Could our arms reach Milwaukee, one John Eklund would likely be bruised by back-pats, because we were thrilled to learn last week that he’s been named one of Publisher’s Weekly’s four finalists for Rep of the Year! Such recognition is a fine honor for a tireless advocate of university press publishing. And, though John’s likely to find our dwelling on this news silly, a few words are in order.
In an industry currently dizzy with its focus on ebooks and data, data, data, John is a capital-B, capital-P Book Person. He’s as invested in the health of the book business as anyone, but because of books and people, not because of profits or shareholders. He still believes strongly in the ability of books to explain the world around us. When he found himself appalled by the self-centeredness of American news coverage of recent events in Egypt, he rattled off a list of a dozen books to do the explaining that the media couldn’t or wouldn’t. When the headlines about Borders filing for bankruptcy focused on investors and bottom lines, John made us remember the 20,000 booksellers in line to lose their jobs. Books and people.
John has been representing the Harvard, Yale, and MIT presses since 1998. He came to work with us after spending many years as a buyer and bookseller for the landmark independent Schwartz chain in Milwaukee, and he’s carried that commitment to independent bookselling into his life as a rep. John understands publishing, bookselling, and reading as the delicate ecosystem that they together comprise, and he’s forever ready to remind us when we let ourselves forget. He posts “road reports and musings” to his blog, Paper Over Board, where his sharp eye and open mind show themselves time and again, like in this post from November, when a bowl of grapes on a restaurant table got him thinking about how booksellers build loyalty. John’s great at seeing something that works and drilling right down to why, as in this love letter to The Elliott Bay Book Company last summer. If you’re in the book business and you don’t read John’s blog, start now.
The sales rep’s fundamental role is to serve as an essential conduit between publishers and booksellers, but it’s not just a one-way transfer. Sure, John has to present to his accounts the hundreds of new books that HUP, Yale, and MIT have to offer each season across history, science, art, sociology, popular culture, politics, and the rest. But reps also have to send information in the other direction, reporting back to publishers on how new titles are being received, and also on trends and developments on the front lines. As much as we try to keep up with what’s out there, people in a publishing house are often trapped in our own little bubble. Reps provide us with critical contact with the booksellers who still know more about what and how people read than any algorithm can tell us.
A great rep like John, though, is so much more than a cable between parties. Repping has always been about relationships, and maybe never more than today. In an industry facing as much monumental change as publishing, those relationships and commitments can still be what pull you through. Somehow recently in publishing “legacy” has become a pejorative, and “traditional” seems now to be code for “dying.” John’s quick to spot and embrace innovation, but his respect for tradition and for relationships are what most stand out about him. He’s learned this business from people he’d say he’s been lucky to know, like Mark Gates, and David Stimpson. While John’s always eager to credit those he’s learned from throughout his career, here’s hoping he knows that these days he also does an awful lot of teaching.
Finally, in this winter when John’s been joining workers in Wisconsin and elsewhere who are standing up for their right to band together, it has to be said that his relationship with his colleagues makes him uneasy with this personal recognition. For years John has been partnered with Adena Siegel and Patricia Nelson in representing Harvard, Yale, and MIT, and their arrangement is unique. Just last week, all three took time out of their selling season to engage in a round robin of thoughtful emails about ideas for improving our catalog. John’s the first to say that it’s a group effort, and that it should be recognized as such.
Even so, John, please accept our congratulations. And when next we see you, and those back-pats fly, don’t say you weren’t warned.
(UPDATE: He won!!)