In celebration of our fifth year anniversary, we are hosting Gabrielle Zevin, author of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, on Monday, April 28. I asked Zevin for the story behind the book, especially as several folks mentioned that the book was partly inspired by Mark Gates, our longtime sales rep. Amusingly enough, our posts overlap a bit, but I hadn't read this when I wrote my own blog.
"When I sold my first book in 2004, I had no idea that publisher sales reps existed. My understanding of publishing and bookselling largely came from books I’d read about the writing life. I think of John Irving’s A Widow for One Year or Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys. Neither had mentioned that there was such a character as a sales rep and that, in fact, this person was rather important, if you wanted your book to actually end up in a bookstore.
The first of these book rep characters I ever knew personally was Mark Gates. Mark picked me up at O’Hare at 10 AM. His car smelled like cigarettes, and his voice reminded me of Harvey Fierstein. He threw my suitcase in the trunk of his compact car and started chatting with me as if he’d known me forever. I was on book tour for my second YA novel, but at the time, I was in the middle of writing my second adult novel, The Hole We’re In. Mark listened politely as I described the book I was working on: Female soldier comes back from Iraq to major financial and personal problems. Mark became uncharacteristically silent. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see his eyebrows had ever so slightly furrowed. “I just wonder who at FSG will edit it,” he said finally. And then a second later, “So, what are you planning to do for money?” Mark had known me about a half hour and he was already worried about whether I’d end up on the streets because of my foolish decision to write a deeply un-commercial, political novel. (Aside: Daniel Goldin is one of about three people in the country who seemed to like The Hole We’re In when it was published in 2010 by Grove Atlantic. I appreciate symmetry in life, and it’s a rather nice symmetry that he also wrote the blurb that accompanied The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry’s selection as the #1 IndieNext title this past April.)
Our first stop that day was Lake Forest Bookstore and Sue Boucher. I signed stock and then I listened to Mark as he ran through that year’s catalog. Much of what I know about sales calls comes from that meeting. Mark took out a paper catalog that represented the publisher’s wares for the season, and he proceeded to pitch the books within its pages. He was surprisingly candid, considering his job was to sell all of them, and the pace was fast, gossipy, a little ruthless. “This one’s not for you. This one’s heartbreaking, but it’s gonna be tough for your clientele--maybe try a box? Wait for paperback for this one. I’ll tell you, this one’s my passion! I promise you’ll sell as many as you take. This one’s… Well, you’ve done pretty well with the author’s previous work so perhaps start with a box. Between you and me, not his best work.” The book he seemed most excited about was Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader*, the novella about the Queen of England taking up reading, which was already out in hardcover. He’d flip past some pages in the catalog without even a comment. I remember being filled with a strong desire not to be an author with a book on one of Mark’s or any rep’s “flip past” pages. (I am certain I have been though.)
When I think back to that scene, it’s easy for me to imagine that the seed for The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry was planted right then. I liked watching Mark’s friendship with Sue Boucher. I liked the idea that sales reps and booksellers checked in with each other only a couple of times a year, but they had these peculiarly intimate relationships. And over books! As my character A.J. Fikry ruminates, “What, in this life, is more personal than books?”
Mark drove me all over Chicagoland--three days of modestly-to-poorly attended bookstore events and rowdy school visits and stock signings at Barnes and Nobles. He told me stories about people who were great at readings (Alice McDermott) and the one time an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show hadn’t helped book sales at all. He was certain a character in the novel I was touring was based on my editor’s husband. I remember laughing the whole time. When he dropped me off at the airport, it was suddenly so much quieter! I missed Mark and thought to myself, That guy might make a good character for a book some day.
Because he was an inspiration for the Harvey Rhodes character in The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, people have the idea that I knew Mark Gates well. I didn’t. A year or so after my book tour, I read his obituary either in Publisher’s Weekly or on the American Bookseller Association’s website. No one told me, because it wasn’t as if Mark and I were good friends or even friends. I was just one in a long line of authors Mark had driven around the Midwest, one in a long line of authors whose books he’d sold with all his considerable intellect and heart"
How crazy that the bookstore visit that Zevin accompanied Mark on was the one where he sold The Uncommon Reader! But it's not that crazy that the buyer/owner he sat down with was Sue Boucher, one of my favorite people in the business. She's no longer owns Lake Forest Book Store, but she's on to her next chapter in Michigan, and not surprisingly, it involves a bookstore, specifically The Cottage Bookshop in Glen Arbor.
Thanks, Gabrielle. See you Monday!