Sales agents, that is to say sellers who travel regularly into or within overseas territories to sell books using materials provided by the publisher, may be based either in the publisher’s home territory or elsewhere; and if elsewhere, most often within the territory they cover.

They will specialise in a region or country, and develop close knowledge of the markets and customers in that area. Agents may focus on book trade customers, and/or on educational institutions from school to tertiary level; in the latter case they may seek school or university textbook adoptions, or sell to libraries at these levels. Here it should be noted that complexities have arisen with the increasing use of digital materials, whether in schools (as described in the introduction to this guide), colleges or universities. During the Covid pandemic of 2020-2021, use of tertiary textbooks in digital format increased markedly, while academic publishers are expanding from a previously existing base the selling of digital bundles of academic monographs and research materials across all disciplines to libraries in the tertiary sector, on various models including subscription.

In this context, the role of the agent needs clear contractual definition in relation to what they are required to sell. Because of the centralised, cross-border nature of the selling of eBooks, especially those produced by the consumer sector, the agent’s role rarely includes that responsibility. On the other hand, agents may argue that their local activity provokes sales in all formats including digital, and that they deserve a level of commission on those sales too, always provided the publisher’s sales data will allow them to be identified by territory. The counterargument is that marketing has now taken on such a global character, with the publisher’s digital marketing playing a more and more important role, that sales in all formats in a given market may be largely created by the publisher’s own marketing activity.

Clearly, if an agent is recruited to sell educational or academic product within which a digital element is integral or even primary, that should be reflected in the agent’s remuneration, which is most often based on a percentage of sales made in the territory.

Agents will often specialise in a sector within publishing: consumer, academic, educational, English Language Teaching (ELT); though some agents range across these categories. An agent’s focus will understandably be determined by the principal business opportunities presented by the market in question.

The decision as to whether to hire an agent based in the publisher’s home country or one based in the sales territory is one to be made on a case-by-case evaluation, as is also true for those publishers who recruit salaried sales staff. Regular contact for publishers with agents located nearby is naturally easier, but those embedded in the market may develop deeper knowledge and closer connection. Those agents who have travelled over a period of years into their territories of operation from outside, however, may have no less profound knowledge, experience and relationships than their locally-based counterparts. Research, investigation and recommendation all play a central part in this recruitment.

In certain markets, and for certain categories of lists, locally-based agents can offer significant advantages and may even be a requirement: long-held customer relationships on the ground offer closer attention and service, and can help resolve problems including, importantly, those of payment. This can be particularly true of the markets of South, South-East and East Asia.

When appointing agents in the EU, it is important to be acquainted with the law relating to their remuneration, particularly on termination. It may be a requirement to pay them commission for a specified period after the contract is no longer in effect, to reflect activity relating to forthcoming publications. More information on the Commercial Agents (Council Directive) 1993 is available here.