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The revolutionary Spinoff live email interview: book trade legend Paul Greenberg

Steve Braunias talks with the greatest salesman in the history of New Zealand publishing – Paul Greenberg, a small, unassuming gentleman who lives in Palmerston North, and was honoured with a lifetime achievement award in the weekend.

Everyone in New Zealand books knows Paul Greenberg – he’s a living legend, the last of the mohicans. He’s a sales and distribution agent. He’s worked in publishing since the 1960s. He’s a small, compact fellow, over retirement age shall we say, forever decked out in one of his numerous bright waistcoats, with a smile on his dial and a fast, nimble mind.

On Saturday night he was honoured with a lifetime achievement award at the New Zealand Book Trade Industry Awards. It floored him. He didn’t see it coming, doesn’t regard himself as anything special: “I’m just one of the grunts,” he said at the conference. He’s put in the grunt work over the years for AH & AW Reed, that appalling rogue Alister Taylor, Lonely Planet (he was their original NZ distributor), Cambridge and Oxford University Press, Harlequin, Paul Little Books, Luncheon Sausage Books, and dozens of other publishers.

He lives in Palmerston North with his partner Joan Roulston. They run Greene Phoenix Marketing, which uses Nationwide Book Distributors in Canterbury to distribute books in the South Island, and PDL in Auckland to do likewise in the North Island. They operate by stealth, often dealing in limited runs from small presses. “Rats and mice,” one bookshop manager once said to me when we talked about Greenberg. But the manager also said that no one knew the trade as well as Greenberg, and that he always has something interesting on the go.

I very happily declare an interest: as the publisher of Luncheon Sausage Books, I work closely with Paul. He’s a fantastic fellow, energetic, thoughtful, funny, an eternal optimist. It’s a privilege to know the legend.

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WITH JO MCCOLL FROM UNITY BOOKS

Greetings, Paul, and welcome to the Spinoff live email interview, the practice that is revolutionising and possibly even redeeming that tired old nag known as journalism. We’re talking because you’ve just been honoured with a lifetime achievement award. Congratulations! One of the requirements of such an award is that you have to be fairly old. You’ve certainly been around a long time Paul and I’d like to ask you whether the story is true that the first book you worked on involved visiting Tim Shadbolt in prison in like 1968 and smuggling out the manuscript of his cult book Bullshit & Jellybeans, which he wrote on toilet paper.  True or false?

Tim was a real Scarlet Pimpernel and smuggled out notes on odious scraps of paper which were delivered to his publisher Alister Taylor who then farmed out these scruffy missives to me (his sales rep) and others to have them typed by our partners or spouses.

How odious?

Certainly the notes were on tiny pieces of paper and were often difficult to decipher.

Hm. At any rate, the incident tells us you have been in the book trade for very nearly 50 years. As the award citation notes, “Paul Greenberg has spent his life representing books for sale to  bookshops all over NZ – the only sales rep to do so.” Is that literally true – you’ve travelled the length and width of the country, and stepped into pretty much every bookstore?

There will not be any long-standing bookshops that I have not physically visited.  The only regular gaps would be Invercargill south, the west coast of the South Island and Orewa north.  Having said that, I still enjoy being able to categorically state that I once visited every bookshop north of Orewa  in one day.

I first became aware of you when I set up Luncheon Sausage Books to self-publish my book Madmen, and I asked Paul Little for advice on how to sell a book and get it into the shops and all that. He emailed, “I use Paul Greenberg who actually travels the country with a suitcase of samples.” Ever since I’ve told people that you travel the country with your suit jackets on coathangers in the back of the car. I really like that detail. Is it accurate? Is that you, the long-distance sales rep, a veteran of the motel room sachet of instant coffee, if it’s Wednesday it must be Timaru – all that?

I have always been known as the rep who somehow turns up at the right time.  By nature I am not a rigid, scheduled person, rather working from the seat of my pants and whatever is appropriate in my sales kit at the time.

With your suit jacket on a coathanger in the back seat of the car?

I’m better known by my range of waistcoats.  It was only when Lincoln [Gould, CEO of Booksellers] described this year’s lifetime award winner wore waistcoats that I suspected that I was the likely recipient.

After Paul Little sent me that email, I got in touch. Typically, you were on the road – in Gisborne. We talked on the phone and I liked you so much and the way you talked that I said, “Let’s shake hands on a deal over the phone. I would love if if you acted as the sales and distribution agent for my book.” And you did, and you were absolutely magnificent; I credit you with making it a smash hit. I took the family on holiday to Fiji with the profits and it’s thanks to you. You were tireless, your advice was always bang-on, you got it into shops and you always called it right when you told me how many copies to reprint.

But we spoke of two other things in that phone call. One of them was that right at the end you mentioned almost in passing that I should know you had cancer. It was the kind of cancer that kills, but here you are. You should be dead, frankly.

I am perhaps blessed with the ability to view personal challenges in the third person.  What you have to understand is that you and Madmen were more powerful than any surgery or chemotherapy in terms of focusing on the “here and now”.  I still vividly recall our first conversation. It was just after I had been diagnosed with bowel cancer. After talking with you, I came to the obvious conclusion that Madmen was going to be a success.

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WITH PUBLISHER AND BOOK EXPORTER BOB ROSS

Paul, all and any success of that book was due to your charm and persuasion in getting it into the bookstores. But I must admit I wondered whether, you know, you’d be around to make it a success! A month after our phone conversation, I got this email from your partner Joan: “His op was successful – removed a large tumour so unfortunately chemo likely in a few weeks.  He’s doing well – always sees the brighter side of life.” How many rounds of chemo did you have? Did you nearly die?

What they never tell you about the chemo process is that they set out to determine how much chemo may kill you and then dependent on your physical response, adjust the formula to keep you alive and (hopefully) “do in” the cancer’s likely return.  True to the formula, I just about was taken out by round two of the chemo but my brilliant oncologist immediately reacted, and my chemo formula was adjusted. I am living proof of the oncologist’s skill.

The other thing in that first conversation was I said to you something like, “You know, it’s kind of strange we haven’t spoken before. You’ve been in publishing forever, and I know loads of people in the trade.” And you said, “Well – we did have contact of a kind, once.” And you left a long pause. I thought, Oh God, did I get drunk and smack him over? Or, worse, did I get drunk, and he smacked me over?

Finally you said that I’d once left a phone message with you. I’d called because I was writing a profile for Metro of the former Act MP David Garrett – and I found out you’re David’s brother.

You never got back to me, which I guess is why I’d forgotten your name. But I talked to a lot of other people, and wrote the story, and Garrett hated it; and you told me over the phone that day that he accused you of having a hand in it, and the two of you haven’t spoken since.

Steve, it is extremely important to me that David Garrett does not gain any traction in his assertion that you, under the influence of a bottle of brandy, admitted that it was me who “spilled the beans”.  Irrespective of his assertions, our professional and personal relationship is built on that trust.

I don’t drink brandy! That’s just complete bullshit, and bizarre, too – how can someone “admit” to something that didn’t happen? You didn’t talk to me, let alone spill a bean. Jesus. What nonsense.

Do you mind this being part of the interview? I mean – he’s your brother. Is it too painful, the source of too much grief?

Not at all.

Righto then. Back to publishing: a dragon of the trade said to me once, “I had a chat with Paul Goldberg [sic] at a booksellers’ Xmas shenanigans on Sunday. He tried to persuade me the future lay in 300-400 print runs. It does not – unless you’re a certified charity.”

Discuss. Why do you think that? Isn’t it a forlorn hope, a deluded idea?

Aha!  We both know to whom you refer. I re-tell your and my strategy: find a printer who understands short print runs and minimal margins, and work assiduously with the sell-in data from independent distributors such as PDL and the sell-through data that Nielsen Book Data provide through their subscribed booksellers. As you have acknowledged earlier in this interview, Madmen turned a profit, despite the doom and gloom predictions of established publishers.

I was thrilled by how well it went – very nearly 3000 copies sold in four reprints in the weeks before Xmas. It was exciting, too, making quick decisions on how many copies to reprint. I mucked up right at the end when I ignored your advice and ordered about 400 too many. They’re very fine margins, aren’t they?

But what about that put-down – “certified charity”? Okay, so the sales were good for Madmen, and also Lily Max, the other book I published under Luncheon Sausage Books, a junior fiction novel by Queenstown writer Jane Bloomfield. It did two editions and is a finalist at the NZ Childrens Books Awards held next month. But what about books which might only sell 300-400 copies?

I note that you represent small publishers such as Makaro, Atuanui, Esclator, and Titus. I imagine that runs of 300-400 are the norm for some of them.

In tomorrow’s Spinoff, we have stories about the pros and cons of self-publishing by writers Sarah Wilson of Nelson, and Kirsten Mckenzie of Auckland, who put out a novel last year called 15 Postcards. What do you say to them, or anyone thinking of self-publishing? Is it worth it?

You will re-call that in our early discussions, I retold the urban myth of Mr Goldstein, the New York Jewish publisher who won the New York State lottery in the 1930s, worth $3 million.  When interviewed by the media who asked what Mr. Goldstein would do with his win, he responded, “I will put the money into my publishing company, until it is all gone…”

Nothing has changed. Most of us are in this extraordinary business because we are all fucking mad!  One has only to look back on the great early 20th Century British publishers whose finest character trait was that they were all eccentrics.

I am sure if you talk to Roger Steele (Steele Roberts), Mary Egan ( Mary Egan Publishing) and Mary Mc Callum (Makaro Press) you will find that while breaking even is the ideal, it is the work itself that is the over-riding imperative.

Yes, the work! At Luncheon Sausage Books, we are committed to good work. Wait till you see my next book, a photoessay I’m creating with photographer Peter Black. It’s called The Shops. It’s a goddamned work of art and I am relying on you to get it into bookstores so I can take another family holiday to hm this time maybe Kumeu.

That gifted journalist Greg Bruce wrote a brilliantly observed and maybe devastating portrait of you in a  newspaper last year. It was kind of Glengarry Glen Ross – or Death of  a Salesman. He watched you trying to sell stock to a stubborn bookstore manager. And you said a striking thing to Greg. “The greatest thing you’ve got going for you is your credibility, but it’s also the most fragile.” What did you mean by that?

I learned in my very first week as the rep of our just formed wholesale company, Roulston Taylor Greene, way back in 1980, that if I gained no sales at all, my intenseness to make a sale became palpable – and booksellers, sensing the desperation, simply froze.  At the end of that week, I knew I had to take the approach that it was not the immediate sell-in result that counted, but the sell-through result, so I took the attitude that the only sales I was interested in were the ones that I thought the bookseller would achieve.

And since I was hoping to be in business for a very long time, I wanted the bookseller to view my calls as a positive experience and one to look forward to.

I believe I have, overall, achieved that goal.

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WITH A VISITOR FROM HAWKES BAY


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