Sunday, November 25, 2012

sales reps and booksellers/two sides one coin

When I’m asked to give my job title- on an application form, by Canada Customs, by strangers on planes- I usually say “sales rep.”  Though its short-hand easily understood by the world, I sometimes cringe.  Especially when I come across those ubiquitous drug reps with their pressed suits, ingratiating small talk and pharma samples on wheels.  “Not me, thank God,” I think to myself. 

Since I can’t imagine selling anything but books, it seems a little fraudulent to call myself a salesman.  Professional persuaders can sell anything, the legend goes.  Alas, my corner of the sales world demands precious little of its reps in the way of hard sell (maybe too little?)  I’m a book person who represents publishers to the trade, is the way I like to think of it.  But the Customs officer and my eye doctor are really not interested in my neurotic career nuances.  They want a couple words to fill in the blank.

The more I dwell on the idea of “representing” books, the trickier it becomes.  In what sense does a book rep represent a book, or an author, or a publisher?  It seems ridiculously presumptuous to say that I “represented” such luminaries as Amos Oz, Wole Soyinka, Jean Baudrillard and Jane Austen as I did this past fall.  But in translating the editor’s intentions for these books into the retail marketplace via my meetings with booksellers, I guess I’m re-presenting them in a pretty literal way.

According to contributors to the Urban Dictionary, “represent” has a variety of contemporary meanings, some of which sound applicable: to claim or declare something as yours; to belong to and be a part of; to show where you come from; to serve as the official or authorized agent for.  A couple others could apply with some imagination: to be a good example to others of your group; to annoy others by your presence (!); or a command that provokes someone to display their gang affiliation (“represent mothafucka!”)

When someone asks me about my territory, I grope for the right verb.  I “represent to?”  I call on, cover, handle, manage, am responsible for?  These are all ways to capture a piece of the dynamic between book rep and bookseller, but somehow none do the complete job.

The other thing missing is that the words seem too one-way.  True, we represent the publishers who pay us, so in that sense we work for the house.  But every season as I wend my way through dozens of meetings with booksellers and museum shops in two countries and four time zones, I am represented to in return.  I am handled and managed.  I bring back at least as much from these encounters as I give.  These are relationships beside which every verb I can think of comes up short.

To me, book reps and book buyers- which is often to say, booksellers temporarily switching from their hundred other tasks into acquisition mode- are two sides of the same job.  When we are collaborating on figuring out what books from our new lists can work in the store, or what freight, discount or other back-office issues need sorting out, or what’s actually working in this insane business, I think we’re doing the same job.  It just doesn’t have a proper name or a verb to go with it.  We are book blanks.

When one of my British rep colleagues was describing his territory recently, he spoke of “seeing to” a piece of southwest England.  I liked this formulation, and planned to start using it, until another London rep said that he “looks after” his territory.  I loved that one, with its suggestion of both patiently tending a garden and overseeing a group of precocious, idiosyncratic children.  Definitely belongs in the rep job description lexicon.  (And I'm sure some buyers feel that way about some of us.)

I confess to going all sappy every year at this time, when the booksellers are working overtime and I’m enjoying relative downtime between selling seasons.  But with their patient listening to and putting up with us; with their willingness to take a chance on books on our say-so, without (usually) calling attention to our past promises that didn’t pan out; with their treating us like customers sometimes, recognizing that we’re book lovers and remembering what we like to read, booksellers make me proud to share their business and company.  Every day, we’re both repping books, authors, the practice of reading and the very idea of thinking.  Way more than you can say for pharmaceuticals.

I just finished reading My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read and Shop, a wonderful anthology of homages by authors to their favorite local bookstores.  I have a couple bones to pick.   Though it covered a lot of the usual indie suspects, it was missing a few big, obvious exceptional stores (Seminary Coop in Chicago- hello?).  Future volumes might tackle the fantastic and barely known to the US world of indie Canadian and Quebec bookshops.  And they could focus a bit further beneath the radar, with stores like Paper Moon in McGregor Iowa, a tiny town on the Mississippi River where you will find a small but impeccably chosen collection of books on Iowa history, lesbian mysteries, and women who saved the world from Hitler. 

But these are quibbles.  My Bookstore is a joy, and if you are in need of a shot of optimism about the future of books and bookstores, start there.