A Conversation with Julie Schaper, President of Consortium Book Sales & Distribution
Welcome to Akashic in Good Company, a weekly column featuring managing editor Johanna Ingalls’s interviews and profiles with many of the remarkable people in the publishing industry today. Over the past fifteen years, Akashic has worked with an amazing array of talented, hard-working, committed people and Akashic would not be the company it is today without their help and advice along the way.
In the beginning, her focus will be on women in the industry (“What can I say, I went to Barnard”), and she launches Akashic in Good Company with one of the most amazing women we’ve had the pleasure of working with— and getting to know—over these past thirteen years: Julie Schaper, the president and chief operating officer of Consortium Book Sales and Distribution (CBSD)—Akashic’s distributor since spring 2000.
Julie graciously agreed to do an interview with me just before the holidays late last year and as I prepare to write up her profile, I realize the one thing I will not be able to properly convey is Julie Schaper’s laugh . . . So, what you need to know is, Julie has one of the best laughs—ever. It’s wholehearted, honest, and springs up quickly and often. One of the random bits of unsolicited advice my father used to give me and my sister when we were growing up was to never trust anyone who doesn’t have a sense of humor . . . Julie Schaper passes my father’s test with flying colors and would earn his immediate respect and trust, as she has with all of us at Akashic. I do hope her wonderful sense of humor comes across, and as far as her laugh . . . you’ll just have to take my word for it.’
“Distribution is not sexy” —Julie Schaper, Dec. 2012
Julie Schaper was born in Milwaukee, WI and grew up in a variety of places including a small town in Western Kentucky (Princeton), Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts. After graduating early from high school (at age sixteen!), she went on what she describes as “an odyssey of several different colleges and universities, including but not limited to: Stephens College in Columbia, MO, Western Illinois University in Macomb, IL, Murray State in Kentucky, and the University of Kentucky.” It was at this last university that she “finally” got her undergraduate degree.
Similar to the “odyssey” of colleges and universities, Julie also held an interesting array of jobs leading up to Consortium—she worked on horse farms on and off during college and upon graduating she moved to DC and worked at a Barnes & Noble in Falls Church, VA where she “decided that was not her life path and went to graduate school and got a Masters in Art Therapy.”
After a little bit of laughter from both of us—on her part, because, well, see above, and on my part because I’m surprised to learn of her unsettled beginnings. Julie’s always been an incredibly grounded, focused, stable presence and I naively assumed this meant she had a very focused, grounded, stable path to her current career. Hearing that she did not makes me admire her all the more. I’m always a little intimidated—or to perfectly honest, annoyed—by those who know exactly what they want to do from childhood, and then actually go and do it . . . I mention now that her biography doesn’t seem to be leading to her current position, but she promises me it will.
During graduate school she worked at an independent bookstore in Louisville, KY and after graduation she was asked to be its manager and buyer. She did that for several years until she was recruited by a Putnam sales rep, where she worked for about a year. She then moved on to HarperCollins, first in Rochester, NY and then New York City for a few years. Two of the years at HC she was the children’s sales manager, until, in her words she “alienated everyone in the children’s sales department,” and was moved over to work on mass merchandise. She did this for a few years, but it was “not what I wanted to do” she states firmly, and it was at this time that she applied for (and got!) the job of sales director at Consortium. She started working at CBSD in September 1994 and has been at the company ever since moving up through its ranks to her current position as president.
Consortium currently distributes approximately 110 independent publishers of varying sizes and focuses, including Archipelago Books, Cinco Puntos Press, AK Press, City Lights Publishers, Saqi Books, Coach House Books, Haymarket Books, Feral House, the Feminist Press at CUNY, Dzanc Books, Copper Canyon, Coffee House Press, Bellevue Literary Press—just to name a few. Their publishers are based all over the US, Canada, and they also work with some British and European companies. The mission statement/company profile on their website (which I just read for the first time!) says: “Looking for books? We’ve got them. In fact, we’ve got an incredible array of fiction, poetry, politics, current affairs, children’s books, and just about everything else from over 100 independent publishers around the world. In representing this vibrant community of publishers, our mission is to get their books into the hands of the widest possible audience. Our publishers’ authors include Howard Zinn, Charles Bukowski, Elfriede Jelinek, Che Guevara, Tony Kushner, Pablo Neruda, and Arundhati Roy, and their honors include Pulitzer Prizes, National Book Awards, and Nobel Prizes (to name a few). These are great books from great publishers.”
There are fifteen employees at the home office based in St. Paul, MN, many of whom have been there for several years.
In moving into the CBSD portion of the interview I ask her about signing Akashic on which I know happened after at least one failed attempt on our end to join Consortium. I know just prior to signing us that CBSD had gone through some legal nightmare involving a fellow indie publishing house . . . and I also know Akashic was often lumped in with this publisher at the time. (We were thought of—correctly or not—as a rock ‘n’ roll publisher due to [Akashic publisher] Johnny’s full-time career as a bassist in the noise-rock band Girls Against Boys.) I ask her about how skeptical she was signing on a publishing company run by a full-time touring musician who spent more months on the road than off and his fresh-out-of-the–music industry, no-publishing-background assistant (me). She replies as openly and honestly as ever:
“Part of it was, well, yeah, we were afraid of getting burned like we did . . . and also, number of titles it takes a for-profit company [to be sustainable]. When you’re a not-for-profit company, there’s the potential for you to raise the money that you need. So, for profit . . . you know, running a for-profit company in publishing is really challenging . . . But I also appreciate persistence of effort and vision which Johnny has a lot of.”
When I state the obvious, that we’re thrilled she was willing to take the chance on Akashic, she reminds me that many of their publishers start when they’re small. In fact, this is part of Consortium’s mission—to help companies grow and survive. Akashic has benefited from this commitment—from both Julie and her staff— immensely. In spring 2000 when we transferred our stock from Johnny’s apartment to Consortium’s warehouse I believe we had 6–8 titles in print . . . Maybe we were aiming for a book a month at that point, though in looking back even this seems like an insane number to aim for at the time (though, no one’s ever said Akashic is run by a bunch of sane people . . . sooooo). Now we struggle to ONLY publish 25-30 books/year . . . we have close to 300 titles in print and a full-time staff of five. That we have grown over these years is no doubt due to Consortium’s efforts to make sure we grew smartly, and in the right ways.
Remembering back to my time in the music industry, I ask Julie if she has ever encountered sexism or any difficulty being a female boss. I don’t feel like I see it as much in publishing, and I’m curious to hear from someone with such a high level position in the industry.
“I have to say I haven’t. You know I feel like I’ve always been able to stand up for myself, and I think that’s pretty key. I’m not saying that in every instance . . . if there was something going on in the background. I suppose it’s possible. But I’ve always felt like I went ahead and just asked for what I wanted . . . and made the opportunities no matter where I was. I feel like the fact that I’ve been at Consortium through many moments of upheaval, and that people have trusted me over and over within the organization . . . ” (I interrupt here to compliment her on how many people at Consortium have been there for years, and says a lot to me about the stability of a company) . . . Julie agrees and goes on to speak about her staff.
“I think the people who work here are very passionate and engaged and they want to be here. And they want to help publishers. I think that’s really in our DNA. I don’t know if you’ve ever talked to— you know, when John Baynes picks up the phone (and he’s done this like his entire career at Consortium, which is now over twenty years long), he just says ‘I can help. This is John, I can help.’”
It is an important point she’s making here because Consortium is always there and available to help and listen to all their publishers’ legitimate and inevitably annoying concerns, issues, problems (we can be a very whiney bunch, I promise you!).
When I ask her what I will likely ask most people who I interview: What keeps her inspired and prevents her from falling into a rut after working so long in the industry she answers without hesitation in two words: “The books.”
“Every season you have new books. For Consortium, we often have new publishers, so, there’s always something fresh and interesting on the horizon. And, now we’re in this incredible period of change within the industry, so I think that opens up a lot of opportunities to explore.”
This leads me to ask her what annoying traits and habits publishers have from the point of view of the distributor. I have to admit she doesn’t sound like she wants to really answer this one and I’m struck with the fact that there are probably far too many for her to name.
“Oh boy. Let’s see. I guess it’s one of the things about being in the business for a long time. It’s, ah, a lot of things have smoothed out for me. You know, it’s not like any one thing, because there’s a lot that can go wrong in publishing, and with publishers—so much so that we started calling them ‘stupid publisher tricks.’ You know, where people just do things that are the same mistakes over and over and publishing is filled with lots of little details. You know, like, get the ISBN right on your book. A lot of times it’s just really basic stuff that goes wrong . . . I have this thing that I say to any new publisher: For the first year ask any question no matter how stupid you think it is. Ask. We’re here to help. We want you to learn about being a better publisher. After a year, if you’re still asking the same questions . . . then, we’re not going to be so happy.”
So maybe we publishers have to be better listeners and learners?
“Yeah. We give a lot of opportunities to learn a lot about publishing and about the business and when people aren’t changing—not in terms of being true to their vision, that’s what they’re supposed to —but when they do things that don’t move them forward, that drives me crazy. I think it’s things that smart people can learn, and doing the same dumb things over and over just never makes sense to me.”
I ask if there’s anything she’d like to talk about that she isn’t asked in interviews. There is not and she goes on to explain: “I’ve told this to people before, distribution is not sexy. People don’t tend to ask you a lot of questions. I don’t get interviewed that often, hardly ever, actually. So I mean, people want to know about authors, people want to know about publishers . . . particularly with independent publishers I think people are interested in the publishing story more so than maybe a large publisher. But distribution tends to be fairly invisible. It’s not necessarily a bad thing.”
As I mentioned earlier, Consortium is not based in the publishing capital of New York City, but in St. Paul, MN. When asked if this is a plus or minus she replies that it’s a bit of both. “I feel like there’s an incredible freedom. I think there’s a certain kind of conformity that can happen in New York. It’s just a world unto itself. I think there’s a lot of freedom out here to think about the business and the work. The downside is making sure we’re involved and know what’s going on in the wider world. You know, sometimes you can get a little bit of tunnel vision. Trying to keep a balance on that, and that’s where Perseus (Consortium’s parent company) comes in handy because they’re in New York. I feel like as a company, because we’re spread out across the United States, that there is a lot of different thinking and more points of view that come across than someone who is just located in one place.”
I couldn’t agree more with Julie and thank her for taking the time to do the interview with me. As I type this up, again, I’m concerned with the fact that I’m not doing justice to the amazingness that is Julie Schaper, but, like her laugh I hope you’ll just take my word for it.
Posted: Feb 1, 2013
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