Rep Night at The Bookcase

There are a few tried-and-true ways to get people excited about upcoming books.  Reviews, author interviews, profiles, media appearances, stints at book festivals, and, of course, readings.  As far as getting customers to buy books, these methods tend to work  well. For booksellers, it’s  a bit different.  How do publishers get bookstores to carry their books, how do they get booksellers excited about a book so the booksellers will in turn recommend them to their customers? How do booksellers decide which books to display prominently, and which live huddled in the musty stacks in the back corner?

This quickly becomes a conversation about catalogs, advance reader copies sent via post with  form letters on letterhead, title blast emails and the like.  There’s also a type of literary event that remains central to this side of the process, a vestige of the era of travelling salesmen whereby representatives from a publisher visit a bookstore (or meets with multiple booksellers at once) to talk about their upcoming titles and help bookstores determine what will sell well to their clientele, what will fit with their inventory, what books they’re personally invested in and excited about. Known as “Rep Nights,” these stalwarts of direct, face-to-face communication stand out as examples of how effective actual human interaction can be in an industry of increased digitization. Rep nights still occur because rep nights still work.

In a slight variation on these trade-only events, The Bookcase of Wayzata on Tuesday, June 11 2013 hosted a pair of Random House sales reps to come and talk directly to customers about upcoming books.  An extended sales pitch in which Jason Gobble and John Hastie, who combine to cover the Midwest region for the publisher, summarized about sixteen titles each in quick succession.  Not just one book, not just one author, but books in a range of styles and genres–from YA crossovers to historical studies to the season’s most anticipated literary novels and memoirs, John and Jason used their energy and charm to enthuse a bookstore full of people (and I mean FULL–standing room only, overflow full) about the reading opportunities ahead of them.

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Most of the 50-60 attendees were attending on behalf of a book club (one group of fifteen had traveled together from Apple Valley to decide what books would make their list in the coming year), and throughout the night there was much mini-conferencing in the seats.  Murmurs shuddered through the audience whenever a rep mentioned a recent book club favorite–Wild, say, or Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. It was a night that focused on and celebrated the ways that books create and maintain community–a point John Hastie was quick to emphasize in his introductory remarks:

“This is not a normal thing.  For a bookstore to be this involved in its community is rare. And it can’t happen at Amazon. It won’t ever happen at Costco. This will only ever happen in a place like this, where booksellers are committed to their community.”

These direct-to-consumer sales rep nights are becoming increasingly common, though attendance isn’t always as robust as it was at the Bookcase.  “Sometimes it’s only six people,” Hastie said, “but that’s fun, too. You really get to connect with people, learn what they want, and can make a more educated recommendation.”

Jason Gobble echoed this sentiment during his presentation.  “We usually do this for booksellers, which is a completely different experience,” he explained. “Between John and myself, we handle about 3,000 books per year.  A lot of those aren’t the kind of books you get really excited about–travel guides and how-to books and things like that.  It’s great to talk directly to readers because we get to focus only on the books that mean a lot to us.”

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Salesmen they are, but not a person in the room felt overtly pitched to. Jason and John did a great job of ensuring that this was above all a meeting of people who loved books, pure and simple.  The Bookcase did an excellent job of turning what could easily have been an in-person infomercial into a fun, comfortable, and exciting event, going so far as to provide hors d’ouvres and wine, chat with readers, and encourage the standing-room only crowd to make use of its upstairs balcony.  As a bird’s-eye view of the true machinery of bookselling, The Bookcase, Jason, and John made it incredibly clear that the book industry is one firmly rooted in community, human interaction, and sharing your time and space with other people who share a love of reading.

Were you there? Have something to add, or a different take on this event?  Chime in on the comments below, or send us an email at LitSeen.Mpls@gmail.com. Be sure to check the schedule to the right to be at the next LitSeen.org attended event.

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