For the first time since Publishers Weekly began singling out outstanding sales representatives more than 15 years ago, a children’s rep has been named PW Rep of the Year. Jennifer Sheridan holds a hybrid position at HarperCollins as both a field sales rep and a liaison between the New York office and other field and telesales reps.
Sheridan was selected because of her determination to get the right book into the hands of booksellers (and, by extension, parents and teachers)—a quality appreciated by her bookstore and wholesale accounts in New York City, the Mid-Atlantic, and the Midwest, as well as by the authors she enthusiastically represents. But her selection is also an indication of just how important the children’s book market has become.
Soman Chainani, who met Sheridan through his novel The School for Good and Evil, describes her as “a tornado of passion, commitment, and discipline. She’s kind of like a sales-rep Mary Poppins. It isn’t just her energy and love of books that makes her such a great rep. It’s that she knows how to find the heart of a book and communicate it so brilliantly to everyone else.”
While some reps have increasingly turned to social media to broadcast their message about favorite books, Sheridan has proved the continuing effectiveness of simple, old-fashioned techniques, such as her trademark Jenny’s Pick sticker. Each season she does an ARC mailing to buyers, floor staff, and book group coordinators, putting stickers on eight to 12 forthcoming titles that she stands behind as the best children’s books of the season for independents to hand-sell.
“I read everything, and I’ll tell you if it’s not for your market,” says Sheridan, who began her career as a bookseller at the now-defunct Odegard Books in St. Paul, Minn., and then worked at Seminary Co-op Bookstore, Women and Children First, and Unabridged Books, all in Chicago. She also spent a year at Bookazine, a wholesaler in Bayonne, N.J. “I pride myself on my forthright assessment of our books. As a result, my customers trust me when I rave that a book is truly great,” adds Sheridan. “It is the establishment and maintenance of this type of trust that is the cornerstone to making an effective rep.”
“Sometimes it feels like Jenny knows what we need or want before we do,” says Drew Sieplinga, events coordinator and manager at Wild Rumpus Books for Young Readers, in Minneapolis. “I always know that I can trust Jenny when she tells me that we have to order a book for the store. She has taken the time to get to know our store’s and customers’ needs.” The reverse is also true. Daniel Goldin, owner of Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee, says that he values the fact that she isn’t afraid to say why something may not work for his store.
Sheridan prides herself on reading as many manuscripts and ARCs of upcoming books as possible. As she reads, she says that she tries to keep in mind what she was looking for in a hand-sell during her 15 years as a bookseller. She also reads like a writer, thinking about how the book is constructed and the quality of the work.
While Sheridan was working at Seminary Co-op, she got an M.F.A. in fiction writing at Columbia College in Chicago. Although she hasn’t yet written a book-length work, she taught fiction at her alma mater. After she moved to New York, she taught part-time at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop when her children were young.
Just because Sheridan takes an old-school approach to her job and is a staunch advocate for the value of paper books for kids doesn’t meant she’s a Luddite. She uses all the tools at her disposal, including electronic ones, to get the word out about her favorite books and authors. She marks up electronic catalogues on Edelweiss for booksellers and other sales reps, and when the books go on sale she collects those notes in a monthly e-newsletter for accounts. She also uses her personal Facebook account to promote books, when needed.
“My job is to be the filter,” Sheridan says. And booksellers appreciate it. “Her Edelweiss notes have been invaluable to me and my staff,” says Jennifer Brenninger, manager and children’s book buyer at the Doylestown Bookshop, in Doylestown, Pa. She uses them not only to help decide what to buy and display, but also relies on them for what to say when she is hand-selling. In addition, Brenninger likes that Sheridan will tell her about nonbook items she’s spotted at conferences if she thinks they might work at Doylestown.
Although Sheridan is known for her enthusiasm for children’s books—even going so far as to kiss the cover of J.A. White’s The Thickety at store presentations for teachers and librarians (another effective old-school tactic)—it wasn’t always that way. Sheridan started her career as a general bookseller, and when no one else wanted to buy kids books at Unabridged, she took it on by default. Nine years ago, when she took a job with Harper it was as an adult rep.
After switching to children’s books, Sheridan says, “I would never go back. I’m so pro-children’s books and children’s bookstores. We’re talking about literacy. I take that responsibility seriously. If not for well-written children’s books at every level, there would be no audience for well-written adult books.”
She also finds selling children’s books more satisfying and is proud to have helped promote, and sometimes launch, children’s book authors such as Veronica Roth, Jane O’Connor, and Katherine Applegate. The last of these three thanked her by name when Applegate won the Newbery Award for [em]The One and Only Ivan[/em]. “I think some of the best, not to mention bestselling, books being published are coming from the YA and middle-grade categories. I spend more time reading these books than doing just about anything else,” says Sheridan.
Well, almost anything else. Sheridan does a lot of traveling and visits accounts in seven states throughout the year, plus she attends Winter Institute, Children’s Institute, the Heartland Fall Forum, and BEA.
Not that Sheridan would have it any other way. For her, being a children’s rep for Harper is “the best job I can imagine. And I gladly give it my heart every day.” But she acknowledges that it takes a village to make a rep, and she credits the quality of the books she sells; the dedication of the book buyers she sells to; her manager, Kathy Faber; and the HarperCollins children’s division for her success.
Thank You, Judges
PW wants to thank this year’s juries, and Donna Paz Kaufman of the Bookstore Training Group of Paz & Associates. Bookstore of the Year judges: Ruth Liebmann, Penguin Random House; Craig Popelars, Algonquin/Workman; Karen Torres, Hachette Book Group; Rachel Geiger, Chronicle; and Teresa Rolfe Kravtin.
Rep of the Year judges: Diane Capriola, Little Shop of Stories; Willard Williams, Toad Hall Books; Mary Ellen Wood, Schuler Books; Anne Holman, the King’s English; and Pete Mulvihill, Green Apple Books.