I started my publishing career looking after two teams of sales reps. I was in charge of making sure they received all the materials they needed, looking through their sales reports and following up on any requests they made therein, and processing expense claims. The two teams consisted of one calling on schools, and the other visiting bookshops: with striking originality we referred to them as school reps and trade reps.

At that time (the sixties of the last century) we didn’t in Britain have reps calling on university professors, a job which in America was something of a rite of passage into book publishing, certainly into college publishing. (The idea of a “college textbook” was alien to us. University teaching was just done differently.) Nor did we have inside sales reps, people who’d sit in the office and sell books by telephoning potential customers — or insofar as such a figure existed that would be me. I might on occasion be asked by a rep to call a teacher or a bookseller about some sensitive or cloudy issue.

The product of the school rep was strategic intelligence and requests for inspection copies; of trade reps, purchase orders. If a school teacher is going to be using your new textbook in their classes, they need obviously a bit more information than the sales rep’s hype which would be delivered at a prearranged session during break time or over the lunch break. So we’d send the interested teacher a copy of the book to “inspect”. If they decided to adopt the book (i.e. to use it for their classes) they’d get to keep the book for free or otherwise to buy it at a discounted price. My early post A nightingale sang in Euston Square describes the activities of the Home Sales Department in those distant days.

Back then there were lots of small bookshops around the country, and they’d be visited once a season. (Publishers recognized two seasons back then: we now often have three!) The sales rep would sit down with the buyer and go through the catalogue (which we’d refer to as the Seasonal List) and between them they’d make up the order for the new books which that store would place, either then and there, or subsequently via Her Majesty’s Post Office. They’d also spend a few minutes on backlist — a significant item in our sales reps’ bag was of course our Bibles. Calling twice a year on Dawson’s in the High Street in Galashiels, George Jack would obviously have a relationship with the owners. Trust would be established by results: in those days there were no returns, and you couldn’t allow yourself to be talked into over-ordering, but you did need to have enough stock to cover local demand.

What makes a person decide to be a sales rep? The sales reps were by and large graduates of secondary schools rather than universities (in those days social mobility was an ideal rather than a reality in Britain, and only a tiny proportion, about 3%, of school leavers went on to university). Sales reps were all male (again, thus it was in Britain in those days: and things were actually about to change). You’d become a sales rep because you were a bit of a self-starter, you liked books, and valued the freedom a company car would give you. In a large publishing company you couldn’t expect your reps to have read all the books they were selling, but they’d read huge numbers of them and had probably read in each of them. If you’re on the road what else are you going to do in the evening? There were tales of senior reps who’s homes had stacks of books on every step of their staircase because there were just not enough shelves available for their “library”. Our reps were hugely well-informed people. They were also uniformly nice people — you’re not going to be too successful in selling if you don’t know how to win friends and influence people. The times I spent on the road with them were a fascination and a joy — as well as an education.

Many a sales representative would have a much more realistic and grounded reaction to a new book than the editor. Their attitudes were, after all, honed by interaction with the ultimate customer. An editor can easily get stuck up that ivory tower. Virtually the only occasion on which sales reps and editors would interact was at sales conference. This was a two-or-three-day event, usually in London, at which editors would present their books due to be published in the next season to an audience of publishing staff and sales reps. Rather more important than the editor’s amplification of the copy in the catalogue was the discussion following on. To say there are no stupid questions is unnecessary: the questions were uniformly spot-on and probing. Conversation over lunch or dinner would also provide valuable feedback for editors. It was all too rare for an editor to spend a day or two on the road with a sales rep visiting bookshops or schools: an unfortunate gap.

The publisher’s sales department would send reps out into the world. At the same time its production and manufacturing department would be receiving a different group of reps from typesetters, printers, binders, and paper merchants. As a production buyer I would make it a rule to see all reps — as far as time allowed. After all you never know when you’ll find out about something new: even hearing about something old might lead you to a new insight. I did my stint later on as a printer’s sales rep — I was for a couple of years a sort of John the Baptist of print-on-demand — and I regret to have to say such an open door policy was not the norm. Still, I can also report that I never had a sales call which was anything other than a pleasure: people on the publisher’s side of the desk were uniformly “good guys”. For me it’s unambiguously true that being on the purchasing side of the desk is way easier than the selling side. A sales rep needs to face the potentially bleak prospect of starting every week with a blank slate: a production buyer will always have a desk covered with papers which need to be dealt with immediately: for me this is a huge comfort. As a sales rep you have to put up with the frustration of customers who refuse to even see you, or to be convinced by your spiel if they do, with a process which manages to screw up the job you’ve eventually managed to land, and with the loneliness of life on the road. Resilient optimism is definitely a job requirement.