Wednesday, February 11, 2009

We Must Be Crazy (Or, How This Thing Started)

No sane person would enter the book business right now. Stores are closing, the daily industry newsletters tell of little but cutbacks and lay-offs at the publishers, and let's face it, I hear more discussion of Lost than I do of any book even when I'm in a bookstore. I entered the book business in 1998 after graduating from college with exactly $328 and no career aspirations whatsoever. I thought I would go to graduate school, but I couldn't afford it either financially or spiritually. I was burned out with school. So, moving to Austin, Texas, I decided to spend a gap year by working at a bookstore, if I could get a job, and recharge for my future enrollment in even more education. I started work at BookPeople, the large, independent bookstore in downtown Austin, on June 15, a week after my 22nd birthday, and earned a whopping $5.40 an hour. I was too economically ignorant to realize how stupid I was to take this job, but I've never really been motivated by money. I am a book nerd. I wanted to spend my days surrounded by the stories that inspired me to be an English major before over-analysis drove away the joy I found in reading. I also wanted to be around smart people and thought that a bookstore might be a mecca of well-read, fascinating thinkers. At the time I didn't realize that all booksellers are a bit nutty.

I spent almost 9 years at BookPeople, working my way from lowly closing shift bookseller to buyer and inventory operations supervisor with an office. It was a great education into a business I found more and more fascinating, at a time when the industry grudgingly was coming to terms with inevitable change (as it still is), from economic challenges to the digital revolution. I had the pleasure of meeting booksellers from around the country as well as publishing execs from New York, but by 2007 I found myself weighing my options. Stay at BookPeople and continue to make it the best bookstore in the country (indeed, it won Publishers Weekly's Bookseller of the Year in 2005, a fact for which I'm quite proud), or expand my horizons? When a Random House sales representative job came open in the Texas territory, I swallowed back my overwhelming fear of change and leapt. I moved to Houston, set up an office in my apartment, and spent many nights wondering if I was a complete idiot.

Random House is the biggest publisher in the world, and the company publishes a hell of a lot of books each year. On top of this, the sales force also acts as a representative for smaller publishers that aren't actually owned by Random House--houses like National Geographic, the art publisher Rizzoli, DC Comics, and fantasy giant Wizards of the Coast. We're talking thousands of adult books that need selling, so there are two sales reps per territory "out in the field" (the people selling the books to stores who don't live in New York and rarely visit the home office). When I joined Random House, I signed on to sell books in Texas, Oklahoma, and Mississippi, which geographically is a huge territory. My partner, selling the other half of the adult books, is Gianna, another Austin resident but Chicago native who found her own way through the book business ranks. We didn't know each other well when we started working together, but we're both book people, and one can always talk about books. About the time I started at Random House, we were instructed to start driving more and flying less, and as people who value our jobs, we followed orders. It's a long way from Houston to Amarillo--about 12 hours if you stop to pee or eat--and a long way from Austin, where Gianna lives, to Jackson, Mississippi--again 12 hours by car. For sanity and safety, we started making these long road trips together, so three times per year to each location, we'd load up a car with advance reader copies of the soon-to-be-published books and hit the road to bookstores far and wide.

Road trips have the potential to ruin even the soundest relationships. You're packed in a sardine can for hours on end with a radio and another person and the scenery outside providing the only distraction to the thoughts in your head. It turned out, though, that Gianna and I travel very well together. We both have a fine appreciation for the absurdity of situations, have similar interests in books and movies, and frankly, know how to shut up. We aren't gabbers. In fact, we're both introverts, but with senses of humor. And to dispel any visions of what kind of reps we are, I should point out that book reps are nothing like, say, the pharmaceutical sales reps who audition for Survivor and hook up with the "aspiring actors" after 27 days without showering. I would say that as a group, book reps are, like most book folk, introverted, semi-awkward, non-models. At least, that's me. Anyway, we started recounting stories of our travels, and typically the reactions from friends and colleagues alike started with gap-jawed disbelief that we would travel together in this way, followed by laughter at what we saw or experienced, and then came the inevitable "you should write a blog." So here you go, our blog.

What you'll find here--thoughts on the book industry as it goes through a period of great, perilous transition, commentary on the books we love both new and old, stories from the road and the stores we visit, and frankly anything else that captures our fancy but won't get us fired. There is a strong possibility that I will comment on the proliferation of giant, inflatable creatures that storm the tops of buildings between Houston and Dallas, or Gianna will recount how she once joined me in Amarillo wearing two mismatched shoes (classy), or we both speculate on what, exactly, is sold at a business called "Unclaimed Furniture" outside of Oxford, Mississippi, or ponder how many horseshoeing campuses there are in Oklahoma as we pass the south branch on our way to OKC. No doubt we'll highlight our favorite restaurants, our quirky routines, what we do to amuse ourselves after four days of almost constant driving, what shenanigans our office mates (meaning our pets--we work from home when not traveling) have pulled, and, of course, we'll talk about books. If nothing else, at least we won't hear "you should write a blog" again. Be careful what you ask for.

1 comment:

  1. When EJ told us at today's IM meeting that you two had a blog, we were terrifyingly thrilled. Also, there were speculations as to why you two don't have your own TV show yet, but we'll take a blog for now.

    Re: mismatched shoes: I once got halfway to work on the subway (in my NYC days) before realizing I was wearing two different shoes. Luckily no one notices your feet when you work in a cubicle.