Next time you are in a big bookshop, look down towards your feet, and there you might see it: a mysterious set of two parallel lines carved into the carpet, snaking its way across the shop floor.
Look closer still and you may spot even more sets of these mysterious lines, all criss-crossing each other.
What you are looking at here are signs of a beast that used to roam freely through the bookshops of Britain, for these lines are the marks left by the heavy-wheeled suitcase of the once common Book Rep.
If you’re in a shop that looks like it might have changed its carpet at some point in the last decade or two, this might not work. You can still check for broken paving stones just outside the door however. These are a sign too!
At one stage, these roving salesmen and saleswomen (though mainly the former if I’m honest) were a constant feature in big bookshops all over the UK.
In fact, it was not uncommon, at any given time, for there to be more reps than customers in some shops.
Reps were a crucial bridge between publisher and bookshop. Many of them were in fact pretty much synonymous with the publisher they represented.
To a lot of booksellers, Simon and Schuster for instance basically was Barry the Rep.
(I’m calling all reps Barry, for the sake of argument.)
Once unleashed on the shop floor, reps would pull out huge binders from their cases and proceed to sell booksellers the latest releases (title by title) from the publisher they represented.
That is if they could find the relevant bookseller of course, as Sod’s Law dictated that one bookseller had to be on holiday, one on lunch, one on the toilet and one with a different rep.
In some bigger shops, the booksellers would all buy for different subjects, so it was quite feasible that one rep might need to locate eight different booksellers in one visit.
This buying process is called “subbing” as a special tribute to reps who would “substitute” your order at a later date with a slightly bigger one.
The central law of subbing dictates that no matter how many copies of a new title a bookseller suggests buying, it will never be quite enough for Barry the Rep:
- If you try to sub 1 copy, this is no good as of course the book
needs a face-out.
- So you go for 4, well you might as well
have a pack of 6 in that case.
(Books are much happier travelling in packs.)
- So 6 it is.
Ah, but if you take 10, I’ll throw in some exclusive bookmarks.
- Well that sounds good. Let’s go for 10. But hang on:
10 is practically 12, so we’ll call it 2 packs of 6.
- 12, it’s decided then. But no:
you might as well go for 20 because then, you get a free standee, shelf talker and shelf wobbler.
Standee = large self-standing cardboard cut-out.
Shelf Talker = sign for shelf.
Shelf Wobbler = wobbly thing for shelf.
I’m not sure anyone really knows what a shelf wobbler does. At a very basic level, it wobbles and catches the customer’s attention. After all, who among us can fail to appreciate a bit of prime wobbling? Note: they also set shop alarms off.
- Of course, if you order 20 copies:
you really might want to consider 30 copies.
- At this point, the bookseller finds out there could be personal
bribesincentives on the cards. The prospect of booze, chocolates, free cinema tickets and all sorts of lovely freebies now rears its tempting head. All pretty good, especially if you’re spending someone else’s money in the first place.
This bidding and nudging process continues in this way until the weak-willed bookseller eventually hits the jackpot order:
The dumpbin is large upright display unit, holding (usually) 48 copies of a particular book or a publisher’s range of titles.
For reps, a dumpbin is the Holy Grail of orders: even when the rep is not in your shop, the dumpbin represents them in cardboard form, badgering the bookseller to order more copies and keep it topped up, 24 hours a day.
The dumpbin is doing the rep’s job in one shop, while the rep is busy selling in a different shop.
It is a strange quirk of the 48-copy dumpbin, that it only has to go down to 42 copies before it starts to look empty, so the bookseller has to replace these six as soon as possible.
Whereas you can have, say, a couple of books face-out on a shelf and it looks fine, the dumpbin’s default status is always to be filled to the brim.
The rep is secure in the knowledge that as long as a dumpbin is in place, a little area of the shop floor belongs exclusively to him/her, for everybody in the book trade knows that you can’t mix publishers in a dumpbin: you might as well mess with the very fabric of time.
A cautionary tale is told of a rookie bookseller who put a Harper Collins book in a Penguin dumpbin and sadly was never seen again.
It’s said that she is still out there somewhere being chased across parallel worlds by an army of decommissioned Gillian McKeith standees, all uttering repeatedly the following dread words:
Let’s have a look at your poo then.
The word dumpbin is a strange one. It’s almost like someone said:
I’m going to take the word dumptruck and see if I can make it less glamorous.
These days, with all bookshops by law being artisanal bespoke hubs, a dumpbin would probably be called a
but I much prefer ‘dumpbin’: two words, both meaning ‘rubbish’, crowbarred together without a care in the world.
They could have called it a shit disposal or waste trough.
The dumpbin is a timely reminder that, no matter how bespokely curated you think your shop might be, it is all just piles of books in the end.
The rep always has the last laugh when it comes to dumpbins as not only does the bookseller have to accommodate a huge unwieldy brutalist display unit, pander to its every need as though it were a sick pet and risk ceaseless inter-dimensional purgatory (which btw reps never seem to mention), they also have to assemble the bloody thing themselves.
If you have an engineering degree or love of Ikea Furniture, this is fine.
If you are basically me, and can’t open a carton of chopped tomatoes without a huge clean-up operation, then you’re in trouble.
Most of my “assembled” dumpbins over the years have had strange flaps, wings, bits left over, a tendency to sway, or signage facing away from the customer.
The rep doesn’t care – his job is done.
Getting more than 48 copies of a particular book into a small bookshop is pretty hard work. With chains however, even for a single branch, orders would often go into the many hundreds for key new titles. A window display promised for a book might also come with enticing incentives!
By the way, if you want a rep to disappear, take out your bookseller wand and utter the following spell:
and they’re gone in an instant.
As with House Sparrows, Rag and Bone Men, and Lamp Lighters, numbers of reps have declined over recent years. There used to be huge flocks of them in Bookshops and cafes near Bookshops.
Occasionally you would come across fathers and sons who were both reps, and could date their rep ancestry right back through history:
Here it is: The Bible. Bit of a doorstop, but trust me, this is gonna be huge, I’ve got a feeling about this one. Massive bestseller in foreign language edition, fully illustrated, punchy title, cast of thousands and a plot to die for. It’s basically about the ups and downs of a trainee wizard forced to live among ordinary people. A follow-up is already in the pipeline: Bible 2: Christ on a Bike. Now I know 95% of the populace are illiterate, but let’s not let that get in the way of a bloody good story. I firmly believe, given time, this could sell a good few thousand. Go on, take 50 and I’ll throw in a Son of God showcard.
There were husband-and-wife reps too. One such couple had three of their own kids, though they did later return one and swap another for car stock.
In big bookshops, it was always useful for booksellers to have experience with reps: it gave them a valuable lesson in buying skills (or as we’ve seen, at the very least, they had a lot of fun spending someone else’s money) plus more importantly they could ask the rep if there were any jobs going at the publishers.
Escape Plans have always been a key element of the Chain Bookseller’s working life.
One of the factors that led to a decline in the number of reps was the book trade’s change towards centralised buying.
It was certainly quicker for a large book chain to buy titles just the once from publishers centrally, rather than via booksellers on the shop floor subbing in books title by title…….very……… slowly.
As well as saving time this way, the retailer could also angle for a better discount through bulk buying.
In terms of efficiency, this made a lot of sense.
But it also lead to a lot of Identikit Big Bookshops where the books had largely been ordered by the same person or group of people, no matter what location the shop was in.
Even Local Titles might potentially find themselves being ordered 300 miles from the Locality in question.
It also meant that booksellers in large shops weren’t getting the same rounded industry training as before: the focus was now very much on till work and putting books on the shelves. None of the books would have been ordered or subbed (from a rep) by the bookseller putting them out.
I always maintain that it is useful (though not absolutely essential) to have some bookshop experience, if you want to start or run your own Indie Bookshop.
I do feel that larger bookshops in more recent years are not preparing booksellers for this solo venture in the same thorough way that they used to.
I wouldn’t let this put anyone off though. It just means there is slightly more to learn and a few more blind leaps to make.
Of course, in spite of the decline in their numbers, reps do still exist, and we do see quite a few at my shop, some by appointment (reps like to do a lot of cancelling and re-arranging) and some who are just passing by.
You can often hear their wheels approaching.
To be honest, the reps who see independent shops tend to be very laid back and don’t try to push titles onto you. Maybe this is because the sales expectation level is just very low at my shop!
Some of the reps we see are happy to just “leave the details” of a book with us.
In many ways, it is preferable to buy from a rep rather than the actual author. Reps will take rejection on the chin but authors can sometimes take it a bit personally or get irate and upset.
We have encountered all the following responses from authors whose books we have rejected face-to-face:
What do you mean, no?
Why? What’s wrong with it?
and my own personal favourite:
Who do you think you are?
(Since you ask, I think I am Jean Shrimpton, Joan Didion and Juliette Binoche all rolled into one. I am also very deluded and avoid mirrors religiously.)
Reps at larger publishers tend these days to be general publisher contacts, rather than on-the-road salespeople exclusively.
The subbing of titles is perhaps not so important, but they will help bookshops with all their day-to-day enquiries: discounts, special editions, signed books, returns, events.
I couldn’t actually put a face to some of our reps, even though we have been dealing with them for years.
Both the major wholesalers (Bertrams and Gardners) have reps too. Their roles are similar to that as described above, but they might help with book ordering too, especially with newly-opened shops. They have a lot of experience of what sells in other shops, plus data too, and can advise accordingly.
When you do meet reps that are on the road, the areas they represent can be quite significant these days.
Where once there might have been four reps from the same publisher, all carving out the South West between them, now you are just as likely to meet one who covers
everywhere North of Tunisia and South of the Antarctic.
Reps can be on the road for a long time and rack up a lot of car miles.
I once accidentally got one onto the subject of 50-mile-an-hour-maximum Smart Motorway Update zones (I really must work on my small talk).
This was obviously a sore subject, and the resulting invective lasted a good half an hour, time which I am resigned to never getting back.
Quite a few of the reps we meet are freelance reps, who represent lots of different companies, and not just publishers.
It is not uncommon for one of them to show you some books and then say as they flick through their folder:
You don’t stock coat racks or sherbert, do you? What about rolling pins?
There is the slight air of the magician about these guys. You never quite know what they might whip out next.
One of the tricks to being a good rep is in making you (as a shop) feel special and unique, as if they are visiting you alone, when for all you know, they may actually be showing exactly the same books to the shop next door to you.
I went into a shop recently quite near my own, and came across a familiar rep selling to the Business Owner.
I felt a bit shocked, as there the rep was, shamelessly laughing away, drinking coffee and using the same sales line about “counter display-units” that he had used on me not one hour previously.
He was only doing his job, but I felt a bit crestfallen.
It was as if I’d caught my partner cheating on me, or my cat eating supper at a much friendlier neighbour’s house:
We thought it was a stray.
I have experience of both of these, though not on the same day thankfully.
The thing is: unlike a lot of gift products, there is no exclusivity when it comes to books. In theory, someone can open a shop right opposite your own selling all the same books. This is a slightly scary thought.
Publishers will shamelessly sell books to anyone who wants to buy, and the minimum order is very low. Any ten-a-penny gift shop can start selling all your bestsellers in any location, and at the drop of a hat.
On some high streets now, every single shop has a display of Ladybird Parody Titles, even the brothels. There is such a thing as spreading a little too thinly.
This would partly be down to reps sniffing out new customers to sell books to, but also because there are a lot more bespoke wholesalers and non-book wholesalers in the book supply chain than there used to be.
I know one shop-owner who bought her Ladybird Books from that well-known book supplier House of Marbles.
So let’s hear it for the good old Book Rep.
- Yes, they may be “cheating” on your shop round the corner, but they are just doing their job, so who can blame them?
- And OK, one or two may be a bit on the loud side, especially in smaller shops (ours can just about take it) but who really wants a shop in eerie silence anyway?
- And yes: they may even turn up to your shop drunk. This happened to us once (he was very sozzled) but it was lunch-time. No wait. I’m not going to justify that one. Nor could I possibly tell you which publisher or trade body they were representing at the time.
- Reps may also slightly give the game away to passing customers that in fact we don’t order our books from Magic Book Pixies, which is my usual explanation.
- Plus, one rep’s imminent arrival was so intolerable to my bookseller colleague (and who knows how many more) that she did end up climbing onto a toilet and escaping through a very small back window.
- Reps may even (shock horror) have stooped to showing us new books on iPads and gadgety things: one buying session I took part in was interrupted by an Essential Software Update pop-up – now that never used to happen with binders and catalogues!
But for us booksellers they perform the following noble services:
- They liven up many a dull stretch of time.
- They offer invaluable help, friendly chat and a healthy supply of proof copies/limited edition pens.
- They keep treasured words like price point and dumpbin alive and well
- They’re basically just on our side and always will be.