Friday, March 30, 2012

Homage to the Sales Rep

In an earlier post I wrote about my first year in bookselling and casually mentioned that every publisher's sales rep' used to be called Brian or Keith. Naturally, this was a slight exaggeration. There was also one called Barry.

When I joined Waterstone's, over 20 years ago, I was told that one of my jobs would involve buying new titles from publishers. Surprisingly, there was no training, but in spite of this I was given a monthly budget of £5000 to spend in any way I pleased. Unsurprisingly, when the word got out that Waterstone's had delegated its new title buying to a load of chinless wonders, it was like a feeding frenzy.

One of the first things that impressed me was how many sales reps there were. HarperCollins alone had four, just for SW London (one for fiction, another for children's, one for general non-fiction, plus a dedicated rep for maps and reference), whilst most of the other major publishers had at least two.

If you only had one sales representative per region, you weren't a proper publisher.

As a result, I probably spent around 60% of my time buying new titles from sales reps, during meetings that were called 'subbing' sessions. Until I reached the dizzy heights of management, all new title buying had to take place on the shop floor, so we usually tucked ourselves away in a quiet corner where we wouldn't be bothered by customers.

Each representative turned up with at least one large suitcase containing huge files of blad (which stands for book layout and design), showing mock-ups of dustjackets, blurbs and details of how much publicity the book was going to get. My job was to decide whether the book would sell in Richmond and, if I thought it would, guess how many copies we'd need.

Initially, I had no idea what I was talking about and the whole buying process seemed farcical. Some reps saw a golden opportunity for a stitch-up, convincing me that an obscure £35 book on dolphins warranted a minimum order of five copies. The more experienced reps took a longer view, knowing that any duds would only come back as returns, which would have to be credited back to the bookseller.

The best reps effectively taught me how to do my job, gently nudging me in the right direction if I'd overestimated how many books we needed. I had the good sense to listen to them, but not everyone did. When one young bookseller stubbornly refused to accept that he needed five rather than 40 copies of a new poetry title, the rep slammed his folder shut and said "Look, I'm going to go away now. I'll come back when I can talk to a grown-up."

The second thing that impressed me about the reps was how few of them read books. You would imagine that if a publisher employed people to sell its titles, they would try to recruit bookish, literary types. However, the majority of the 'old school' reps had no interest in books and would have been just as happy selling exhaust pipes or photocopiers.

There seemed to be very strong class divisions in the traditional publishing world. The public school, university-educated types went into the editorial departments, whilst the vulgar business of actually selling the books was left to people who had mostly left school at 16.

At first it seemed absurd that publishers had a sales force made up of people who didn't know that George Eliot was a woman, but over time I came to realise that the best sales reps were frequently the Brians and Barrys, who didn't read, whilst the worst were often the bright young things who may have had English degrees, but didn't know how to sell a book.

In the early 1990s, the typical rep was a man in his mid 50s, with a bald head, moustache and a ruddy face that indicated an approaching heart attack. I lost count of the number of times I heard the phrase "Keith won't be in for a while - he's just had a heart attack" (I suppose it was all those 'Little Chef' meals). When he arrived, panting with the effort of dragging a suitcase from the car park, I never knew whether he'd make it to the end of the session.

Keith may not have been widely read, but he knew his market. He understood that X sold well in Windsor but not in Slough, whilst Y was unknown outside the M25. Sadly, the editorial departments rarely seemed to take of notice of their reps' sales reports and a large part of our buying session would be spent moaning about our respective head offices.

"Honestly Phil, you tell me, how am I going to sell this? They haven't got a clue."


It was a working-class, male-dominated world. Hours were spent on the road, so the car was king and each rep knew every service station and shortcut. If you wanted to get rid of a rep, giving them an Austin Montego was usually enough.

Some of the reps had little scams that made them feel that they were getting the upper hand over their unsympathetic employers. For example, when one rep went to get petrol, his wife followed him in her car and filled her tank during the same sesion (when someone challenged the rep about his fuel costs, he brazened it out: "It's a thirsty car mate").

Occasionally, a bright young thing at head office would try to get the reps more engaged with the titles they were representing:

"Phil, I got this fucking memo from some tosser at Head Office telling me I had to read this new novel and write a report about it! D'you know what I did? I phoned him up and said I haven't read a fucking book in 25 years and I'm not going to start now."

But not all of the reps were 'wide boys'. One was an ex-public school man in his 60s, who lived in an expensive London flat with his belligerent, alcoholic mother. In spite of his effete manner and Brian Sewell voice, he was at pains to let us know that he was heterosexual, constantly praising the feminine charms of detox guru Leslie Kenton:


When it came to Alan Hollinghurst, he was less enthusiastic:

"This is a book by a homosexual author that will only be of interest to other homosexuals".

He wasn't terribly keen on Irvine Welsh either:

"Here is another book for young people to waste their pocket money on".

It was all said with a faint twinkle in the eye, but I felt that he was a rather bitter, disappointed man, trapped in a world he despised. When he was forced to retire, he refused to accept the gold-plated fountain pen that his colleagues had bought for him.

But by the time I became a bookseller, the traditional reps' world was changing. The Keiths were increasingly being replaced, either by Sues (much to the relief of many female booksellers) or earnest young graduates and the subbing sessions - once a mixture of dirty jokes, gossip and moaning - became more businesslike in tone.

Overall I got on very well with the sales reps and came to regard some of them as friends. They were generally bright, funny people with a healthy cynicism about the publishing industry and, most important of all, a good sense of humour. When I left high-street bookselling, one of the things I really missed was having a good gossip with a rep.

I loved exchanging scurrilous anecdotes about colleagues. I learned that one Ottakar's manager regularly had pyjama-party sleepovers in her shop, whilst another had stolen enough money to buy a sports car (he ended up in prison). But my favourite gossip was about authors. I learned that Jilly Cooper was lovely but Jeffrey Archer was deeply unpleasant, whilst Terry Pratchett could be very grumpy, only turning on the charm for his fans.

If a sales rep had ever been treated badly by an author, we all knew about it. In a few cases, an author's career was effectively killed off by the rep, as we all conspired to make sure that their books were barely visible.

The rep's job has got a lot harder in recent years. Every year, redundancies and early retirement have trimmed the sales forces of publishers and the surviving reps have been expected to cover ever larger areas for little or no extra pay. The once ubiquitous HarperCollins rep is now as elusive as the natterjack toad.

With only one major book chain left, the age of the publisher's rep is almost over. I think that there should be a memorial coat of arms, depicting a full English breakfast, some blood pressure tablets and a large black suitcase on wheels. But sadly, I think their passing will be unnoticed by all but a few.


30 comments:

MikeP said...

When I got a job in 1977 as Editor of the Picador list, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. This euphoria lasted until my first sales conference, where I had to present a list of books, quite a few of which I hadn't read, and quite a few of which I wouldn't have bought had they not already been bought by my predecessor.

As it happened the very first book I had to present was a sensitive, angst-ridden literary novel, the name of which I forget. I laboured through a highly unconvincing list of reasons why this book was going to set the tills alight, and finished to a resounding silence, broken finally by a voice saying mournfully, 'Well, that'll never sell on the f------ M4.'

This was the man (Ray, as it happens)who handled all the motorway service stations in the south of England. We eventually developed a relationship of sorts, although he always thought of me as a jumped-up head office posho, I suspect - but I tried from then on to try and make sure there was always something in a season that Ray could do something with.

Kid said...

Another lovely little anecdotal piece which you do so well. That picture of the brekkie has my taste buds salivating.

Rog said...

They were the forgotten frontiersmen of commerce and deserved this wonderful homage. And not, of course, a Montego....

Levi Stahl said...

In my brief period buying for the religion and philosophy section for Books, Etc.'s Whiteleys branch, I was in the position you describe yourself starting out in: I knew not a damned thing. But I was nonetheless really excited that us floor staff were being allowed to make decisions, something that I knew wasn't typical in Stateside chain bookselling.

Stateside reps are, at least in my years in bookselling and publishing, more likely to be book people--but there's also definitely an aspect of old-school salesman culture still to be found here and there (or at least was in the late 1990s, when I was last seeing a large number of reps). What a fun and interesting group.

Thanks for sharing this; it was a lot of fun to read.

Steerforth said...

Mike - What a wonderful job to have, editing the Picador list! I remember when they used to have their own dedicated spinners, because customers trusted the choice of books.

The reps certainly regarded literary 'poshos' with suspicion - particularly those who thought that South Kensington was representative of the whole country, but I hope that a mutual respect developed when we listened to their expletive-ridden accounts of how well X's new novel was doing in Telford.

Kid - Me too. I love (but rarely dare to eat) the 'full English'.

Rog - Do you remember that wonderful BBC2 documentary (I think it was called 'From A to B') where the rep said "When I was given a Montego, me and the wife sat down and cried together"?

Levi - Yes, I was shocked when I learned how much central buying there was in the US. I hated the idea, but couldn't deny the fact that the bookstores I'd visited in the States were generally better than those in the UK (in the 1990s, at least).

Glad you enjoyed the post.

Janet Gurtler said...

I love this post. As a former sales rep, though sadly not in the publishing world, I was one of the new "Sue's" to break into the world of Liquor Sales and Consumer Goods sales. So many sales truism's here.

I did the travelling with the car and met many of the old Keith's along the way, who hated me for replacing them. I was the honest sales person and genuinely wanted to help my customers. (As well as make my quotas) Alas, now I'm the oldtimer and out of the biz and I'm on the other side of the fence as an author.

I love being an author but sometimes I do miss being on the road and the thrill of selling my wares.

I think a publishing sales rep would be one of the most awesome jobs ever. Although, like some of the reps you mentioned who didn't read, a couple years into my career as a liquor rep I quit drinking. The non drinking liquor rep. I still was able to sell it though and do a great job doing so if I do say so myself.

Great post!

Rog said...

...and you had to have a car with that magic "i" at the end of the name...

Steerforth said...

Glad you liked it Janet.

Yes, you probably did spoil things a little for the old reps, who had worked out a nice little timetable that included golf on Fridays! The last thing they needed was a call from the boss asking why Janet was making so many more calls per week.

I bet you were very popular with your employers, if not the Keiths!

Steerforth said...

Rog - I'd forgotten about the 'i'.

Little Nell said...

My dad was a sales rep, though not in publishing and some of the scenarios you describe are familiar to me from stories he would tell. It was a pretty thankless job, which didn't pay very well, and he suffered redundancy a couple of times too. If your reps worked the hours my dad did they wouldn’t have had much time for reading. He covered an ever-increasing area and was frequently home late. After his evening meal, he’d have to do what he called his ‘figures’, endless paperwork, and make phone calls - a real drain on family life. He retired in the mid-eighties but it sounds like some things never changed. I enjoyed all your anecdotes. You should link to the Sepia Saturday blog this week, as it’s all about the world of work and I know the regulars would enjoy this post. My contribution was called ‘Learning on the Job’ - guess what that was about - and I think that’s a thread that runs through this post too.

Steerforth said...

Thanks for the tip Nell. Yes, the reps worked very hard - the days of golf on Friday were well on their way out by the time I started.

Repping was a lonely life, with a lot of time wasted in traffic jams and motorway tailbacks. The middle of a day was a dead zone, because booksellers wouldn't make appointments in the middle of the day, so many reps spent a two-hour lunch in a car park, eating sandwiches and doing paperwork.

In recent years, any rep who dared to go on holiday would return to at least 150 emails.

As far as reading books goes, I don't blame them. Why should they invest ten or more hours of their personal time reading something because someone in editorial thinks it's fantastic. I refused to read books that head office recommended for the same reason: my time is my own.

However, it was odd that so many reps spent years surrounded by free books without ever succumbing to the temptation to read them.

As a buyer, I have to say that if a rep had actually read the book and rated it, that made a real difference. I remember an Orion rep telling me how much she enjoyed Harlen Coben's 'Tell No One'. I trusted her judgement and it turned out that she was absolutely right - it became a bestseller.

Canadian Chickadee said...

What a great post! I had to laugh when I read about booksellers burying books on the shelves to prevent them from selling.

I have a good friend (no, I won't tell you her name!) who writes really good historical mysteries. Her books are carefully plotted, well researched, and her gift for language and character development is superb.

Whenever I am in a book shop (like Waterstone's), I look for her books. Then I check around to see if anyone is watching me -- and if not, I move her books around and put some of them with the covers facing out.

Just my own personal little act of rebellion. Well, you know what they say -- small things amuse small minds! LOL

Steerforth said...

Be careful. You might not think we're watching you, but we are ;)

I remember an author called Lee Langley whose friends were forever coming into the shop and moving her books to more prominent positions. We got so fed-up, we responded by hiding them in the stock cupboard, with one copy spine-on.

These days, I think the best thing you can do for your friend is write a good Amazon review (but I bet you've already done that).

LUCEWOMAN said...

I have a very strong image of 'Keith'. BHS shirt, knows all the best deals on last-minute holidays, tells you "teenagers are expensive!" and talks about the good old days of sales repping. My ex father-in-law fits the book rep persona. He sold seatbelts in the eighties - made a fortune. The business mysteriously 'burned down' once seatbelts were fitted as standard in the back of vehicles. To this day, wherever Don is, he will say "I'm paying cash mind you" when told the price of something.
I liked this post a lot, a little glimpse into an unfamiliar world.

Martin said...

I never met Jilly Cooper, but she did write to me once. The warm tone of her letter (which I still have) bears out your rep's assessment.

Sam Jordison said...

Superb, as ever, Steerforth. Thank you.

Steerforth said...

Lucy - You've obviously met him! If I had a quid for every time I've heard "We got this lovely deal on a place in Fuerteventura, but we won't be able to do that when the oldest passes her driving test. She's got her heart set on a Micra, but it's muggins here who'll have to pay for it..."

Martin - On a less enlightened note, I found a 1970s Jilly Cooper book the other day and saw her author photo - she was beautiful.

One rep told me that when he took her out on a signing session, she caught him looking at a jumper in a shop window. Later in the day, she sneaked out and bought it for him. A striking contrast with some of the Jeffrey Archer anecdotes I've heard.

Sam - Thank you (and thanks for the Facebook link too).

Brett said...

My wife was a sales rep for Random House, (including Knopf, Pantheon, and others), in the early '80s. Though she did have an English degree, her father had been a men's wear buyer for a chain of department stores. Her mentor and trainer, Bob, was one of your old-time traveling salesmen.

She covered Louisiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi, and then Austin and West Texas. It was hard for us. She was often on the road or at sales conferences in Bermuda or Puerto Rico.

I still remember one title that was an object of humor among the reps, With Enough Shovels: Reagan, Bush, and Nuclear War, by Robert Scheer, and on the floor at my Bookstop store in Austin, I saw it languish on the shelves.

JonathanM said...

For about two and a half years in the late 80s I was that man. Central London. Peugeot 205GTI. Rarely did the breakfast thing. The lunches were legendary though. It all started to change when I saw my first Waterstone's manager in a suit on Charing Cross Road. There was also the Waterstone's buyer who refused to stock anything with a foil cover. And in central London at least, it wasn't unusual to take out an author for the day. I once did Penelope Lively. She told me I would make a good cab driver. Perhaps I should have listened to her.

Annabel (gaskella) said...

Another wonderful post. I could never be a rep.

Read Jilly Cooper (Riders) for the first time earlier this year. Loved it - yes - took me right back to the 1970s, but such great fun. We read it at book group, and we all thought she was probably great fun too.

Steerforth said...

Brett - That's a huge area to cover! It must be tough being a rep in those parts of the US where the calls are long distances apart and nights are spent in motels. When I travelled around California, the motels always seemed to be near a fast food place, but miles from a decent meal, so the weight just piled on.

Jonathan - Our paths must have almost crossed - you could have sold me a dumpbin I didn't realy need ;) Which publisher were you with?

Annabel - I couldn't be a rep either. They're squeezed between demanding employers who often don't value them enough and increasingly overworked booksellers who regard them as an unwelcome distraction.

I was always grateful for the opportunity to leave the shop floor and go out for a coffee with a rep.

Chris Kerr said...

Thank you. Wonderful anecdotes. I've been a book sales rep for 35+ years and still love it. Left unsaid in these posts is that most book reps love their bookstores and hate their employers. The alienation only deepens as more mountains of unreadable crap are foisted off as the "next big thing." Many of my bookstore friends are among the best parts of my life. We suffer their hardships and enjoy their triumphs. It is always huge fun when a book works and it is deeply satisfying to have helped so many worthy authors find supportive booksellers. In spite of the many gloomy forecasts for the industry, booksellers at every level remain an essential part of the process and the key to a healthy, vibrant literary culture. Most book reps I know are very proud of their small part in this noble undertaking. /s/ Chris Kerr, Parson Weems.

Steerforth said...

Thanks Chris - It's good to hear from a book rep. I'm glad that you feel that way about booksellers - for most of us, a visit from a rep lightened up the day.

Galleristocrat said...

My favourite reps are the ones who remember 'the good old days' before the end of the NBA. One in particular always used to see me over lunch (there's a cafe attached to the Gallery and bookshop) where he'd order a bottle of wine and tell me how they used to do the Waterstone's Friday afternoon subs down the pub.

Another insisted on lunch as it was simply a more 'civilised' way to do business.

Others of course have no idea about the books on their lists, moan about head office, and hate the resent the very idea of lugging a finished copy to a meeting.

Gawd bless 'em.

Steerforth said...

The book trade used to be a refuge from the time and motion people who liked to cost everything down to the last minute.

Bookselling was an art, not a science.

Working lunches - liquid or otherwise - were part of a culture that recognised that people worked best when the drugery of full-time work was relieved by a little bit of fun.

I think that the demise of the NBA and the advent of EPOS systems destroyed that world. Head offices increasingly promoted a risk-averse buying culture, whilst the 'jollies' were seen as a waste of time and resources.

Now that we're competing with warehouses employing people on the minimum wage, there's not much money left for expense account lunches and launch parties at the Groucho.

A great pity.

It's only a matter of time before the reps (if there are any left) are driving Nissan Micras.

Carol said...

OMG, Thank you for your comments Kristhe former comments scared me a bit.
My daughters a book sales rep, has loved and read books since she was very young,went straight into a bookshop from school,worked her way up to manager in various companies and then came the'rep' part.
Loves it! meeting and helping the book sellers.
Is now the West Australian Agent for a publishing ompany and has always made a point of reading bookings before she goes to sleep at night.She can honestly give her opinion of most books she sells.
Luckily shes a 'speed' reader.
Her attitude is "If you havent read it how can you advise or sell it."
Thanks Kris youve put my heart at ease

Canadian Chickadee said...

Re: My little act of rebellion -- I'm sure you're absolutely right and that the books were probably back where they belonged before I got out the door. But it seemed harmless enough, and sort of made my day, so I don't feel it was totally wasted effort!!

George said...

Believe that Chris and I started as publishers reps in 1977, for the same publisher.

Brilliant profession, lovely people.

Have no regrets, although teaching Shakespeare at King's College or Trinity does have its hindsight temptation.

andrew deacon said...

the pic of the blue austin i was the last owner

Steerforth said...

Small world!

Sadly, I only had a Metro. The choke wouldn't stay out, so I had to use three clothes pegs, taking one peg off at a time as the engine warned up.

Happy days.