Sunday, December 13, 2009


My appointment with the Follett chain is always a little nerve-wracking. Not because of the buyers- they are incredibly nice people, if a bit over-worked (especially since their numbers were reduced by half this year). There are other reasons for angst.

For one thing, the importance of this account looms large. They have 700 stores! These include super-important academic bookstores like Berkeley, Stanford, Georgetown, George Washington, and Notre Dame. Even though our books only make it into a fraction of that number, I feel responsible for making sure the right books get into the right stores. Note that this is one of those open-ended, self-imposed standards where you can only end up feeling bad since there’s no objective way to really measure it.

Secondly, the buying style. Reps pride ourselves on our ability to adapt to the myriad systems which booksellers have evolved to stock their shelves. On one extreme, I meet with some buyers on the sales floor as they handle customer inquiries, phone calls, and staff spats while I’m trying to interest them in why our Trotsky biography is better than Harper’s. On the other extreme, I have some lengthy appointments in quiet offices with erudite booksellers who have stayed up all night studying my catalogs in detail and sometimes seem to know more about the books than I do. These buyers are also apt to toss surprise (but excellent) questions my way just when I’ve felt that I’ve “got” a book and can relax a little. As a former bookseller and buyer, I tended toward this second style.

Follett, like most chains, is a different story. I make my pitch to individual buyers based on their subject category assignments. I am assigned a time slot, and there is a sense of the clock always ticking. I have many books to get through, and the challenge is to somehow give the buyer the perfect one or two sentence handle on each title that will help him and her decide which stores need it. Though some of these decisions are made by computer algorithms, there’s a surprising amount of human decision-making and store knowledge involved.

Which leads me to my third source of anxiety: my selling season has only just begun and I am a long way from making friends with these new spring titles. (By April I will love some of them, know all of them, and be more than ready to say goodbye to a few of them.) Although we are inundated with useful information from our presses, the truly useful selling points about a book usually emerge serendipitously from booksellers in the course of the selling season. By the time I’ve pitched a book for the fiftieth time, I’ve shamelessly stolen and incorporated all the great spontaneous one-liners I’ve heard from buyers. (“This book reminds me of…” is especially useful). But Follett, where this deep knowledge would come in especially handy, is my first appointment! I have no quirky one-liners. Some of the books are still strangers. The pressure was on.

But the meetings always go better than feared. The buyers are smart, I got some good feedback, (don’t think I won’t use Les’ great anecdote about Moses Montefiore at future appointments) and they are always amenable to suggestions once I get actual orders. It still seems somehow out of proportion that I should accomplish such a great percentage of my seasonal sales with one afternoon in Oak Brook, but so it goes.

On the way home, I stopped at the O’Hare oasis on the tri-state for a snack. I recognized the sandwichista at Subway and I thought she recognized me, though she may have just been good at her job. Knowing the personnel at the highway rest stops- surely a sign of a road warrior at work. Another reminder of Walter Kirn’s Up in the Air, which has been haunting me since I finished it last week.

The eating area stretches across eight lanes of traffic. I sat at a counter directly above the southbound left lane while I ate my sub. With the bright southern sun shining in their faces, I was able to watch what these drivers were doing as they passed beneath me at 75-80 mph. You don’t want to know.


  1. I love the name of your blog because for two reasons:

    1) Jacketless hardcovers (which are often very effectively paper over board) have been very hot this year.

    2) It plays subtle homage to the ebook investors shoving an unneeded technology on us.

    Their calling cry?

    "Paper overboard!"

    (Get it? They are tossing the paper out to sea.)

  2. You might have recognized the girl from Subway for another reason: she probably used to be a bookseller.

    Your blog is entirely welcome.

  3. John, you're brilliant (and you write well). I'm going to enjoy following Paper over Board and I'll spread the word about it. Enjoy the holidays.