Cambridge Publishing Society

Once a Sales Rep, Always a Sales Rep: talk by Martin Woodhead

Review by Becky Wojturska

Cambridge Publishing Society came back in full swing this academic year with an event featuring publishing guru Martin Woodhead, who is renowned for his business acumen and sales expertise. The room was full of eager students, industry colleagues, general CAMPUS members, and – as is custom at any CAMPUS event – bottles and bottles of wine.

So how did Martin become a businessman? ‘It began with hunger … because hunger is a great incentive to make money.’ However, Martin wasn’t talking about the kind of hunger that can be dealt with by a good pub lunch at the Kingston Arms or a large glass of Merlot on a cold winter’s night, but rather the hunger to succeed. Martin claims to have been given only meagre pocket money, a woe of many of our childhoods I’m sure, but that only fuelled his hunger to earn more; and he did this by buying, selling, and providing a service. From cleaning bungalow windows and earning 2/6d (12.5p) per lawn mowing with his own mower, to raising chickens for egg selling and plucking shellfish for cancer research, Martin really has done it all, even at one point digging graves for £20 per grave (or £60 a day if enough people were dying, he told us).

By 9 years of age Martin had bought his first Swiss watch (which, incredibly, he was still wearing that very night!), by 16 he had a moped, and by 17 (as self-proclaimed boy racer) a car. Martin’s calmer background in farming led to his studying of agriculture, yet owing to the curse of Newcastle Brown Ale, Martin took his exams in bed, failed botany and so went travelling to Massachusetts in the US. Martin later pursued the opportunity to become a temporary van man at Macmillan, even getting to meet Harold (ex-Prime Minister and Macmillan Chairman), calling him a ‘nice chap’. This began a wonderful career in publishing, with Martin’s next move being sales manager at Ashgate (800 titles a year) for three years. However, in 1972 Martin’s business itch came back and so, bringing his then-editor Ian Faulkner on board, he created the company Woodhead-Faulkner Ltd in Cambridge. To fund the scheme, he ‘chatted up’ sponsors for certain books, including Lloyds TSB; Jocelyn Dimbleby’s Cooking for Christmas was their first cookbook and sold in the hundreds of thousands. This company was sold to Simon & Schuster in 1989.

Martin made a new start with Woodhead Publishing, which (to start with) specialised in engineering and welding textbooks. Making £250,000 in the first year, Martin began to expand, even bringing in certain titles such as Food for the Aging Population (whilst joking that he himself, now in retirement, should give it a read). Woodhead Publishing was eventually sold to Elsevier in 2013.

So what now? After 48 years in publishing, how would Martin advise us on running and sustaining a successful publishing company? Quite simply, by keeping to the same principles that hold true for being a good sales rep: find out the needs of your customers and fulfil them. He pointed out Amazon as an example – Martin believes it’s time for publishers to engage with their customers, creating a really good website and turning fans, or those who like the free content or products available, into superfans who are by then loyal enough to spend money on the content or product. So knowing your customers and what they want – as well as how much they will pay, carrying out market research and forming a solid plan – is the key to success.

The awareness that value is more important than price has left Martin still feeling like a sales rep after 48 years, and he certainly sold us a knowledgeable, humorous, and inspirational speech, giving everyone in the room something to take away and use in their own careers. Perhaps the most important were his three key words telling us how to succeed: always be ‘humble, honest, and hungry’.

Cambridge Publishing Society

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