Although the George Scheer Group disbanded this spring after close to 60 years in business, other independent rep groups have found ways to move ahead. On March 1, Eric Heidemann bought Fujii Associates in Orland Park, Ill., just two weeks after Borders filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. “It’s going to be a rough year. That’s a reality of the market,” says Heidemann, whose group laid off one person due to the Borders’s bankruptcy. “I believe there’s a really bright future or I wouldn’t have bought the company. At Fujii, it looks like we’ll be able to maintain eight reps in the field.”
Other rep groups have also changed hands or will later this year. Kurtis Lowe was asked to head Seattle-based Book Travelers West in 2008, the only group in which the reps choose the owner/manager. This past January, John Mesjak of Abraham Associates in Sycamore, Ill., entered into a partnership with founder Stu Abraham to take over as head of the group after a transition period of several years. And at year’s end Derek Lawrence will lead Thomas McFadden & Associates in Littleton, Colo.; McFadden will stay on as a rep.
"To the extent that we still have small publishers and small bookstores, I’m going to have a job," says Mesjak, who continues to view reps’ role as "the missionaries of the church that is publishing." But many of the tools have changed. As Sean Concannon, executive director of the National Association of Independent Publishers Representatives, points out, "It’s never been easier to bring encyclopedic information along to a sales call, and buyers appreciate it."
In addition to iPads stuffed with digital collateral material that not so long ago filled an entire car trunk, many groups rely on sophisticated database systems to let buyers know about previous seasonal ordering patterns and what similar stores are doing with a particular title. At Book Travelers West, the database of choice is an open-source Filemaker system used by several groups. The group also carries a variety of connectivity tools in its bag—GoToMeeting, eFax 800 Number, Constant Contact, Edelweiss, Dropbox, GoodReads, and Twitter—to stay in touch with both booksellers and publishers. Some rep groups are just now making the change from old school to digital. Lawrence is in the midst of developing a blog-based Web site (McFaddenAssociates.com) for the group and moving into social media. His reps don’t have tablets; he prefers printed ARCs and sales materials, especially for children’s lines.
As bookstores close, many reps are concentrating on getting smaller stores to order direct instead of going through wholesalers. Given that the stack ‘em high philosophy of ordering is long gone, publishers are offering other incentives to help reps counter the trend of lower initial orders. Chronicle Books, which is repped by Mesjak, offers a list of 90 titles each season that qualify for an automatic extra 3% discount if ordered in quantities of five or more. Lawrence, who returned to repping on May 1 after a decade in publishing, wants to help booksellers select their buys so that they can have the books their customers want rather than be all things to all people. “I think by having our booksellers better informed, they will do better at selling more,” he says. Pointing to the King’s English in Salt Lake, he notes, “They’re doing better than stores that buy one of everything. They might skip 90% of what’s in the catalogue. But the other 10% they’re buying in multiples.”
While Lawrence and his colleagues remain bullish about the future of reps in a changing marketplace, they’re realistic about the challenges. “Digital is an opportunity, but cost is an issue,” says Heidemann. For him, it’s not just the cost of a book or how reps will be reimbursed for influencing e-book sales, but escalating rents for booksellers. Lowe, like many of the bricks-and-mortar booksellers he calls on, cites loss leader discounting as the biggest challenge. “It’s a great irony that physical bookstores that carry thousands of books that readers want are losing out because cutting people out of the transaction is rewarded with the lowest prices,” he says. “It’s the great devaluation of people in the financial transaction that is hitting the bookstores especially hard right now.”
Despite the difficulties, not only are rep groups changing hands but at least one second-generation sales rep has entered the business. Two years ago, 28-year-old Michael Underwood joined Wybel Marketing Group in Barrington, Ill.; his father, David Underwood, is a divisional sales director at Random House. “My dad has never pushed me toward publishing,” says Underwood. “But I’ve always been a big reader, particularly of science fiction and fantasy. It was a better career choice versus being a part-time bookseller.” In addition, he says, he’s benefited as both a reader and a writer from visiting stores from Ohio to the Dakotas and learning the business side. And he has one advantage in today’s new world. “I’m somewhat freed of expectations,” he says, referring to getting large orders. “Now we’ve all battened down.”