The question arises “In what contexts does sales activity take place?”, and the answer is that there are several, mainly: in-house, at sales conferences or meetings whether in person or online, at book fairs, and in the market territory.

In-house selling means focusing and galvanising the sales and marketing team, and it takes place through informal reinforcement as well as structured communication. Priority titles and projects are identified, those where successful sales performance will mean a good company result; and the supporting sales points are shared so that the whole team is equipped to communicate the message.

At sales conferences or meetings the audience is widened to include agents and possibly distributors. The principles set out above apply to the preparation and conduct of the presentations, and this is the moment when the sales materials (in print or digital form) needed for an effective selling job must be provided.

A pragmatic and realistic approach to book fairs should be adopted by SME publishers. Key overseas distributors visiting Frankfurt or London book fairs will commonly have a fair diary arranged long in advance with appointments on the half-hour every half-hour throughout the day. Only when a client publisher’s turnover with that distributor reaches a certain threshold, or when a moment of greater potential is sensed, will the distributor feel able to allocate a book fair slot.

It may be that an agent representing a publisher’s list will have a meeting with a range of distributors at a fair, and with the consent of those two parties it may be possible to attend such meetings, or a part of them. This is a subject to raise with the agent.

If meetings with distributors are secured (usually weeks or months ahead of the event), it is essential to make best practical use of them: in the hurly-burly of the fair people often run late, and a half-hour meeting may turn out to be only twenty minutes. This is not the forum for an extended sales presentation, but lends itself best to this agenda (as ever, thorough preparation is key):

  • A review of mutual business (including statistics from both parties if available) along with the market situation and trends, including the wider cultural, political and commercial scene
  • Focus on major forthcoming titles, projects and promotions, plus relevant news from the publisher, all with supporting material
  • Addressing of any current problems

Following the pandemic of 2020-2021, the Frankfurt Book Fair staged a hybrid in-person/online event, with workshops and forums online. In a context where some have questioned the future of book fairs, those who attended were strongly reminded of the inestimable value of face-to-face meetings, and how book fairs facilitate those in large numbers. In particular, delegates emphasised the importance of unscheduled meetings that result from chance encounters on exhibitors’ stands or while socialising, and how they can lead to fruitful collaboration.

Sales trips to chosen markets for the purposes of selling, in support of local sales and marketing activity, and to meet partners on their own turf and gain a better market understanding, have lain at the heart of UK publishing’s export success for many years.

Publishers need to decide whether present or potential levels of business will support the costs of this activity, while concerns about climate change, carbon footprint and green credentials have introduced fresh considerations. As described in the book fair context, there is no substitute for meeting in person and inhabiting the environment in which partners operate, when it comes to building productive business relationships. Those who take the time and trouble to make a market visit generate great appreciation which contributes significantly to that process. It can be very effective when a senior person from the publisher travels into a market and adds their vision, knowledge, passion and engagement to existing market relationships.

The planning of such business trips needs to be undertaken well in advance (say not less than four weeks), with carefully organised itineraries that take into account such practicalities as:

  • Taking advice on the optimum timing for the trip, and avoiding major holidays, festivals, times of religious observance, and customers’ selling seasons. Bear in mind the different working week in some Muslim countries, where the weekend is Thursday to Friday.
  • Ensuring that all business data as well as sales and marketing materials (print and digital: it’s always beneficial to leave something physical behind) are prepared in adequate quantities.
  • Allowing some recovery time after a long-haul flight so that you are fit to conduct your meetings. Arriving in the evening is beneficial. There is no easy answer to the problem of jet lag, but moderate in-flight consumption is advisable!
  • Researching local journey times and allowing for the heavy traffic in some destination cities. Public transport can be a better answer in some places.
  • Erring on the side of fewer rather than more meetings in a day, unless you are well acquainted with the environment and confident the schedule is reasonable: dashing away abruptly from a meeting does not leave a good impression, and there follows the stress of the next deadline.
  • A word about gifts: gifts and hospitality have become a somewhat delicate matter in recent decades, with the possibility that they are being used to achieve inappropriate commercial influence. Some international publishers have paid dearly for what has been seen as tantamount to bribery with extremely lavish and disproportionate gifts. However, the giving and receiving of small gifts which could not attract that charge continues to play its traditional part in business relationships, especially in a range of Asian countries. It is normal for visitors to find themselves receiving gifts, and they may wish to reciprocate with items they have brought with them. Whereas in western contexts the dynamic of entertaining is mostly determined by who is seeking to sell to whom (the seller pays), in Asia in particular the highly-developed traditions of hospitality mean that a local will not hear of being paid for by the visitor.