The Life of a Higher Ed Sales Rep

The Higher Education Division of UTP is quickly approaching its fifth anniversary, and in advance of this hallmark, we will be contributing monthly blog postings on the purpose and various functions of our division. Our first five years have been set amidst a background of rapidly changing technologies and shifts in the needs of teachers and scholars, and we would like to contribute our voices to the wider conversation. To carry on the discussion, one of our publisher’s representatives, Kris Gies, provides some insight into the life and motivations of a higher ed sales rep.

Hello and salutations! While you read this, there is a strong possibility that either myself or one of my colleagues are currently visiting your school on behalf of the University of Toronto Press. Given the resumption of our sales travel, UTP’s ongoing series of blog posts is particularly timely, as it allows me the opportunity to share a bit about the work that I perform as a publisher’s representative, as well as some brief musings on the perks and challenges that I often encounter in my travels.

In a nutshell: As a publisher’s representative, I am tasked with marketing books published by the University of Toronto Press. Focusing on institutions of higher learning, through both email correspondence and in-person visits, I promote UTP titles with the aim of having them included as required course materials. Beyond this primary role, I also engage in acquisitions, providing information and advice for individuals who are interested in publishing books with us.

By its very nature, my work involves considerable travel. Over the course of an academic year I will have travelled from San Francisco to St. John’s, making a multitude of stops in between. I have logged so many miles that I have become a knowledgeable, fair judge of the quality of complimentary hotel shampoos, and have a greater familiarity with car rental agencies than a person probably should. From first-hand experience, I can confirm that the anguish of having one’s in-flight entertainment system fail mid-air is surprisingly powerful. I feel perfectly capable of crafting a thoughtful, original monograph on the intricacies of hotel and airline rewards programs and their effect on business traveller identity. I have yet to figure out how I will structure my analysis. Suggestions are welcome.

Despite the long hours which come with moving from place to place, I enjoy the inherent variety that comes with visiting so many schools. Each institution has its particular charm, and I have developed an ongoing fascination with the ways in which they set themselves apart while at the same time being bound by a universal set of similarities. Few schools offer good parking. Dining options vary wildly. Students regardless of location dress remarkably similar to one another and for whatever reasons (the prospect of achy calf muscles clearly being the least of which) universities are usually built atop hills. A true to scale, well-designed campus map is worth its weight in gold.

Each day of a sales trip brings with it great possibilities. I have the opportunity to meet new people and see familiar faces, and in the process let them know about the books we have taken great pride and effort in publishing. This enthusiasm is often reciprocated through a genuine interest in the work we do, yet there is always the fear as to whether or not my presence will be well received. Sometimes an unpleasant encounter can be attributed to a faculty member’s busy schedule. I can understand that while navigating a full day of courses, committee work, and research obligations, a visit from someone like myself is not always a welcome occurrence. Aside from the demands on one’s time, as suggested in Nate Kreuter’s piece for Inside Higher Ed, wider, well-entrenched perceptions certainly play an additional role.

From expressing dismay with overly-pushy reps, to being flooded with unwanted examination copies of dubious interest, Kreuter paints a broad, unflattering brush that reflects commonly-shared opinions towards those in my line of work. As someone who encounters these negative perceptions firsthand, I feel it important to stress how the Higher Education Division of UTP operates and a bit about my own approach to promoting our titles.

Kreuter’s call for publishers to offer more efficient, less bothersome means of informing instructors of course material options is something we have long had in practice. Aside from our Adobe-based electronic examination system, UTP has had a longstanding policy of sending review copies on a request-only basis. In doing so, not only do we avoid passing higher marketing costs on to the student, it also means that we are not contributing to the problem of an instructor being inundated with unnecessary, unwanted books.

Unlike large commercial presses, we take a strongly consultative approach. That is, rather than aggressively pursue sales leads, we instead aim to foster relationships with faculty, build an understanding of their interests, give suggestions from our lists that may meet their needs, and offer further assistance going forward. From my own work as an instructor during my doctoral studies, I am familiar with the challenges one faces when selecting course materials. As we know, the factors are numerous: Will this book help students understand key concepts? Does it fit well with how I teach? Can they afford it? This experience has allowed me to not only come with an initial understanding of my clients’ concerns, but also serves as a personal motivation to help others avoid the same stresses I encountered in designing my courses. Many of my colleagues are of similar backgrounds and educations, and this in turn similarly informs their work.

When I email or visit you in person, I am doing so with a clear objective in mind, be it to let you know of a UTP title that might be of use, follow up on a book you requested, or to simply touch base. I’d rather not waste my time or yours, so I try to learn what your teaching and research interests are and let you know in advance when I will be available. If it seems like I am particularly eager to say hello, it is due to matters of logistics and geography. As someone who traverses several states and provinces, I may only have the opportunity to visit a given school once or twice an academic year, and as such it is important to make the most of my time. As in many other settings, despite its convenience, email correspondence is no substitute for face-to-face conversations.

Such interactions I have during my travels are particularly valuable, as beyond simply getting to know people, they allow me the opportunity to keep abreast of pedagogical trends and how UTP can supply effective course materials both now as well as in the future. Indeed, I consider it a perk to be continually learning from the very experts in a given field. Sometimes these meetings even result in sparking an interest in writing the very books we hope will be a useful contribution to your discipline and how it is taught.

The next time you see myself or one of my colleagues at your office door, please keep in mind that we are there with the hope that through our efforts—the tedium of airplanes and airports, the driving of long distances, and the time away from friends and loved ones—in our little way, we are making your life a bit easier. It is simply good business.

And I apologize in advance for stopping by while you’re eating lunch…

-Kris Gies, Publisher’s Representative