Interview with a Bookseller: Conversation with Cindy Heidemann of Publishers Group West  
     Victoria Grossack

Cindy Heidemann is a publisher's representative for Publishers Group West (PGW). She started as a bookseller back in 1977, first working as a cashier at a university bookstore and then moving up. After many years of working in retail, she took six months off and then re-joined the industry, but this time as a publisher's rep. She’s been working as a rep for about six and a half years, and eventually found her way to PGW.

Note to Readers from Victoria: Publishers Group West is owned by Advanced Marketing Services, which filed for bankruptcy protection in January 2007, creating a difficult situation for the many small publishers represented by PGW. However, as I write these words, there is an interesting deal on the table from Perseus Books Group. So, although the advice in the interview here is valid, do your own research to make sure your information on business relationships is current.

Victoria: Tell me about Publishers Group West.

Cindy: Publishers Group West is the largest book distributor in the U.S. It represents about 150 different publishers, such as McSweeney’s and Grove/Atlantic Monthly, Canongate, Milkweed, Soft Skull, Sasquatch, Nation Books, Thunders Mouth, Carroll & Graf, Seal Press, Shoemaker and Hoard, House of Anansi. For more information, visit our website,

Victoria: Does it cover the entire U.S.? Is there a Publishers Group East, for example?

Cindy: Publishers Group West sells to the entire U.S. It originated in Berkeley, which explains the name. What I like about it is that there are always good books to read.

Victoria: How does this differ from Ingram, for example?

Cindy: PGW is a distributor. Ingram is a wholesaler. Ingram handles books from pretty much every publisher. We handle only books from our publishers. We do all warehousing, invoicing and shipping for these publishers. So Ingram is one of the places, besides the publisher (or distributor) where booksellers can get books. There are plenty of wholesalers out there: Baker and Taylor, Partners, Bookazine – and so on. Here’s one difference – we sell to Ingram.

Victoria: If you represent 150 publishers, how do you become familiar with the books?

Cindy: Obviously I can’t read every single book - we have catalogues which list the publishers’ books. Still, I read somewhere between 30 and 40 books a season. We have three selling seasons a year, so that’s an average of four months per season. I try to read manuscripts and galleys to stay ahead of things. I go to sales conferences, where the publishers talk about their books and tell us their selling points. And I’m in communication with the other field reps – which is great, because we don’t all like the same things.

Victoria: What sort of books do you like to read?

Cindy: I enjoy mysteries, literary fiction, history, biographies and kids' books. I’m learning to like graphic novels.

Victoria: And how do you sell a book to a bookstore?

Cindy: I call on about sixty different clients in seven different states. I’m very honest with them – I tell them if I think they can or can’t sell a book. One thing that I can always count on is how smart my buyers are. They know their markets - what will and won’t sell.

Victoria: Can’t a bookseller return a book if it doesn’t sell?

Cindy: Yes. Can you imagine that in any other industry – say if a fashion store were to return its merchandise at the end of the season? Still, it helps the booksellers take chances.

Victoria: So, do you travel a lot?

Cindy: Yes. Most reps are loners in one way or another – you have to read a lot, and you have to spend many nights in hotel rooms. On the other hand, you also have to socialize.

Victoria: Do you read on your vacation?

Cindy: Sure. But I will spend some of that time reading books by publishers we don’t represent.

Victoria: What are some of the changes that you’ve seen in your work?

Cindy: Well, the computer is one – it can be both a blessing and a curse. For example, if an author has a second book, but the first one didn’t sell, it’s going to be hard to get the bookstores to buy the new one, no matter how wonderful it is. And the bookseller, because of the instantaneous nature of the computer, will see the poor numbers on the last book.

Victoria: What are some of the trends that you see in the industry?

Cindy: Many of the mid-list titles are falling off – it’s harder than ever for first-time authors. The chains control a lot of what gets published. There are the mergers that are taking place. On the other hand, there are a number of new voices coming up – new publishers who are coming out with some great books, such as Tin House, Hawthorne Books, Macadam Cage, Unbridled, Soft Skull, McSweeney's.

Victoria: Do you think that some of the expectations have gotten out of whack?

Cindy: Yes. Not every book can be a bestseller. And very, very few books sell a million copies or more.

Victoria: What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Cindy: I’m not a writer, but a reader, so I don’t know that I can answer that. I’d just tell writers to write your heart, your passion – what you know.

Victoria: What else can you tell us?

Cindy: I want to say that being in the book business is the best. It’s full of people who are smart, literate, and funny – many of the people who were the smartest kids in the class. There are no dumb booksellers.

Victoria: Thanks so much, Cindy, for sharing your experience and expertise! Questions or comments, please write to Grossackva at Yahoo dot com.

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About the Writer:

Victoria Grossack is, with Alice Underwood, the author of Iokaste: The Novel of the Mother-Wife of Oedipus, which, by the way, is an excellent example of a book with plot-driven chapters and cliffhangers. There's exciting news about Iokaste: even the Greeks are reading it! Learn more about Iokaste and other books in the series at Tapestry of Bronze

Victoria was a moderator of a critique group for Coffeehouse for Writers and teaches the From Leaves to Forests and Writing Historical Fiction workshops for Coffeehouse for Writers.