The fate of the independent sales representative may be inextricably linked to that of the independent bookstore. But while many stores had strong holiday seasons, independent reps didn’t necessarily get a similar boost, particularly in the Midwest and in New England, where many groups have merged with colleagues who cover the Mid-Atlantic. For rep groups, changing with changing times has made the biggest difference, whether it’s more social media, iPads, or handheld scanners. Of course strong independents also help.
Sales have been “successful” for the past few years at Parson Weems’s Publishers Services, according to the group’s newest member and the president of the National Association of Independent Publishers Representatives, Eileen Bertelli. The group, which covers New England and the Mid-Atlantic states, has benefited less from technological advances than its ability to help staff-strapped bookstores. “We’re more necessary than ever for overworked and understaffed booksellers,” said Bertelli.
Continental Sales Inc., a national rep group headquartered in Barrington, Ill., reports that it closed out 2012 with a double-digit increase. “Like everybody who’s still practicing, we’re changing our approach. I believe the independents sense new opportunities, and they’re stocking broader inventory to capitalize on those positive indices,” said president Terry Wybel, who has seen the group’s sales at indies as a segment of the market more than double from—7% to 15%—over the past year.
To foster growth, CSI, which has distribution relationships with both National Book Network and Innovative Logistics, prints seasonal brochures listing the discounts available from all its publishers. It also produces a seasonal catalogue of CSI titles for presses that don’t have one of their own. In addition, it offers incentives such as free freight, higher discounts, and dating to encourage booksellers to take a chance on a title or selection of titles from niche publishers like Hal Leonard in performing arts and New in Chess for chess books. “If you just go in and make a traditional presentation, you get predictable results. We really make it worth their while to take an assortment of 48 Hal Leonard books,” said Wybel. “Most [booksellers] feel they can take a chance. We’ve had way more success than failure.”
One thing CSI, which carries lines like Steidl, has also benefited from is a willingness of independents and museum stores on both coasts to spend as much as $200 on individual art or architecture books. “The $30 ceiling has been shattered, if the title offers legitimate value,” said Wybel. “I see independents aggressively seeking out books and book-related product that will attract customers to their stores. They’re less inclined to pass on an expensive title than they were in years past.”
Obviously not every independent is doing well, and some college stores have cut back significantly on general books. The OSU Beaver Store in Corvallis, Ore., is in the midst of returning most of its trade titles, and by April will have only some faculty and reference books. Nonetheless Kurtis Lowe, who heads 62-year-old Book Travelers West, which covers Alaska to Hawaii, remains optimistic. “We’re seeing a boost right now from the unfortunate Borders closing and the announcement that Barnes & Noble is closing 200 stores over the next 10 years. The independent market is still a very vital part of our world,” he said, pointing to the reopening of Queen Anne Books in Seattle later this month under new owners Judy and Krijn de Jonge and owner/manager Janis Segress, who had been head buyer at Eagle Harbor Book Co. on Bainbridge Island. “I’m gratified to see more people getting into the business.”
He chalks this up to what he calls “biblio-diversity.” “Seattle is thriving. Three years ago or earlier, people would say, ‘I can get this cheaper at Amazon.’ Now people are coming to the counter and saying, ‘I know I can get this cheaper at Amazon. But I’m buying it here.’ The people who work at Amazon want rich experiences, too.
For Lowe, technology has only enhanced sales calls. His group was an early adopter of iPads to show buyers the latest iterations of covers and interiors. They also carry f&g’s in their bags, and he still regards print catalogues as “the killer app.” “It’s not either/or,” he said. “[Buyers] still want to feel and experience the book.”
In the Midwest, the perspective is not quite as rosy after the first full year without Borders, which had been many groups’ largest account. Still John Mesjak of Abraham Associates Publishers’ Representatives said, “the party line from our group is: I’m modestly optimistic about the coming year.” His group is doing some belt tightening in the wake of Borders. When Steve Horwitz retires this summer, he will not be replaced. Instead founder Stu Abraham will pick up his accounts.
But Abraham Associates is also experimenting with adding a part-time sales assistant whose duties will include social media and e-mail blasts. Not that Mesjak is sure how they will be able to measure the results. “I’ve been social media-ing the hell out of my life for the last few years on Twitter and Facebook,” said Mesjak. “It’s the same question booksellers have been asking, ‘Does it pay?’ I don’t know, but it helps. Social media helps me stay connected when I’m not on the road.” And “old” new media like e-mail correspondence helps him connect with smaller stores he may not see every season. For those accounts, he’s also trying to find ways to share information from Above the Treeline and BookScan.
New England is another area that has been hit hard, in its case by the closing of many regional chains, most recently Maine-based Mr. Paperback. Still, as Bill Palizzolo with Northeast Publishers Reps points out, some independents are growing, like Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord, N.H., which is doubling in size. Phoenix Books in Essex, Vt., opened a second location in Burlington, and Northshire Books in Manchester Center, Vt., is opening a new store in Saratoga, N.Y. His group, which covers New England and the Mid-Atlantic states, has responded by taking on more houses.
“It’s a much more grind it out business,” said Palizzolo, who started Northeast Publishers Reps 28 years ago with eight companies and now represents 50 lines, including many gift lines. “A lot of my sales calls to independents are two days, three to five days for larger stores like Northshire. I’m working harder than I ever have in my career.”
To make his calls go more smoothly, Palizzolo uses Edelweiss, but this season he also added a handheld scanner. “Gift reps have been doing it for a while,” he said. “It cuts down the amount of paperwork we have to do. When you go home, it’s just a matter of e-mailing the orders to the publishers. We have to be as efficient as possible. We’re doing much more electronically. My goal is to have every company we represent put the barcodes in their catalogues.” He also uses Edelweiss.
With the additional lines and efficiencies, Palizzolo said that “our business with indies remained strong. That’s what gives us encouragement. So much of what we do is attitude.” In fact that same sense of encouragement, or optimism, is what keeps other reps going—and a strong belief in “biblio-diversity” and the future of the book, and the bookstore.