agree is that the field accounts continue to be where the seeds of publishers' new voices are sown, developed, and grown. As McIntosh notes, "[Reps'] passion—their ability to take a manuscript, fall in love with it, share that enthusiasm, and make something wonderful happen in the marketplace—is a key element to our mutual success as publishers and booksellers."