Many publishers don't consider hiring independent sales reps because they think the commissions will be too high or they won't have enough control of the salespeople. Publishing executives who have used independent reps successfully, though, say there are conditions in which they may even be the preferred option.
Jim Vick, publisher of IEEE Spectrum , has supervised both staff salespeople and independent reps in his 25 years of sales management and currently uses the latter almost exclusively. "I personally don't think there's much difference," he said.
Vick acknowledged that independent reps can require commissions of 15% to 20% on each sale. On the other hand, when sales volume dips, the publisher is still responsible for all the fixed costs-salary, benefits, office space, and travel and expenses-of a staff person. "That can get expensive very quickly," he said.
In such situations, Vick said, most publishers will trim the staff and expand the territories of existing salespeople. "I think that's a mistake," he said, adding that such a shift often leads to even greater loss of sales and market share.
Even though the engineering category has been in an advertising slump in recent years, Vick still expanded his independent rep sales force, from seven to 14 people. During that period, he increased business-across all print and electronic products-by 20% to 25%, he said.
Being able to "lock in your cost of sale" is one advantage of using independent reps, said Norm Kamikow, president and editor in chief of MediaTec Publishing. "When MediaTec started out, as a young company with young publications, we used independent reps exclusively," he said. As revenues grew, the company hired its own sales force, but one independent rep stayed on. "He has really proven himself to be a member of our team. He's equal to, if not better than, some of our staff."
Scott Pierce, an exec VP at Advanstar, said the publications he oversees use independent reps and staff salespeople. He spelled out four key situations in which to use independents:
When you cannot afford high-caliber full-time talent. "You almost always get a higher skill set without paying $150,000 or more to have that level of salesperson on staff," he said.
When you have a hole in the market that's too small to be a full-time territory.
When you need a salesperson with good personal contacts in a market.
When you're moving into a new area of business or geographic region. "There's no downside," Pierce said. "You don't pay anything until there's a sale."
"A lot of publishers don't feel independent reps focus enough on their publications," Pierce noted. "I always tell my publishers, `What you put in is what you get out.' "
Rather than treating independents as second-class citizens, he said, "we invite them to weekly sales meetings, we include them in every communication and I encourage publishers to go out and make calls with them."
Josh Gordon of Jordan Communication Strategies is an independent rep and a member of the National Association of Publishers' Representatives (NAPR). "To be a successful independent rep, you simply have to be better than what the publisher could get in-house," he said.
Those independent reps who "have staked out a specific category or have particular relationships are in more demand than ever," Gordon said.
Someone who has been selling for many years in a given industry, for example, has gotten to know a lot of people on their way up. Some of those people are now running the companies, and "very often an independent rep has access that you simply can't get otherwise," he said.