Jeff Waxman's Rep Nights, Kramerbooks, and the Necessity of Face-to-Face Meetings

I’ve been incredibly discouraged over the past few weeks about the place of Open Letter in book culture. Part of this discouragement comes from traveling for twenty of the past twenty-four days (to Sharjah, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, L.A., and DC), but also, Open Letter didn’t get a single book on this Flavorwire List of the 50 Best Independent Fiction and Poetry Books of 2014, (which, whatfuckingever, all lists are just lists, and this one is better than most, but I truly believe that at least one of our books was in the top 50), nor did we get a book on the never-ending, longer than Betty White’s career, longlist of books for this year’s IMPAC Prize (and yes, this “longlist” contains 149 fricking books, including one by Jodi Picoult!). (And don’t get me started on Rochester Business Journal’s “40 Under 40,” which I again, and for the final time, didn’t make. Then again if there’s one thing the city of Rochester doesn’t understand, it’s literature.)

So, on Friday night, when I got to Kramerbooks in DC for a “Rep Night” organized by Jeff Waxman of Other Press, and noticed that Kramerbooks didn’t stock a single Open Letter title, I was basically ready to just give up. Slinging books that no one in the world seems to care about is as thankless and pathetic as it can get.

(Although I want to make a critical, annoying point right here: No one is outraged that this store didn’t bring in even a single Open Letter title, even though I spent $500 and my weekend flying down, bringing them books, buying them pizza and beer. That’s insulting. And bad business. Yet, according to most everyone, that’s the bookstore’s choice. They don’t have to stock our books. But when Amazon doesn’t stock Hachette? That’s an attack on authors and book culture. It’s an understandable, yet weird double-standard. I wish Amazon didn’t carry Hachette or any of the Big Five. More space for Open Letter titles. Same thing goes for other bookstores. Get rid of the weeds so the good literature can grow!)

Despite all my misanthropic inclinations to skip the rep night and sit in my room drinking myself blind, I powered on, gave a half-entertaining presentation, and had a great time hanging out with a lot of DC booksellers and librarians. (I also found out why our books weren’t in Kramer’s, and I really hope our DC-area sales rep shows up to his next meeting with the store.)

Offsetting my gloom and pessimism—not just at this event, but basically all the time—is Jeff Waxman of Other Press. Jeff used to work at Seminary Co-op and has special ties to booksellers around the country. A major part of his job at Other Press is to serve as a bookstore liaison and get booksellers excited about his books, displaying them, reading them, recommending them, etc. And these “rep nights” are one of the ways that he’s able to mobilize a lot of booksellers (and publishers) to get the word out in a fun, engaging, special way.

I’m not sure how many of these Jeff has done, but I was able to participate in one in Chicago last January that was astronomically effective in getting Open Letter titles into Chicago stores. We already had a lot of fans there—at Unabridged, Seminary, Book Cellar, etc.—but being able to meet with these booksellers face-to-face makes a huge difference.

That’s a cliche of the highest order, but when you live in the sticks of Rochester, NY (the only city more removed from book culture in the U.S. is probably Toronto) and rely almost exclusively on communication through email and social media, talking to a bookseller personally is hugely important.

And for booksellers, this must be thrilling. In addition to beer and pizza, you get individual presentations from New York Review Books, Soho Press, Other Press, Melville House, Grove, Open Letter, and New Directions and copies of their forthcoming books. Even if the usual suspects will still outsell all Open Letter books at these various bookstores, at least now there’s a chance that our books will be stocked, that faces won’t be blank when our rep shows up and talks about this “small indie press specializing in international literature.”

So, thanks to Jeff Waxman for doing these, for helping engage booksellers around the country and for allowing my grumpy ass to participate in a couple of these. I hope that Other Press will continue to set these up throughout the country, and that Open Letter will be invited to participate in at least a few. As retro as it seems, this is the future of publisher-bookseller relations, and getting booksellers excited about a title is definitely worth the price of a few six-packs and a pizza.

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