Working Together…With Beer

Josie Leavitt - January 27, 2011

One of the great things about last week’s Winter Institute was getting to know some of my fellow Vermont booksellers a little better. I spent a fair amount of time talking to Becky Dayton, owner of The Vermont Bookshop, about business and books. Yesterday, Becky emailed me about sales reps and her idea about getting reps back into Vermont.
The email from Becky was very intriguing: “I had a wacky idea of trying to organize a day of rep appointments for multiple vendors and stores in a central location. Kind of a la “speed dating,” but writing orders…” This is not a wacky idea, this is really smart business. Vermont, especially Northern Vermont, has felt the loss of in-person reps for many years now. Please know, I am not maligning the phone reps I’ve worked with, they’ve been great. But there is something about meeting face to face, preferably over a meal or coffee, that can really build a relationship that’s mutually beneficial.
Imagine, if you will, a room full of eager buyers from up to five stores in Northern Vermont, listening intently to sales reps from some of the big publishing houses: Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, and Hachette talking about their books. Then each rep would meet with one store at time while the others mingled, had some pizza and maybe even a beer. This could turn a buying session into something fun and memorable for all involved. I have a gut feeling the orders would be larger because the buyers would be more relaxed. Plus, there is something really great about getting together with other booksellers. So often we feel like we toil in solitude, that when we can gather and share, it’s invigorating.
I have heard of some reps who have done this sort of thing, occasionally, but wouldn’t it be fun if it could be done three times a year? Pick a different store each time, different take-out, pizza, Chinese food, or sandwiches and a bunch of buyers who normally work in isolation, some in basements, actually getting together and talking to peers about books. Not only could they talk about books, but maybe event planners could come to these meetings and together they could work with publishers to bring authors to their state who might not otherwise visit. I’ve always imagined a Vermont tour that could be designed for ease of visiting as many stores as possible with a minimum of fuss. The beauty of Vermont is there are very few independents close enough to compete with each other (this is especially true of Northern Vermont), so authors could conceivably spend a week driving in our lovely state, visit upwards of 10 stores and never overlap with any customer base. That’s a pretty good deal, and it’s hard to explain that to folks who haven’t already driven around our fair state.
I know that publishers are facing deep cuts and they are trying to save money by not sending reps on the road, but the lack of in-person reps affects my business. For instance, Simon & Schuster took my rep away and then I bounced around last year with two different phone reps. Now, finally, I seem to have one who’s going to be my rep for a while. I like Stuart very much, but I think it would be so much more meaningful for me if I could have a coffee with him and get to know him as a person, not just the nice guy on the phone who knows books.
So, I’m hoping that the publishers will take up Becky’s idea, set a food budget, work together and let us buy our books in person again. If this happens, I’ll even buy the beer.

9 thoughts on “Working Together…With Beer

  1. Trish Brown

    Josie, what a great idea! Our phone reps are wonderful, for the most part, but we miss the person-to-person exchange of ideas and information. I’d be happy to buy beer, too, if we could get something like this is our area!

  2. Ellen @ CBC

    John Muse and Katie McGarry used to do something similar here in Maine for Simon & Schuster. While we didn’t write orders at the meeting, they each went through the catalog, in detail, with a group of us at the (now closed) Bookland in Brunswick. The buying component would be great, though allowing the time for individual buying might make for a long day. Still, even if we took annotated catalogs back to our stores to actually write orders, we’d have the benefit of face to face time with the reps (and our peers). I’m lucky to have wonderful phone reps, too, but there is a different connection made when you work together in person.

  3. Carol B. Chittenden

    I’d settle for a one-time visit of each of my Big House phone reps so I could meet the real person behind the friendly voice, and so she/he could see this town, where our store sits, meet the rest of the staff briefly. Food & drink optional.

  4. jane knight

    I still love the idea of pitching the author tour through Vermont to our reps, Josie. It is a totally workable possibility, but I’m not sure what the current roadblocks are– the high turnover of publicists? Perhaps if we made a more formal proposal to reps, together as a group? I’m not sure what it would take but it seems like a no brainer to me!

  5. Doug Cochrane

    Hi Josie, I hope you’re not forgetting all those hard-working INDEPENDENT reps who come rain or shine each season carrying real books and plying you with food and coffee as well as their good humor on gray winter days. They have great books from large and small presses that make independent bookstores stand out. Maybe the big houses should start using THEM to sell their lists. There is no overhead with them until they sell a book. What a concept. See you Friday and how do you like your coffee?

  6. Pat Fowler

    Josie- When I owned The Sea Otter Bookstore in California from 1977-80, I had all sorts of reps visiting me- mass market houses like Dell & Bantam were separate reps, Grosset & Dunlap was a separate rep, etc. A different world – Now I only have Ellen Pyle from Macmillan and various indie reps with lots of product lines. And some indie reps that I’d like to buy their lines, but they don’t want to visit BF. My phone sales reps for the large publishers are just too busy with the huge number of bookstores they have to work with to do more than put in a request for author events & let it drop. I get lots and lots of emails, but few phone calls from reps, other than to set up the appointment. Some reps I’ve had for years so they know my store and what I buy and return, others change all the time & just want to get the appointment over. I usually try to email phone reps photos of our store so they can see what a large open space we have to work with.
    In Southeast Vermont, we have Everyone Books, Book Cellar & Bartleby’s, Mystery on Main Street, Village Square Booksellers and Misty Valley, as well as Toadstool in Keene, all within 30-40 miles. Toadstool probably sees all of the reps, not sure how many the other stores see.
    And though we compete somewhat in that some of our customers visit the others stores, we all have a different customer base of loyal customers. So we could easily have an author visit more than one store in a day or weekend – Keene and VSBooks, one of the Brattleboro stores & Misty Valley, etc.
    NEIBA has held All About The Books sessions in Brattleboro. With good attendance from booksellers and publishers and authors.
    I attend BEA & NEIBA and try to attend NECBA & NEIBA All About the Books sessions. Winter Institute is just too rough a time to get away, even if we don’t go out to Tahoe for our timeshare in January. Many of the sessions are repeated at BEA or NEIBA anyway and we attend all educational sessions at the conferences.
    RH used to have private sessions for about 40 booksellers at NEIBA, probably some of the other publishers did too- where the reps went over the Fall highlights – that turned into the speed dating sessions we have now. The last one was too short – we did not get a chance to see all of the reps. And sometimes we had 3 reps planning to talk during one 5 minute session. An awful lot to take in during a short period of time.
    Years ago we had a Vermont booksellers association- maybe it’s time to do that again?

  7. Sandy Scott

    Josie (and Becky!) I think this sounds like a great idea. Even if it just worked out once a year, it would be great to talk to the reps (and booksellers) in person and would probably improve sales calls the rest of the year.

  8. Elizabeth Dulemba

    Sign me up for the Vermont tour!!
    On another note – there’s a marketing opportunity that’s been missed with the removal of face-to-face sales reps. When my latest picture book came out (THE 12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS IN GEORGIA), my amazing sales rep for Sterling, Teresa Kravtin of Southern Territory Associates, called all her favorite indies and asked if they’d like to set up a tour. And that’s exactly what happened. The author and I visited indies all over our fair state promoting our new book (and selling like crazy) and it was all because of the relationships Teresa had with those stores (and with the author and myself). She was a key link in the success of the book here in Georgia – and our favorite cheerleader. Truly, the book would have only received moderate press otherwise.
    So here’s to the face-to-face sales reps! LOVE them! 🙂 e

  9. ellen scott

    Back in the day(maybe the 80’s), several stores in Lincoln Ne used to get together around a big table at Nebraska Book and each do their own orders with the rep of the day. The reps, I think, loved it cuz they only had to do one presentation and the booksellers got away from the store and got the work done. They did this with several different publishers for several years. The only hangup I ever heard about was if a buyer didn’t keep up and had to go back in the presentation, it was kind of tiresome.


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