Wednesday, March 16, 2011

rep geography

When people find out the size of my territory they sometimes gasp. “Seattle to Syracuse? You’ve got to be kidding.” Twenty years ago, most book reps traveled 300 miles, tops.

But for better or worse we are in an environment where we have to travel farther, longer and harder to visit the booksellers in our portfolio.

To the extent that this is a result of attrition, with fewer and fewer sufficiently robust stores to warrant visits, it’s a sad thing. The old standard whereby it was meaningful for a rep to live in the region he or she sold has become obsolete. I know LA based reps who sell in Denver and Chicago reps who sell in New Orleans.

The retail book world has shrunk, and a local booksellers' competition is no longer down the street but all over the world. (Happily, so are their potential sales.) In many ways having reps with a less provincial perspective is a plus, or I hope so anyway.

But there’s another reason territories have become bigger: to some extent reps are able to handle ludicrous-sounding geography because of the improvements in technology that make both booksellers and publishers smarter and more efficient.

When I was a bookseller in the eighties and early nineties, I remember reps coming to town for a week. There were more stores to see, but there was also more work to do. A Tuesday appointment often really began on Monday, when a rep could spend the whole day “taking inventory”- a phrase now so archaic that younger booksellers might not even know what it means.

Even by 1998, when I started repping for Harvard, MIT and Yale, there were a few stores where my appointments included combing the shelves spine by spine and noting what they had in stock before we got to haggling over the new titles. (How thankful I was for the beautiful, instantly recognizable MIT Press colophon, designed by the legendary Muriel Cooper in the sixties. Those books jumped off the shelf, and still do.) The point was to find out what was missing, so even after entering the on hand quantities on the often baroque backlist order forms, some intelligence had to be applied to deciding which missing titles were urgently needed.

The process could be time-consuming and a little maddening, but the tactile sensation of actually handling the physical book really enhanced the mental picture of the store’s inventory in a way blips on a screen never could. Not to mention the prospect of turning up anomalies, like mis-shelved, outdated or damaged books which no artificial intelligence (yet) could recognize.

As computerized inventory systems became the norm- and hard to believe that only a decade ago they were brand new and full of bugs- taking inventory came to seem like an expendable task. But it was surprising (and still is) to find out how unreliable computerized on-hand quantities can be. You think you have a copy of that book, but it was stolen six months ago! Which explains why it isn’t selling.

Before I get too misty-eyed for the good old days of inventory-taking, I’ll acknowledge that the trade-off was worth it. A hand count may have been more precise, but the computer is mainly right. Similarly, I’ve often romanticized the days when booksellers carried their inventories in their heads and could go straight to the shelf to retrieve a requested title. I conveniently forget all the times we drew a blank and were saved by the computer.

The digital database may not be 100% reliable, but acting as if it’s accurate allows us to spend quality time on other things, like discussing how to sell the new books. (The ascendence of this type of thinking, i.e. Bayesian reasoning, is the subject of an excellent new book from Yale University Press -The Theory That Would Not Die: How Bayes’ Rule Cracked the Enigma Code, Hunted Down Russian Submarines, and Emerged Triumphant from Two Centuries of Controversy)

The digitization of the rep world over the past decade has manifested itself in lots of other ways. When I started, I spent endless hours on logistics: calling for hotel reservations, car rentals and plane tickets- not to mention phone tag with buyers. One afternoon in 1999 I set up shop in a hallway of the Boulder County Courthouse and ran through a couple rolls of quarters, making long distance calls on a public phone to nail down appointments. When I started using the neighboring phone as a call back number they asked me to leave.

I now spend vastly less time on arrangements and manage to lock down 90% of my commitments online and by email, though there are always a few old school stragglers who need the personal touch.

But going digital can be bittersweet. I’m a newspaper fanatic, and the first thing I used to do upon arriving in Columbus or Minneapolis was to pick up the local paper. Now I can read it online the week before my visit, I can follow the reviews and book publicity from my laptop, and can even listen to local radio (KPLU!) as I answer emails and type up notes.

Yelping, map questing, facebooking, smart phones, nimble publisher websites- all that technology and more have made it possible for reps to cover these bigger regions efficiently and cost-effectively. We’re racking up more miles but accomplishing exponentially more.

Not to say being a book traveler isn’t sometimes a challenge. A few weeks ago I was in St Louis, feeling exhausted from my 393 mile drive. Kris Kleindienst, owner of Left Bank Books, mentioned that her whiz bang Random House rep, Bridget Piekarz, had visited earlier that week on a whirlwind day that had her leaving Chicago at dawn and ending up in Kansas City late in the evening. With or without technology, that’s a long day.

The technological innovation is welcome and useful up to a point. And that point is the powerful intersection between two human beings, communicating face to face, surrounded by the actual bookstore and its customers.

The day is coming when teleconferencing will be so glitch-free that we may be seeing some far-flung accounts remotely. Better than no visit at all I suppose. But just as I’d rather be examined by a doctor using five senses rather than just sight and sound, the personal bookstore-rep encounter still seems irreplaceable. At least in places where books are still sold through personal encounters with customers.

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