Friday, March 20, 2009

HarperCollins' Loss is Our Loss

The best sales rep I have ever worked with in my 12 years of buying will be retiring later this year. HarperCollins' John Zeck was not planning to retire so soon, but when the publisher offered early retirement he took them up on their deal. Ouch.

I have had some amazing reps, including this year's Publishers Weekly Rep of the Year Penguin's Tom Benton, my legendary Random House rep Ron Smith, and my always patient and very understanding Hachette rep Randy Hickernell but no one did nearly as much for their publisher as John Zeck.

Zeck is a tireless promoter of Harper's titles. What makes him different than almost every other rep is that he closely monitors his books from the initial sales call, to their release, to their sell through and even onto their life as remainders. He does this for dozens and dozens of titles every single season despite having the largest list of any rep, selling both kids and adult titles and working a huge territory.

If you aren't in the publishing industry, you'd probably assume that following a title through its life cycle is a standard practice for a sales rep. You would be wrong. Most reps follow through on a couple of titles and then they're off to the next season. The sheer volume of new books means that the reps are constantly working six to nine months in the future.

I encountered the awesome power of Zeck during my first year as a buyer. I was under a mandate to reduce the store's inventory and I was in over my head when it came to juggling all the responsibilities of my new job. Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells was beginning to take off in paperback. We had sold 20 copies in a few weeks and I was playing catch up with the inventory. I got a call from Zeck that I will never forget.

"Hey Dude, you need to order 100 copies of Divine Secrets."
"I don't need that many. Maybe another 20."
"No. You need at least 100. This book is going to be huge. You've got to stop chasing it."
"We aren't selling 100 copies a month of anything right now. It's too many."
"Just trust me on this. I'll eat the books if they don't sell."

I bought the 100 books, in part just to get him off the phone, and they sold in just a few weeks. By then I knew to keep about 100 books in stock at all times. We went on to sell 2,964 copies of Divine Secrets. Sure, we would have sold the bulk of those copies without John's help. However the truth is it would have taken me three months to get up to the quantity I really needed to sell the book to its fullest potential. John got me there in one phone call.

John and a few other notable long-time reps really taught me how to be a buyer. On long drives up and down from the mountains to ski, I peppered him with questions about the industry. I must have driven him nuts. "Why aren't there better incentives to buy nonreturnable?" "What kind of sell through on the frontlist are publishers really expecting?" "How come we have to buy by season instead of monthly?" "What percentage of hardbacks is sold in the first month of release?" He answered every question like a hyper big brother. Sometimes the answers were pure bullshit, but he always made me think. He always challenged me to do a better job, which was to sell more books.

His influence and his gregarious personality extended far beyond the booksellers his me. Last week my wife was listening to a Lisa Scottoline audiobook. At the end of the nine discs, Scottoline's acknowledgements were read. My wife was shocked to hear Scottoline mention the "world famous John Zeck." How many times does a Philadelphia author publicly single out and thank the Denver based rep for his help? Never.

Zeck is one of a kind when it comes to dealing with authors. He fully understood that they were the lifeblood of the industry and even if they weren't always the most pleasant people every effort needed to be extended to make them feel welcome and comfortable. At a recent promotional dinner hosted by Zeck, Simon Van Booy the author of the forthcoming Love Begins in Winter, leaned over to me and said pointing to John, "He's incredible. Is he like this for every author?" The answer, of course, was yes.

It's easy to lose sight of just how incredible John Zeck is at his job because of his larger-than-life personality. He takes over the whole office during a sales call. It's hard for anyone to get any work done when his booming voice drowns out their thoughts. He barks commands at our marketing director; he issues directives to our backlist buyers. He's a whirlwind with a new idea every 10 minutes.

The disruption to the office is exacerbated because he seems to be chronically disorganized and have attention deficit disorder. However, he knows his books, he knows our store, and he can work the Above the Treeline inventory system better than anyone in the country. By the time he leaves the office we are seeing a dozen titles in a different light, we have taken up the mantle for the books he is passionate about.

His passion isn't just about hot new books, or sexy titles by up and coming authors. When we run out of the Goodnight Moon board book for even a day, I'm liable to get a call from Zeck. "I'm looking at Above the Treeline, and you're out of Goodnight Moon again?! Just order a dozen and get it over with." Does that sound like a disorganized person who has trouble focusing? No way. Sometimes, I think John's hit upon the perfect salesman act. He creates a huge storm, but he has an idea about how every piece of dust is going to settle.

Harper would be insane to lose him. I predict that without an absolutely top-notch replacement, who would probably cost nearly as much as whatever Zeck is earning, our sales will drop by 10%. When I told our children's buyer, she rolled her eyes and indicated the falloff would be much greater in her department. Zeck has cajoled, bullied, and outsmarted us to the point where Harper dominates our children's recommended titles and overall sales.

Here's my suggestion to Harper. Pay John Zeck the early retirement package (call it a bonus and fire someone at Fox News to cover it), give him a couple months off, let him choose his territory and be thankful that you dodged a bullet. I have no idea if John would even consider this deal, but frankly, if Harper were to cut their sales department to one person, that person needs to be John Zeck.


Anonymous said...

Hear hear. I've been scheduled to follow John in presentations at MPIBA when I worked for another publisher. Not possible. Now I work with John as his New England colleague and his departure is devastating. He pushes the limit on everything but it's never gratuitous. He's smarter than anyone I've met and passionate. You're lucky to have had him as your rep and friend. Anne D.

PK said...

A beautifully expressed and heartfelt tribute to a great sales rep and bookman. I only met John a couple of times, but I can attest to the affectionate accuracy of Arsen's portrayal.

Selling books is a human activity, carried on by passionate, knowledgeable, and trustworthy people who participate in a great ongoing conversation. Authors, agents, editors, sales reps, buyers, booksellers, customers -- a chain of book people talking to one another creates the book culture and sustains the book business. And that conversation is sadly diminished when someone like John is coaxed to leave.

Perhaps some publishers believe fancy machines running complex algorithms can replace the human conversation.

John Rubin said...

Indeed. We here at Above the Treeline will miss John's great energy, intelligence, humor and passion for getting the right books in the right places. One of the best litmus tests of whether something we did was good or bad was always John's reaction.

Thanks for writing such a great tribute Arsen!

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Lisa Scottoline said...

Bravo! What a wonderful tribute to a great rep and much more importantly, a great person. I said all that great stuff about John Zeck becasue it's all true - he's a person who understands and loves books and people. A ture intellectual, without being a showoff. I'm so glad to see that you appreciate him, too (and now this blog is on my list of favorites, as is yor wife, by the way, for her fine taste in audiobooks!) Zeck is far too young to retire but it will leave us more time for a night out with him and Belva when I hit Denver! Stay well. Love, Lisa

Garth Stein said...

This makes me very sad.... Driving around in the Z-man's minivan with the boxes of books sliding around in the back and the faint odor of gasoline wafting through the cab, the memory of it makes me realize....John IS Denver....John IS HC....John IS me!

Don't go, Zeck! Don't go! Zeck!!!!


chris bates said...

Re: "Why aren't there better incentives to buy nonreturnable?"

Arsen, what incentives would you as a buyer like? Bigger discounts, free displays...? As an author I'd be keen to find out what would sway you towards non-returnable.