This week, I took my youngest daughter, Cece, on a spring break trip to Chicago–because it makes sense to trade 80-degree weather for temps in the mid-50s. Our trip coincided with Chicago Rep Night–a gathering of publishing representatives who are allowed 10 minutes each to tout their forthcoming titles to an audience of Chicago-area booksellers. We heard there would be pizza and beer, so we decided to crash the party.
Three reps were on hand to present at Jaks Tap Sunday evening: Brian Wilson, who sells hardcovers and paperbacks for Penguin Random House; Sheila Hennessey, representing Penguin Young Readers Group; and Jason Sommer, editor in chief of Chicago-based Featherproof Books, which is distributed by Publishers Group West. The event was organized by Javier Ramirez, manager at The Book Table in Oak Park, Illinois, who has participated in rep nights for the last 15 years.
“We’ve been consistently hosting one in the spring and one in the fall,” said Ramirez. “Some stores in Chicago and surrounding suburbs host their own in-store rep nights or breakfast, but the one we host includes all Chicagoland bookstores.”
Ramirez said that the turnout on Sunday evening was consistent with past rep nights and was a good representation of area stores.
“We typically get at least one bookseller from each store, with some sending the entire staff. Anderson’s Bookshop sent 12 booksellers between their two locations! That was amazing!” Ramirez said. “It hearkens back to my early days in Chicago bookselling where we all knew each other and were in each other’s business.”
Brian Wilson, whose territory consists of Chicago, a few suburbs, and the entire state of Michigan, said that he likes the way staff presentations provide booksellers with a “heads up” about forthcoming titles, because although buyers know when books are coming out, that doesn’t always mean that the staff knows.
“When I do the multiple stores at once I get to present to a larger crowd of staff and it is a chance for booksellers from stores that might not host a rep presentation on their own,” he added.
He has also participated in a multiple-rep presentation in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
“It mainly consists of booksellers from Nicola’s Books and Literati, but I think a few smaller bookstores are invited, too,” he said.
Sheila Hennessey said the rep nights sometimes conflict with her sales trips, so she’s only been participating for the past year or two.
“I love having a fresh audience, new people to hear about our books, and talking about the books I’m most excited about,” she said. “It’s always fun!”
As editor in chief at Featherproof Books, Jason Sommer experienced rep night from a different perspective.
“Because Featherproof is so small, we mostly rely on our distributor, PGW, to develop relationships directly with booksellers. There’s a pretty significant gap between the people publishing the books & the people selling the books via retail,” he said. “But with rep night, we’ve got a chance to really focus on just our titles, and to talk about those books from our perspective. When Featherproof shows up at rep night, we’re not just a ‘rep’ for the press. We’re also the people who actually decide what to publish and the people who edit these books.”
Sommer added that he liked having the opportunity to gain perspective from the retail level, and from the reader level.
“It’s nice that we get to peel away all those layers of distribution and sales and what have you and just talk for a bit: serious-readers-as-publishers with serious-readers-as-booksellers,” he said.
Tom Flynn has been attending rep night for the last 10 years, initially when he worked for 57th Street Books/Seminary Co-op, and more recently as manager and lead buyer at Volumes, which just opened a year ago.
“Rep nights do a great job of building a greater sense of community among the city’s booksellers. We don’t often get to attend one another’s events and are all pretty geographically diverse, so rep nights are a good chance for us to meet one another, catch up, share info, et cetera,” Flynn said. “As a development opportunity, these events are especially good for frontline booksellers who are not also buyers. They get greater exposure to some of the upcoming titles the publishers and reps are highlighting and they get to know the reps.”
Liz Rice is a bookseller at The Book Cellar, the same title for all employees. She explained, “Our store functions on a bit of a socialist method where we all contribute to every aspect of the store, from pouring wine to ordering and receiving books.”
Rice said that what she likes best about rep night, which she began attending when she started working at The Book Cellar two years ago, is the focused time with reps and education on upcoming titles.
“Because our store owners and buyers do much of the book buying, it’s nice to be able to get the spiel from the rep,” she said. “And who doesn’t get pumped for new free books to read?”
Rice said she also sees the event as a community builder for area independent bookstores.
“These informal meetings, fueled by pizza and beer, give us the chance to bond with other book sellers. While we might be ‘competitors,’ we are also each other’s greatest assets,” she said. “One person, and one staff, can only read so much. By swapping book knowledge and ideas, we become better book sellers and better bookstores. It is this community-centered atmosphere that makes us, as independents, distinct.”
Booksellers are notified of the event through emails from Ramirez and the reps, and bookstores represented include Anderson’s Bookshop, Barbara’s Bookstores, 57th Street Books/Seminary Co-op, The Book Cellar, The Book Table, Unabridged Books, and Volumes Books and Cafe.
Ramirez said that one of his favorite parts of rep night was actually a new addition to the program.
“We tried something new this time around by asking booksellers to, well, book sell to each other, and that made me smile a bit,” he said. “Also, when booksellers meet for the first time it makes my little black heart beat a little faster.”