The Sales Rep
Alex Genis, Penguin Children’s Books
I know that you are on the road a lot, so I guess you must spend lots of time in four-star hotels, schmoozing with award-winning authors?
I spend a lot of times in hotels where the availability of wireless internet connection is the main luxury I seek. As for the four-star rating, after a while all hotel rooms just seem like a box with a bed and an adjacent bathroom.
For a lover of books, schmoozing with authors is definitely one of the perks of the job. They tend to be very different so you never know what you’re going to get, but it’s rarely boring.
And here I thought my question would be ironic! What does your job consist of?
I’m responsible for the sales of Penguin children’s books in six states! I visit bookstores and wholesalers in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska, and the Dakotas. I show our upcoming books to children’s book stores, distributors who place books in supermarkets, and library wholesalers who sell to school libraries or public libraries. Each has different needs.
When I return from meetings in New York, it’s like I have live coals from the altars of publishing heaven and I get to share them with book buyers and sometimes, somehow, magic happens and the books get bought and read, people are entertained, they learn things, and their lives are changed. It is magic and I’m part of it.
Many times my job doesn’t feel like work. A few years ago on of my daughters joined me for a “Take Your Daughter to Work” day, and she came home and reported that “Dad gets paid for talking to his friends all day.” That’s kind of true!
What about a new book makes you say, “Oh, baby. I can’t wait to sell this one!” (And please don’t say “Another book written by an award-winning, best-selling author”!)
I love a historical fiction for teens that, while it entertains you, opens the door to a different world. I recently read SILVER CUP, a first novel by Constance Leeds. She did a great job of conveying what life was like in the Dark Ages.
What kind of book makes you think, “There is NO way I’m going to be able to sell this one”?
Another hardcover book set in an East Coast city about an urban kid in situations that seem foreign in the Midwest. Reading about living in an apartment or taking a subway can be fun and even exotic, but there are a lot of books like that already. Those stories rarely translate into sales for me. Most bookstores in my territory are located in the suburbs; the customers are usually white parents and kids. I’m not saying the local school or library won’t pick some up, but it’s a tough sale into the retail trade.
Name a book that was a pleasant surprise to you.
Richard Peck’s LONG WAY FROM CHICAGO was a huge surprise because he seemingly suddenly found this voice as a kind of Norman Rockwell of literature that made readers feel good about their past, their country, and themselves with lots of humor. Sorry. I know you didn’t want to hear about an award winner, but I think he’s extraordinary.
I’ll let it go this time. Seasoned authors know that simply writing a great book does not guarantee that it will sell to customers. What do you think authors can do to help their books sell better?
This is the toughest question. I think authors can have cool websites—
Oh, like the website I have set up for Mary Margaret? She has a blog, and kids can download a pattern for Number Two Totes, a recipe for Worms in Mud, and a coloring book page.
<long pause> Uh, I’m not actually familiar with Mary Margaret’s site, but it sounds promising. Would you like me to finish answering the question now?
Authors can also visit schools, write good books, and get a publicity budget from the publisher, and all of that helps. But if there was a clear formula, everyone would do it. The most important thing is good writing that both wows the critics and gets kids to want more of the same from the author so that they look for the name of the author or the character. The only guarantee is Oprah’s blessing!
I met Oprah once in NBC’s Green Room but I doubt she’d remember. Too bad. I could use her blessing! Tell us your favorite story about life on the road.
Years ago Tomie dePaola was asked to sign some stock at the old Bookman warehouse and we didn’t have much time. So we set up a system with two people on Tomie’s left opening boxes of books, opening the books to the signing page, and sliding them in front of Tomie, and two people on his right, pulling the signed books away the instant his pen lifted off from the page and putting them back into boxes. We did 1000 books in 57 minutes! And amazingly, every signature was neat and included the heart Tomie always places over his name. Another favorite story is about the time my friends threw me a surprise birthday party at Amy Tan’s penthouse apartment.
Okay, a party at Amy Tan’s house trumps my meeting Oprah. How has the industry changed in the 20 years you’ve been doing this?
Things have changed in so many ways that it makes me feel old! The industry has consolidated so there are fewer publishing houses. And we used to have hundreds more independent book stores. I miss the uniqueness that independents embodied. They had distinct personalities that reflected the community and the owner’s interests. The stores’ names, the look, even the furnishings, but especially the book selection differed. Now, I can be in a Barnes & Noble in Miami or Sioux Falls and it looks the same inside, and a buyer in New York has decided almost everything that’s in that store, from the books to the carpeting. It’s more efficient but it’s also blander.
Has this job changed your feelings about reading or what you read?
Though I don’t often choose to read fiction, I have learned to appreciate it and understand that sometimes fiction can convey emotions and a sense of time and place that may be a “truer” reflection of life than a non-fiction book. They both have their place.
Thanks, Alex, for being an unsung hero.
You’re welcome. After this, I guess I’m not “unsung” any longer.
That’s true. How do you feel now?
Pretty good—but not as good as I would feel if we were hoisting a scotch or three because MARY MARGARET hit the bestseller list.
You and me both!
Christine Kole MacLean (www.christinekolemaclean.com)
writes picture books, chapter books, and novels for young adults. Her most recent release is a young adult novel, How It’s Done.