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Another Resource for Faculty: Book Reps

posted: 10.18.13 by Nedra Reynolds

In my own office on a campus where I’ve worked for 20+ years, I’ve met and talked with a number of “book reps,” which is by now a rather old-fashioned term.  Also, in all of my travels to talk about writing portfolios, I’ve met even more book reps:  they make many of the arrangements, pick me up at my hotel, transport me to the campus and the right room, and usually stay for my sessions, where it’s easy to tell that they have built relationships with the folks in the room. 

I tend to believe that the relationship between faculty and publishing reps should be deeper and more professional than “you are the seller and I am the buyer.”  Such an attitude makes faculty resistant to communicating with sales representatives and to helping them figure out what’s best for that program–even when what’s best for that program is a product from a different company.  So I want to suggest to faculty that a publisher’s reps are, possibly and ideally, a good resource for you and your teaching; at the same time, I want to suggest to reps how they might contribute to a positive working partnership.

First, for faculty:  Your rep may have a huge territory and probably represents products and services for several fields in the humanities as well as in the social sciences and natural sciences.  So they are really busy, too, and they have pressures on them that you probably don’t realize.  Given the squeeze on academic publishing in recent years, your rep is probably being asked to do more for less, as most of us are. Your rep attends annual meetings, where she is asked to learn about all the new materials. Most reps are asked to learn about their books and disciplines by reading prefaces and chapters of books, and some are even required to be “certified” on media products. True, your rep is not necessarily an “expert” in your field, but they are often very well educated and trained.  A good rep has been paying close attention to higher education for a number of years and will be able to ask you good questions about your learning objectives for a course and be able to tell you what faculty on other campuses are doing.  A good rep will have suggestions or offer solutions and will be willing to find out what they don’t know. Give them a chance to demonstrate what they can do for you or your students!

And for reps: Thanks for emailing beforehand to make an appointment if you know ahead of time that you’re going to be on my campus.  It’s okay if you drop in during my office hours unannounced, but in that case, I’m likely to be distracted when we meet. If you do drop in, thanks for asking if it’s a good time, or if you should come back in an hour or next week or next month.  I know your time is valuable, too, and I want to give you my full attention. And I appreciate it when you have obviously reviewed what courses we offer and who teaches them, and you know what textbooks or materials we already use.  If you took notes from our last meeting and have them available, all the better.

Faculty are keenly aware of the cost of textbooks as well as shipping.  So I might not be speaking for all of us, but I don’t really want unsolicited desk copies anymore.  Wait until we ask to see something or until you know we are searching for a new product.  Timing and opportunity are critical, and just-in-time information is more powerful than an abundance of it.  Similarly, if you want to demonstrate an online product, wait until it’s ready.  I know it’s very difficult to get permission to use actual student work, but if the demos could be populated with “pretend” students and their work, it is so much easier for faculty to judge how the program works in a real situation.  An unpopulated site cannot possibly represent how an actual class might use it.

Finally, if we are considering your product, we will be happy to share with you our criteria and how decisions are made.  If we don’t choose your product, it’s truly not personal and we make the best decision we can make for our program, students, and goals. Some committees or individuals might be happy to communicate with you what they chose and why—what features in particular cinched the deal—but the last thing that some faculty want to do is to re-hash the decision with you or try to explain why and how the choice was made.  In my experience, textbook or software selections are very hard work, often with fairly high stakes, and many of us are just glad when it’s over.  When a committee has worked hard for weeks, it’s frustrating to face the rep who can’t take no for an answer.

But most reps rock.  Truly.  And if faculty take advantage of their knowledge and training, and help them to understand the new directions in our fields, the relationship works for everyone.


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