Consortium Book Sales & Distribution trade sales manager Ruth Berger describes John Mesjak, PW’s 2018 Rep of the Year, as a “book-reading teddy bear who never sleeps: he’s too busy reading and repping.” Johanna Ingalls of Akashic Books says that she and her colleagues have come to “rely on him more and more over the years, whether it be comments he may have on early book cover designs to suggestions on best stores to send our authors to.” And Stu Abraham, the founder of the Abraham Associates commission rep group that Mesjak is poised to head as Abraham slowly eases into retirement, calls him “my Zen master, my can-do partner.” He adds, “He’s not only my partner—he’s a partner to booksellers, other reps, and publishers. He’s more than a good rep: he’s a big picture guy.”
The indie booksellers who nominated Mesjak, 50, for this honor are just as generous with their praise. “He has consistently set the standard that all reps should aspire to,” says Kris Kleindienst, co-owner of Left Bank Books in St. Louis. “He sweats every detail, whether it’s sorting out a shipping confusion, or making sure the right bookstores know about the right books, or letting a publisher know that the cover they have in mind is in need of help. He is all in.”
Katharine Solheim of Unabridged Books in Chicago lauds Mesjak for his “indefatigable efforts to acquaint himself with each of our booksellers individually.” She adds, “By honoring the idiosyncrasies of each shop and every bookseller, John epitomizes the best aspects of indie bookselling.” Plus, she notes, “The man is simply delightful to share a beer with.”
PW met Mesjak on a cold and blustery March day at his favorite meeting place: the café area inside Moon Palace Books in South Minneapolis. There, Mesjak is showing off the forthcoming Macanudo: Olga Rules (#4), from Enchanted Lion, to bookstore co-owner Angela Schwesnedl. A few minutes later, Abraham and rep Emily Oran Johnson show up; the three sit down at a booth, flip open their laptops, and launch into a lively exchange on everything from BookExpo logistics to shipping delays due to weather and bookstore visits in their respective territories—which for Mesjak includes much of Chicagoland, Iowa, Kentucky, and Wisconsin.
“State lines are a bit muddled,” for the four reps in Abraham’s group, Mesjak explains, since three of them are based in the Twin Cities and one in Chicago. “It’s a much more collaborative blending of our territories, where we back each other up, instead of having rigid territories. Stu and Emily share Minnesota accounts; I just live here.”
Abraham Associates represents 30 publisher clients and three sidelines companies in 13 states across the Midwest and into the Dakotas. Its eclectic list includes such well-known companies as Chronicle Books and its distribution clients; Candlewick Press; Consortium (and all of its indie presses); Diamond; Oxford University Press; DAP; Quarto; and Lonely Planet, as well as “tiny dynamos” such as Chelsea Green, Pomegranate, and Red Wheel Weiser. The sidelines companies, which Mesjak describes as “incredibly creative and scrappy” include Ideal Bookshelf, Literary Supply Co., and Sad Shop Cards.
“We’ve never tried to specialize in just one kind of publisher, or just one category of publishing,” Mesjak says. “The only commonality is high quality. The diversity of our list gives us strength.”
Just like so many other industry professionals who launched their careers away from New York City, Mesjak was initially drawn to the book world through happenstance. A native of Downers Grove, Ill., he joined an advertising agency after graduating in 1989 from Milwaukee’s Marquette University. Laid off during the 1990 recession, Mesjak moved back in with his parents and applied for a job at the local Anderson’s Bookshop outlet, because, he recalls, “I was a reading nerd in high school and college, and I always liked shopping there.”
After getting married (his wife, Laura, is currently a librarian at Minnesota’s Dakota County public library), Mesjak moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he worked at Book Passage for two years as a frontline bookseller and buyer, followed by four years as the store manager at A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books. Switching to the publishing side, he spent two years at Chronicle Books, managing its customer service department.
Forced out of California due to the spiraling cost of living there during the dot-com boom, the couple returned to the Chicago area in 1999 with their infant daughter, Alice. After a brief stint working for Law.com, Mesjak entered the world of repping due to a tip from a former colleague at Anderson’s Bookshop, who told Mesjak that PGW was looking for a Midwest rep. “I had bookselling and publishing experience, and I kept adding layers of insight and context,” he says. “That’s how I got to be a rep.”
PGW’s parent company, AMS, filed for bankruptcy at the end of 2006, and Mesjak jumped ship in February 2007 after being contacted by Abraham, who was looking to hire a new rep following changes in his group. “It was an easy decision to make,” Mesjak says, noting that as a PGW rep, he had to cover 10 states by himself during three seasons each year. “I was never off the road,” he adds. He estimates that, currently, he spends about 10 weeks on the road each season, January through March and June through August.
Mesjak recalls that the prospect of a “more freewheeling existence” with a small and entrepreneurial rep group that emphasized a collaborative approach to selling also greatly appealed to him—and still does. Six years ago, Abraham and Mesjak entered into a 10-year “slow motion transfer of responsibility” for the group; last summer, with his daughter at college and a desire to live closer to the home office (comprising “Stu, and the accountant,” he says), Mesjak moved to Minneapolis with Laura. “I love having access to so many new bookstores as my local bookstore,” he says, noting that the closest bookstore to his previous home in a far west Chicago suburb was 20 miles away.
While Mesjak and others attribute much of his effectiveness as a rep to the personal relationships he’s nurtured over the past 18 years, his commitment to using technology to streamline operations that more efficiently serve publishers and bookstores is also key. After Mesjak moved to Minneapolis, he says, he and Abraham began considering “what our job as a sales rep is today—what is a modern rep?” It was a conversation, he said, that intensified when PW’s 2008 Rep of the Year, Roy Schonfeld, retired in December after 25 years at Abraham Associates.
“It was a daunting project that consumed the second half of 2017 for us, rethinking the job description and conducting a job search,” Mesjak says. In September, the group hired Sandra Law, at the time the manager at Anderson’s Bookshop in La Grange, Ill., to replace Schonfeld in covering Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio, as well as a few Chicago area stores.
Looking back upon almost two decades as a rep, Mesjak notes how much has changed due to digitalization, such as Edelweiss and the prevalence of digital sales kits. For instance, he says, he can drive his Prius to appointments now, because “a dozen tote bags” of samples and blads have been replaced by 30 gigabytes of PDFs on his iPad. “I can really curate the standouts [with physical samples], so they have more impact.”
Despite the evolution of the publishing industry in recent years, however, the qualities differentiating a great rep from all other reps really haven’t changed, Mesjak says. The secret to being a successful rep is best summed up by the example set by the late Mark Gates, PW’s 2006 Rep of the Year, Mesjak says: “Be smart, well-read, opinionated, joyous, generous, caring, loving, chatty, and, if you can manage it, hilarious.”