Adventures in the Book Trade (Part 13)

In which The Author proves there is such a thing as a free lunch

In the early hours of Wednesday morning, unable to sleep (as usual), I found myself reminiscing about some of the friends I made during my time in the book trade. I grabbed a notebook and a pen, and started making a list of the sales representatives I could remember.
This small army of men and women used to call to the shop, some very frequently, some less often, to check on our stockholding and showcase their forthcoming titles. A lot of them worked for a single publisher, usually the very big houses with a number of imprints. Others carried a variety of lists represented by a single agency, while a large number of freelancers could be relied on to produce a lucky dip of new titles whenever they called in.
Over time I became friends with a good many of them, and I was amazed by how many I could still remember. By the time I got to seventy I was running out of steam, and some names, perhaps unsurprisingly, escaped me entirely.
This weird selling-in process took place back in the era of the dinosaurs, of course. In those bygone days the individual shops – staffed with experienced and knowledgeable booksellers – made their own buying decisions.
I don’t suppose Waterstones is visited by many reps these days, now that all the buying is done centrally. Perhaps at Xmas time a few of them still turn up with ‘car stock’ – last-minute top-ups of the bestsellers, before they reach the inevitable ‘out of stock at warehouse’ status. Otherwise, I imagine the trade sales rep is heading in much the same direction as British Books In Print on microfiche, the Booksellers’ Association Directory, and the once-traditional lunchtime pint (or two) – fondly-remembered historical artefacts, supplanted by advancing technology (on the one hand) and corporate standardisation (on the other).
Back in the good old days, though, the relationship between buyer and rep was an important part of the supply chain. Everyone knew everyone else, and their visits would provide an opportunity for gossip and informal networking. Sitting down with a rep to look through folder(s) of Advance Information (AI) sheets came as a welcome break from the normal routine of shelving, standing behind the till, fielding queries, and the everyday tasks of shop work.
Some of the reps lived fairly locally, and would drop in whenever they were in Cardiff. Ian Tripp from Transworld, Alun Owen from Random House, and John Garcia from Penguin all fell into this category. Ian lives in the Rhondda Valley, a few miles away from me as the crow flies. Alun also lived in the Valleys somewhere, and John lived just outside Swansea.
I’ll give you one example of how neatly the small world of the book trade worked: Ian’s son Rob works in the same office as my friend Gaz, at the Welsh Joint Education Committee. When I returned to university six years ago I needed copies of my O Level and A Level certificates (the originals were in a drawer in Mother’s house, and I couldn’t wait for her to dig them out). I rang Gaz and explained the situation, and he assured me that he’d put the wheels in motion as quickly as he could.
It turned out that Rob Tripp was responsible for issuing the duplicates. Not only did he rush them through, on the grounds that I was a friend of his father’s; he waived the fee as well. I’ve never even met Rob, but I was (and still am) extremely grateful for his help.
Many of the reps stayed with one company for all the time I knew them. Alun, Ian, John, Mike Morgan (Random House), Derek Ainge and Steve Brindle (HarperCollins), Graham Ireland (Orion), George Gamble (Headline), Adrian Rowe (Letts), and some of the other old stagers were pretty much synonymous with their publishers. In fact, I had to think very hard on Wednesday morning to remember just what their surnames actually were – most of the time we just used to refer to ‘Graham Orion’, ‘George Headline’, and so forth. As you’ll see, I still can’t remember the full names of some of them, over twenty-five years after I first entered the book trade.
I do remember with fondness old Dave Probyn, who used to represent Collins when I was working at Blackwells in the Polytechnic of Wales. Dave was the first rep ever to buy me lunch. I wasn’t even a buyer; I just happened to be going on my midday break when Dave was leaving after his appointment. He asked me where he could get a cup of coffee, and I invited him to join me in the refectory. In return, he treated me to nut cutlets with spicy tomato sauce, chips, and a can of Coke (how’s that for an eidetic memory, Dr Sheldon Cooper?) and we chatted for ages about the history of South Wales. I think Dave must have retired soon after that; when I started working in Dillons, about eighteen months later, he was no longer on the scene.
Even though I wasn’t directly involved in the buying process, Blackwells was such a small shop that everyone knew everyone. It was nice when I achieved buyer status in Dillons, because I was able to catch up with some of my old friends again.
John Blake worked for McGraw-Hill when I was in Blackwells; he went on to represent Routledge, and we were friends for many years. Alan Sedgeman represented Blackwell Publishing, Blackwell Science, Polity Press and Verso; his lists were always interesting, diverse and – often – baffling, as I told you in ‘And Now For Something Completely Identical‘. Martin Reed was another connection from Blackwells to Dillons. He was the rep for Sweet & Maxwell, and we crossed paths many times over the next two decades. (Martin once told me that he’d seen a dead ringer for me in the Broadmead in Bristol a few days earlier. My immediate response was, ‘Oh, poor bugger.’)
Paul Richards was another rep who lived in Cardiff. He’d read law at university, but had gone in a different direction afterwards. He used to represent another arm of the massive International Thomson group. Paul had a warped sense of humour, and our conversations would often veer into rather off-colour territory. We both had a massive crush on Gillian Anderson, who was starring in The X-Files at the time. He once sent me a filthy postcard from a sales conference in Amsterdam, which is on my wall at home with the message – rather than the picture – facing out.
Before I finished in Waterstones, Paul decided to resume his career in the law. The last time I saw him was on graduation day at the University of Glamorgan in 2011. I’d gone along at the invitation of my friend James E., and I bumped into Paul as we were waiting to go into the sports hall for the ceremony. He was with his new girlfriend, and was there to receive a postgraduate diploma. We exchanged numbers and promised to get together for a pint, but my phone was stolen shortly afterwards and I haven’t been able to track him down since. (Sorry, mate – maybe next time.)
Julian and his partner Glynis were freelancers who lived in South Devon and covered a fair swathe of the country. Among their many catalogues they used to carry the eclectic Airlift list, which ranged across the entire spectrum from cutting-edge fiction, poetry, counterculture heroes like Robert Anton Wilson and Timothy Leary, through health, self-help and pop psychology, to weird occult and Mind, Body & Spirit stuff. They also carried Omnibus Press, who publish all sorts of music-related books, and a plethora of obscure small publishers.
Julian was a tall, lean chap with longish greying hair; Glynis was younger than him, with long jet-black hair. I’m not sure whether they were actually married, or just living together. They had a healthy interest in kinky matters, and used to frequent a fetish club called Westward Bound. (They once invited Sam and me to stay with them and accompany them to the club, but we could never get the same weekend off.) The three of us got on well, and we always had a good chat whenever they were in Cardiff.
Waterstones used to take on students to help during the annual stocktake, and one year two girls stayed on for a few days while we sorted the inevitable discrepancies out. Julian and I were chatting when we spotted the girls whispering and giggling by the counter.
When he’d gone, one of the girls approached me and asked shyly, ‘Was that your father?’
It became a standing joke in the shop. Every time Julian came in, he’d greet me with a cry of, ‘Morning, son!’
I’d reply, ‘Morning, Dad – and how is Stepmother?’ (Glynis would often be visiting another shop, as they represented some stationery manufacturers as well.)
Among the publishers they represented was SAF, who produced David Keenan’s book about the occult-inspired music scene of the late 1970s and 1980s, England’s Hidden Reverse. We didn’t order it for stock, but they very kindly got hold of a copy for me. It was a limited print run, so I wouldn’t have it on my shelf if not for Julian and Glynis.
Everyone ‘on the area’ knew everyone else, because they were constantly crossing paths. It wasn’t unusual to go for lunch in one of Cardiff’s many cafés and find the next table occupied by (to take one memorable example) Mike Morgan, Derek Ainge, Ian Tripp and George Gamble.
It was hardly surprising, then, to learn that Fiona from Faber was married to Jim Crawley from 4th Estate. Bob from Cambridge University Press was Jim’s brother. Kate Beal from Bloomsbury was the sister of someone who worked in their head office.
I didn’t realise just how small the world was until I was chatting to Gerry Witt, one of the freelancers. Gerry lived near Tetbury in Gloucestershire, and I mentioned that a few weeks earlier I’d been in that neck of the woods.
Pam, Gaz, Billy and I had gone on one of our Bank Holiday expeditions, to try and visit the source of the Thames. A poorly-signposted ‘right of way’ led us on a wild goose chase through a couple of muddy fields before we decided to abandon our quest and have a pub lunch instead. We repaired to the nearby Thames Head Inn, and I mentioned our predicament to the landlord.
‘Oh, he’s up to his old tricks again, is he?’ he smiled. The farmer’s habit of diverting the footpath was well known, it seemed.
Anyway, I mentioned the Thames Head Inn to Gerry, and his eyes lit up.
‘I often go there for a meal,’ he said. ‘The landlord’s a good friend of mine.’ Six degrees of separation, or what?
Speaking of food: Breffni O’Connor, the rep from Williams & Wilkins, told me that lunch with a buyer was a nice perk for the reps as well. He pointed out that there was a limit to how many Little Chef burgers one could eat in a month. Nowadays, I shouldn’t be surprised to learn that buyers aren’t allowed to ‘do lunch’, for fear that it might be construed as some form of bribery.
Back in the good old days, though, it was an occasional treat which everyone enjoyed. It was a chance to unwind and discuss aspects of the trade, our lives, hobbies, and the world in general, without having the watchful eye of management over our shoulder.
I once had an unexpected lunch with Lisa McCluskey, the tall, dark-haired, beautiful and slightly nutty rep from Oxford University Press. She’d got snarled up in traffic on her way into Cardiff, and arrived in the shop about two minutes before I was due to go for lunch. I didn’t want to go late, because that would have had a knock-on effect on everybody else. I explained the situation, and Lisa said, ‘Why don’t we do the sub over lunch?’ (A ‘sub’ is book trade jargon for a ‘subscription order’ and not anything remotely kinky, by the way!)
We went to Swallows in the Royal Arcade, had a very nice meal at a reasonable price, went through the AI sheets, did the order, had a good chat, and got back to the shop only about ten minutes late. The owner came over to me at one point and asked if Lisa was an actress – he thought he recognised her from the TV soap Hollyoaks.
On her next visit to town, Lisa told me that her manager had queried her expenses claim.
‘He thought I’d treated myself,’ she laughed. ‘He wouldn’t believe that the bill was for two people, and not just me.’
One regular lunch date became a highlight of the calendar. Angela Pumo represented one of the medical publishers, and only came into Cardiff about twice a year. She was a huge fan of obscure cheeses, some of which are almost impossible to buy outside Wales. We’d go to the Celtic Cauldron and do the order over a substantial vegetarian feast. (Vijay’s place became a popular lunch spot after I’d taken a few reps there. It’s a shame it’s closed now.) On the way back to the shop we’d call into Cardiff Market and the food hall of Howell’s department store so that Angela could stock up her larder. I teased her once that, if she ever had an accident and had to be taken to hospital, the doctors would wonder whether she was selling medical textbooks, Welsh cheeses, or both.
One of my most unusual lunch dates also involved medical textbooks. Joely, the rep from Times Mirror (Mosby, Wolfe and a host of other half-forgotten imprints), phoned the shop to make her regular appointment. Unfortunately, she wanted to call on my day off.
Ordinarily I’d have been able to swap with someone else, but I’d made a dental appointment for that afternoon. Instead, we came up with a cunning plan. Joely was due in Cardiff in the morning and Swansea in the afternoon, leaving herself a couple of hours leeway for lunch and travelling time. I suggested that she could travel to Swansea via Aberdare instead of going straight down the M4, and we could do the sub over lunch in the Cambrian. Joely thought it sounded like a fun idea, so that’s what we did.
I was lucky to make it back to work at all after one unexpected free lunch. I’d been captured late in the morning by Tony Lawrence, who carried a huge variety of lists covering all subjects under the sun, and his old pal John Blogg, who’d recently retired from the University Bookshop. Tony had cleared his diary for the rest of the day. That was a bad sign. We went to the Prince of Wales (Cardiff’s largest Thereisnospoon) for ‘lunch’, and I managed to escape after only two pints – the others were in for the long haul.
The book trade was a lot boozier then than it became towards the end of my time. Tony told me that he’d once arrived at a shop in Manchester (pretty close to his home) just as the manager was locking up. Rather than reschedule, they decided to do the sub in the nearest watering hole instead.
‘We stayed there until I had to catch the last train,’ he said, with a gleam in his eye. ‘I was so pissed I actually signed a returns note!’
Alan Ramsay was a dry, affable Scot who lived in the extraordinarily-named village of Week St Mary, Cornwall. When I first met him he was carrying the Sybex computing list. Alan had a warped sense of humour, too, and we’d exchange sick jokes every time he called in.
It often amused me that reps who sold computing books were often total technophobes. I suppose it’s true that you don’t need to know about the contents of the books to be able to sell them.
Lesley Martin, a very attractive Emma Forbes lookalike who started with McGraw-Hill before moving to Sybex, once tried to send me the copy order as an email. After failing dismally several times, she phoned me up in gales in laughter to explain what had happened. Then she sent me a fax showing the seven pages of error messages she’d managed to generate from her PC.
Keith, who worked for Prentice-Hall for a while, was another Lotek who’d found himself lumbered with a list he didn’t fully understand. I remember having to explain to him what the acronym SNAFU meant when we found it in an AI sheet. Luckily for me, I’d only just finished reading Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus! trilogy, so I was familiar with SNAFU and its variations.
Philip Ivory was a pleasant and rather eccentric chap who came to the shop once or twice, carrying several high-level medical lists which were really out of our range. He was quite excited to tell me that his next-door neighbour’s son had signed a record deal; the chap in question turned out to be one half of the Chemical Brothers. Another nice ‘separation’ there!
Most medical books were too expensive and too high-level to suit our customer base, so the reps used to limit their visits to once or twice a year at best. Consequently, their areas became larger and larger as the number of calls dwindled. Angela, Breffni, Linda Albin, Tony Histed and Klaus Beran found themselves travelling across most of Europe, and only dropping into Cardiff as the need arose.
On the other hand, law textbooks were always a sure-fire hit with students. They’d be updated regularly, and the publishers would wait until the last possible moment to issue the new editions. That made every academic season into a ‘waiting game’, with us and the students poised for the latest delivery from Blackstone Press. They were originally represented by Roger Bayliss (who also carried a number of specialist publishers, like Hart, Legal Action Group and Willan). Roger later handed our account over to his colleague Graham Uden. Graham would call in a few times a year, make sure that we were completely up to date with the current editions, check our back-orders, and sort out any problems we were having. He very rarely (if ever) found an old edition lurking around, as I always kept a close eye on my sections and made sure the stock was current.
It was a different story in ‘the other branch’ (now Cardiff’s only Waterstones). I’d call in every so often and check their shelves for old editions. It was always reassuring to know that we were on top of our game, but they were sitting on a small quantity of dead stock.
A new publisher came on the scene at around this time: Cavendish. I knew their founder, Sonny Leong, from Blackwells, when he used to rep for HLT. I wasn’t surprised when Sonny decided to go out on his own, as he was always ambitious and innovative. I’ve already mentioned their quirky covers (see ‘Adventures in the Book Trade Part 9‘), a sign of their refreshing approach to publishing.
Another breath of fresh air was their decision to set up in a building called The Glasshouse, not far from Kings Cross Station in London. Sonny told me the main reason he chose the building was that ‘It’s such a great place for parties.’
Sam and I were invited to the Cavendish summer party one year, and we gladly accepted. We spent a very pleasant evening chatting, nipping to and from the barbecue behind the office, and drinking with Sonny, Nicky (the rep), and some friendly down-to-earth London booksellers whom I’d never met before (or since).
Sam and I wandered off when the party started to wind down, and found ourselves outside a pub called the Carpenters Arms. Given that we’d met in a pub of that very name (albeit some 200 miles away) we decided to call in for just the one, and ended up staying until closing time. It would have been rude not to, really.
One book I didn’t have any difficulty in ordering was shown to me by Steve Collins. Steve repped for Hodder Education, and his list included the long-running Teach Yourself series. I was pleased to see that his forthcoming titles included Teach Yourself Guitar, written by Steve himself. I think I ordered about five copies, rather than the usual one or two, to give it a decent start in life.
As well as buying for my own sections (Law, Computing, STM), I’d occasionally have to see reps whose ranges were way outside those narrow fields.
I remember doing a sub with David Simm from A & C Black, early in January 2009, not long after the Xmas holidays. One of the first books he showed me was the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook for 2010! That’s how relentless and predictable the publishing/bookselling year had become by that stage. (Is it any wonder I decided to get out as soon as I could?)
One Monday morning I was asked to see Robin House, the immaculately-dressed rep from Amalgamated Book Services. He never had anything for my sections; instead, he carried Ian Allan (trains and boats and planes) as well a plethora of publishers whose books hardly ever found homes on our shelves.
Robin had acquired a new list shortly before his visit – Farming Press. Most of it was pretty specialist stuff, but three small books caught my eye: one on cheese-making, one on sausage-making, and one on polytunnels. Robin was quite surprised when I decided to take a copy of each for stock. Nevertheless, we sold all three within a fairly short space of time.
I developed quite an eye for unusual and quirky titles, and was often surprised by the sort of books the agency reps and freelancers carried. Martin Remmers worked for an umbrella sales organisation representing a couple of dozen small publishers: BFI, Oberon, Nick Hern, Serpent’s Tail, and so forth. I remember one of his titles was a screenplay for a new film which was getting critical acclaim at the time.
Martin outlined the story, and I said, ‘I’ll definitely keep an eye for that when it comes out.’ I’m glad I did, as it became one of my favourite films of all time: The Truman Show.
Helen was a radical lesbian who repped for Turnaround Distribution in London. (It was Helen who gave me the infamous Necrocard I mentioned in ‘Zigzagging Down Memory Lane‘.) Like Julian’s and Martin’s lists, her catalogues were bizarre in the extreme. I remember running into goods-in one morning, grabbing Alun G., who was busy unpacking, and showing him one of Helen’s forthcoming titles: Shibboleth, the autobiography of Crass’s founder Penny Rimbaud, published by AK Press. I also took two copies of Wreckers of Civilisation, Simon Ford’s massive book about Genesis P-Orridge and COUM Transmissions. I bought one; the other sat on the shelf for a while until a middle-aged customer came in and bought a copy for her son. She was amazed to find it on the shelf. If anyone else had done the sub with Helen, she wouldn’t have found it in Cardiff. She’d have left empty-handed, and we’d have lost a twenty quid sale. That’s a fact.
AK Press also brought out a book of artwork by Gee Vaucher, who’d designed the posters and record sleeves for Crass. One evening, quite late, a very attractive young girl with long red hair and glasses came in, wanting to know if we had a copy. We hunted for it for a while, but it had gone walkabout. I offered to take her number and ring her if it turned up. Thinking about it later, I should have taken her number anyway. A redhead, wearing glasses, who was into Crass – she could have been the next Mrs O’Gorman if she’d played her cards right.
As Waterstones decided to concentrate on the larger publishers (who offered a bigger discount), the number of reps we saw gradually dwindled. First of all the freelancers, such as Gerry, Tony, Graham, Julian and Glynis, Jim Peck and Phil James received letters telling them that they wouldn’t be allowed to make appointments. The agency reps (Martin, Robin, Ellie Cripps and others) got similar letters. Then head office started cutting back on the number of academic reps we were allowed to see.
At the same time, UK publishing was undergoing a massive reorganisation and ‘rationalisation’. The first really big merger happened when I was still working in Blackwells: Harper & Row merged with Collins. The process really gathered momentum in the 1990s. The big trade houses, such as HarperCollins, Random House, Macmillan, Penguin, Transworld, Orion, Hodder & Stoughton and Little, Brown, started gobbling up smaller publishers at a rapid pace. Eventually, of course, Hodder merged with Headline; Hodder-Headline was bought by Hachette; so were Orion and Little, Brown. As if by magic, four large UK publishers became part of one colossal multinational corporation.
Academic and technical publishers started to go the same way. Pearson, Taylor & Francis, Harcourt, Wolters Kluwer and International Thomson swallowed numerous smaller houses. In some cases the original names survived, giving a sense of continuity to the publishing industry, even though their catalogues bore no resemblance to those from their earliest days. (For instance, Charles Dickens was originally published by Chapman & Hall. Towards the end of their days as a distinct identity, Chapman & Hall were one of the UK’s biggest STM publishers.) In other cases, though, the old names vanished entirely, subsumed into a blanket heading such as Pearson Education or Palgrave.
Other long-established and respected names vanished from bookshops as the decade wore on: Allen & Unwin, Sphere, Granada, Macdonald & Evans, Longman, Pitman, Edward Arnold, and more besides, were absorbed by the multinationals. There were numerous mergers and takeovers, and often the new companies were themselves taken over.
These were just some of the changes. Lippincott merged with Williams & Wilkins. Thomas Nelson merged with Stanley Thornes. (The new creations were themselves parts of the massive Wolters Kluwer empire.) Oxford University Press bought Blackstone. Cavendish was bought by Routledge; Routledge was bought by Taylor and Francis. Blackwell Publishing merged with John Wiley. One of the biggest of all, Pearson, owned a whole raft of imprints ranging from Addison-Wesley to Frederick Warne.
Not surprisingly, fewer companies needed fewer reps. Alan Sedgeman’s regular visits ceased when Mike Crayford started carrying the new Wiley-Blackwell list. On the other hand, John Blake’s list grew like Topsy as Taylor & Francis gobbled up STM publishers like they were going out of fashion.
At the same time, Waterstones was concentrating less and less on academic sales and focusing almost entirely on product from the big boys. Some of the larger independents, such as Faber, Canongate and Bloomsbury, still (somehow) manage to get their product onto the shelves. When you walk into a Waterstones today, you might be forgiven for thinking that there’s a broad range to choose from. However, pick up a book and flick to the title page, where you’ll be able to see just who owns the publisher.
It’s a pretty depressing list. I’m willing to bet that at least sixty per cent of the stock in an average Waterstones comes from the Big Five: HarperCollins; Macmillan (i.e. Holtzbrink); Hodder-Headline, Orion and Little, Brown (i.e. Hachette); Simon & Schuster; Penguin Random House (i.e. Pearson/Bertelsmann). By the time you read this, judging from recent trends, we might well be down to the Big Four.
The rest – and there are literally thousands of them in the UK alone – struggle to make their voices heard. They’re lucky that a defiant independent sector makes time and space for their output. They’re lucky that the Internet enables publishers and readers to connect directly, without relying on the restrictive ‘shop window’ where you need to pay your admission fee to be allowed in.
I realised the other night just how much I miss the banter with the reps. Their lists gave us a chance to see what the rest of the publishing world was up to. Even if we never took a copy of The Re:Search Guide to Bodily Fluids, it was good to know that such an obscure book existed.
I don’t know how many of my old friends are still around in this brave new world of online customer service and central purchasing. I’ve had a quick look at the websites of the Big Five, and I can’t find trade reps listed for three of them. I’ve found reps listed for a couple of academic publishers, but their names don’t ring any bells with me.
It’s sad to think that I’ve lived through the end of a tradition in the book trade. It’s even sadder to think that all the friends I made during two decades have probably been forced in other directions by the radical change in the bookselling environment over the past ten years. Who can tell what will happen in the next ten years?
However, there’s a brighter note on which I’ll end this rather depressing entry. Yesterday I signed a contract to work as a freelance proofreader for Orion Books. Graham Ireland was one of the many reps who gave me a great deal of encouragement when I decided to try and develop my skills, way back in the late 1990s. He would make a point of dropping off uncorrected bound proofs for me whenever he came to town. I used to use them for practice, but I never thought I’d end up in their pool of freelance helpers.
If Graham happens to come across this blog I’d like to thank him for his support. (Oh, hang on, that was Robin’s catchphrase!) Also, I’d like to mention everyone else I found on my trip down memory lane the other night: Mandy (Mainstream); Doug Neely (Penguin); Mandy James (Welsh Books Council); David (Greenhill); Cordelia (Bloomsbury); John Connelly (Macmillan Education); Andrew Curd (W. H. Freeman); Ashley Drake (University of Wales Press); Amanda (Taylor & Francis); Cara (Pitman); Roger Forsey (D Services); Nigel Passmore (Ian Allan); Sarah Leedham-Green (Harcourt); Chris Hossack (Butterworth-Heinemann); Joanna (Addison-Wesley); Lucia Pyke (Butterworth/Lexis-Nexis); Chris (Michelin); Leslie Crascall (SPCK); Oliver (Oxford University Press); Teresa (Nelson Thornes); and all the others whose names escape me at this remove.
I hope you’re all well, and I wish you all the best in whatever you’re doing now. It was fun!
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