~ by Rachael Ringenberg: Godine Sales Manager ~
The increasing rarity of a species known as Field Sales Reps, once frequently spotted on the road driving from bookstore to bookstore, has independent bookstores very worried. Groans and pleas from store buyers have followed recent Publisher’s Weekly blog posts about the issue, lamenting the demise of reps who were remarkably good at their jobs but have been replaced by teleconferencing and e-catalogs. “Snap this one up!” cried the comments after it was announced that Katie McGarry was no longer with Simon & Schuster.
Field reps are the folks who show up on the bookstore’s steps, lugging the season’s newest and last season’s truest, so the buyer can page through the books for themselves. I am a tenderfoot at the job, with less than a year under my belt — however, I’ve managed to tramp through a fair number of bookstore doors during that time, and so when NAIBA recently sent an open letter to publishers pleading their case, and it was seconded by MPIBA (acronyms representing regional independent bookstore associations), I understood their concerns. Here is the point that rings clearest to me:
“Restricting field reps to large stores will give publishers a skewed view of what is a very diverse world — independent bookselling. Sales reps take the time to know our stores, what our customers like, and what is on our shelves. They are the industry worker-bees, traveling the region, taking ideas and trends and pollinating other stores.”
For me, on the other side of the table, every meeting with a buyer is a re-education in our titles. A book in one store will jump off their shelves, but in another it goes ignored for weeks. If a title isn’t selling as well as we expected, I can observe firsthand what the complications might be (Trim too small? Cover image confusing?) and bring those observations back to the office. From the buyer who has never heard of Rainer Marie Rilke, to the one who can recite all of John Banville’s last titles; from the one who draws a blank at the term “Caldecott Medal,” to the one who has framed Georges Perec quotes around the bookstore: I’m always jumping to keep up with their varying spheres of knowledge, and find common threads among them.
It is really a tribute to bookstore owners and buyers that face-to-face selling is preferable to emailed catalogs and phone conversations. They are ready and willing to be convinced that you have their new favorite book hiding in your bag, and their unflagging curiosity is perhaps the clearest testimony to how these businesses manage to survive despite remarkable competition.