One major rule of selling books is that once you have the order, shut up. The other important rule? If you love an author and no one is paying enough attention, never shut up!
Even though Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven didn’t win the National Book Award for fiction in November, an essay by Porter Anderson in the blog Thought Catalog about Knopf’s campaign for the book mentioned some key players in Mandel’s road to sales success with this book: namely, the sales people who have supported Mandel from the beginning, since her days under the brilliant editorial guidance of Fred Ramey at Unbridled. (Ever gracious, Ramey has seen a number of the authors he discovered move on to other houses for bigger paychecks, with his blessing and complete understanding.)
One name in the article gave me a big smile: Steven Wallace. Wallace, who is an old friend of mine, just would not shut up about Mandel—not at trade shows or the ABA Winter Institute. I remember seeing him at these events, when he was director of sales and marketing at Unbridled, with that charming smile of his and a number of galleys in hand, including some by Mandel.
It wasn’t just me Wallace charmed. He got booksellers fired up, and Mandel was an Indie Bound pick. According to Anderson’s piece, Wallace also got rep Jason Gobble on the Mandel bandwagon, and Gobble, to his credit, similarly wouldn’t shut up about her. He let New York know about Mandel and asked editors to keep an eye out for her books, perhaps for paperback acquisition.
And there is an happy ending. A Knopf editor acquired Mandel’s Station Eleven, and all the groundwork laid by Ramey, Wallace, Gobble, and indie booksellers blossomed under the energetic gardening of the Knopf hands.
I know there are dozens and dozens of stories about sales reps championing authors and never shutting up. A favorite example of yore I bring up every year at the Denver Publishing Institute is the case of Bill Andrews and Richard Russo. In the mid-80s, Random House launched Vintage Contemporaries, with Jay McInerney, Ann Beattie, and Cormac McCarthy in original trade paper on the list, along with Russo’s Mohawk. And Bill. Just. Wouldn’t. Shut. Up. About. Mohawk!
Russo eventually traveled to New England indies on his own. And then came Risk Pool, also an original paperback, and none of us reps would shut up about it. And the rest is history.
I used to think that publicists had the loneliest, toughest jobs in publishing, working the phones or writing emails in search of coverage. But I learned that editors have it roughest, especially when they look down the long table of colleagues at launches: veterans of sales, rights, production, publicity, marketing, academic, library, international—all with faces saying, “Okay, make us love it. Why is this book different than the hundred we just heard about.”
It’s freaking terrifying, but editors, take heart. It just takes one supporter to rally the rest. I’ve heard a junior production person turn the mood on a book in a launch meeting. That’s the sign of a healthy publisher where all are engaged and encouraged to speak up.
Sales reps, once thought to be on the brink of extinction, are playing more of a key role than ever in establishing new careers, discovering new talent. Of course, this phenomenon goes hand in hand with the resurgence of indie booksellers. (Resurgence is a funny word in this context; there are a few of us for whom the indies never went away.) Thank goodness for all the booksellers who won’t shut up about authors they love!
Let me close with a related anecdote. Mike Rockliff, my first boss at Random House, is, in his other life, a folk and bluegrass guru. He knows everyone in the field. I reached out a few years ago to 1960s and ’70s folk legend Tom Rush via email about doing a book. Nothing for days, then, ping, in my in-box: “I checked you out with Rockliff. He says you’re okay.”
The road—and the rave—always goes through the rep.
Carl Lennertz, a longtime sales rep, is the former director of World Book Night U.S. and is currently the proprietor of the just-launched ExpressEdit.net.