The all-important subject of selling in publishing is a relatively neglected one, even in the UK’s internationally renowned centres of publishing education. This is surprising for at least two reasons: first, because sales are the lifeblood of the business: we stand or fall by our sales, and they are the bedrock of our future existence and success; and secondly, experience has shown that even the outstanding lists of the leading publishers perform less well when the sales effort in a particular territory is neglected or sub-standard.

A well-oiled, effective sales operation is essential for an academic publisher, whether in order to gain textbook adoptions or in selling print books or digital bundles to libraries round the world. In educational publishing, the sales operation must include support that will show teachers how to use course materials, especially where print and digital resources are complementary.

A major part in UK publishing’s world-leading success in export has been played by an approach that evolved from the 1960s onwards and was steadily shared across the industry. Export had been important before, but was focused mainly on the English-language markets that were a legacy of empire. The new approach was based on the recognition that there was a growing market for English-language books across all sectors in non-English-language markets. It benefitted from expertise acquired in dealings with the traditional markets, and included the acquisition of deep market knowledge and the forming of long-term relationships with customers, partners and associates on the ground. Importantly, it also involved acquiring knowledge of local politics and culture, as well as studying and respecting local ways of doing business: brisk sealing of the deal needed in more contexts to give way to patiently building up trust, sometimes over many cups of tea. The lesson of this history is central to embarking on an export journey and to consolidating progress already made.

In the modern world, the very background to this increasing business opportunity——the spread of the English language—-means that business can mostly be done in English, and of course no-one expects exporters to master a whole range of languages. But speaking the local language, even to a limited extent, can emphasise commitment and good faith, and sometimes make the crucial difference.

There are different kinds of salesmanship, and the pejorative caricatures of the encylopedia- or second-hand-car-salesman bear no relation to modern-day sales activity in the publishing industry, where even a winner-takes-all educational contract needs servicing, support, and hopefully renewal. These core principles offer a basis for good practice:

  • Define your expectations to yourself in the company budgeting process, and at the time of product-acquisition or -development. What is the potential of this project in international markets, what are we prepared to say we’ll sell, and (in certain cases) might some adaptation be required to presentation and even content in order that our ambitions may be realised? 
  • For major titles or projects, it can be worth consulting your agents and overseas partners, in confidence and where appropriate at this early stage, in order to define shared expectations and obtain commitment and buy-in. 
  • To varying degrees across the sectors, publishing is a passion- and enthusiasm-game. The most successful salesmanship involves selling yourself (establishing your credentials as someone authentic, knowledgeable, credible, reliable, trustworthy and good to do business with) and then expressing that enthusiasm for the product convincingly. The subject may be an original new novel, a ground-breaking subject-course at primary or secondary school level, an innovative undergraduate text book, a digital bundle of high-level scholarly research or an influential journal. Sometimes the enthusiasm will be driven more by commercial potential than by engagement with the content, when the sales opportunity is clear. 
  • Know your list and your content: the nature of this knowledge is clearly variable from sector to sector. A job candidate once asked a senior executive at a major trade house “Do you read all the books?” The reply came that it would be impossible to read all the books even if the executive spent every living hour reading! Publishers have addressed this challenge by developing ways of knowing their books through metadata that includes synopses, sales points and author biographies. But in trade publishing, reading in full or in part the lead titles and those that may have particular export potential will contribute significantly to the sales person’s presentation. This reading may well have taken place at acquisition stage for certain titles or projects. Sales points means reasons for the saleability of a book or project: reasons why the customer should be confident of selling on the stock purchased, or (in the case of educational customers) why the materials in question will be effective. 

In the academic sector the nature of subject-specialism means greater reliance on positioning of the product, on key sales points provided by editors, and on the reputation of the authors, the imprints and where relevant the series.

In the educational sphere the sales person needs to speak the language of the educator and to understand their own subject-course thoroughly: to know the structure of the materials, how the print elements are complemented by the digital, what ancillary support matter is included and how it will be delivered. It must be made clear how materials fit the local curriculum in terms not only of covering the ground but also of cultural fit.

  • Triage your product and prioritise it, focusing on those elements that stand the best chance of travelling successfully into the market in question. Nothing will enhance the seller’s credibility more than the effective application of this principle; while dwelling on product without that potential will have an equal effect in an adverse direction. Sometimes a book’s positive performance will surprise even the local operator as well as the publisher, and that unexpectedness can itself be exhilarating; but a combination of market knowledge and common-sense assessment will mostly be effective.
  • In this process of triage, bear in mind that Freedom to Publish, which alongside copyright is one of the pillars of the International Publishers Association (IPA, founded in 1896, the same year as the modern Olympic movement) remains a rare and precious phenomenon around the world. Powerful regimes live in fear of the critical or ‘offensive’ written word and go to great and sometimes brutal lengths to suppress it and its authors. Self-censorship in pursuit of the commercial imperative by English-language exporting publishers has become controversial in the C21st, and this is delicate and complex territory. It is something exporting publishers who have dealings with local agents and distributors must bear in mind, since a false step can for them mean loss of livelihood and even of personal freedom. There may also be repercussions closer to home.
  • Make clear to the buyer within a book trade customer what sorts of marketing support the publisher will provide in order to provoke sales into the market, and what opportunities the customer might have to participate in publisher-originated marketing and promotional activity.
  • Keep sales presentations crisp and to the point, bearing in mind pressures on the recipient’s time and attention span.
  • Where backlist sales are a key part of shared business, allow space for that discussion too, offering subject-lists as well as opportunities to participate in suitable and topical promotions.