In praise of the rep
20.03.09 | Martin Latham
Underneath the British Library there are four floors of books below ground. The atmosphere is hermetically sealed to keep out any bugs which might damage the books. When the computers upstairs requisition a book, robots whirr along the stacks and place it in a padded book lift. A French film director has repeatedly requested permission to film a sci-fi epic down there: the robots malfunction and start throwing incunabula about [incunabulum: a book published before 1500, from the Latin for "from the cradle"(of printing)]. Engineers in protective clothing and oxygen masks then go in to battle the robots, usually clubbing them to the ground with baseball bats.
I heard this mysterious tale from our British Library rep. These publishers' representatives are reducing in number, as publishers and bookshops feel the pinch, but some retain an important function, visiting rustic towns with tales of the city; bridging the gap between publishers, authors, and us lowly buyers. Like inter-galactic traders, they pioneer links between very disparate worlds. In the Fifties, I learn, the man from Jonathan Cape came down to Canterbury, bowler-hatted, and more or less told the independents how many of, say, the new Graham Greene they were having. Later on, less formal relations developed and the poor old rep was frequently shown the door. They sometimes queued for hours at Foyles, a necessary humiliation at the only shop which ordered virtually everything.
Publishers, who sometimes do not like to regard themselves as "in trade", have not, I think, given the reps, who have to do the grubby selling, their due. These salesmen toil around the country in all weathers, and often help out until late at night at author events. I recall a now-retired Thames & Hudson rep who was a dedicated painter. Never pushy, he nonetheless knew every book on the list intimately and hauled a massive wheeled bag of samples around. He got excited over a book on the Catalan expressionist Tàpies, of whom I had never heard, and after many reorders we eventually sold over 20 copies. This is the best style of rep, one who is as keen to sell good backlist as he is to make his target figure on a new title. Often that target is merely the result of an editor who has over-bid at an auction.
Peter Ackroyd, who is well-informed about book trade mechanics, told me that only inexperienced authors bother too much about who their editor is: it's who their rep is that really matters. Whatever the future holds for reps, it is worth remembering that they are the unsung heroes who did much to build up the book industry.