University presses are very important in the world of scholarly nonfiction publishing. Like many other small businesses, they are suffering in today’s economy — and have been suffering even when economic times have been good. University presses (UPs) bring prestige to a university and publish work that the for-profit commercial publishers, like Hachette and Random House, often will not publish because expected sales are so low and the reading audience so narrow and/or small.
UPs are generally subsidized by their schools. Absent the subsidies, there would be few, if any, UPs (excluding the giants like Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press). But when university budgets need reducing, UP budgets are often among the first to get sliced.
One problem that UPs face is that of book pricing. To make a book potentially profitable, the UPs have to list their books at high prices, much higher than the commercial presses. It is rare for a UP to have a runaway bestseller that is able to carry several other titles with it. And as we book buyers know, the higher the price, the less likely the book is to have mass appeal and sell in significant numbers. I suspect, but do not know for certain, that the largest number of UP sales are to libraries, the repositories of knowledge in a community, whose own budgets are being squeezed. As always, there is a ripple effect.
So that raises the question of the role of ebooks in the future of UPs. There are lots of hurdles that need to be overcome, not least of which is establishing an authoritative version (see Will eBooks Return Us to the Days of the Scribe? and eBooks and the Never-Ending Rewrite for a discussion of the problems of constant revising). The printed book is a resource to which all readers can look and see exactly the same content; the ebook is a resource that has the potential to never be settled thus even readers who look at an ebook have no assurance that they are seeing the same content.
We know that distribution and production costs are reduced with ebooks. Other costs remain the same as compared to a print version. If only an ebook version is produced, composition costs can be significantly reduced because a single template can be created into which content can be flowed — or so one would think. The reality is different, unfortunately. There may well be a change in composition costs, but it might not be less than for a print book, at least not under the current standards. As standards improve and become more nonfiction centric (as opposed to the current fiction centric), composition costs may well be reduced.
But there are advantages to an ebook that do not exist with a pbook. The obvious one is ease of delivery. It costs virtually nothing to deliver an ebook over the Internet. Perhaps the most important advantage for UPs, however, is the ease with which new editions can be created as new information is discovered. Modifying an electronic file is significantly easier than recreating a print version. And this might be the way for UPs to capitalize on ebooks: encouraging authors to continue with their research and update their books.
In fact, UPs should consider selling books as subscriptions rather than as final sales. Today, when I buy a UP published book, I get today’s offering and nothing more. Perhaps the author is continuing to work on the project or perhaps other scholars are using the particular book as the basis for their own enhancements to it. If so, I do not get the benefit of that work for many years, until a new edition is published or another author publishes a followup work, if ever.
A subscription, on the other hand, could serve me, the UP, and the author well. The UP would get a constant stream of revenue; the author would receive a constant stream of royalty as an incentive to continue research in the subject matter; I would get a constantly updated book. Granted this wouldn’t work with all UP offerings, but it shouldn’t be difficult to isolate those offerings for which it would.
A scheme such as this would also allow the UP the option of not offering a pbook version. Or it could offer a pbook and ebook in tandem (see eBooks & pBooks in Tandem), with the ebook being a subscription. The pbook would serve as the base, authoritative, original version of the work and the ebook would serve as a planned update service to the original research, whether by the original author or by other scholars in the field. This in-tandem combination would allow an initial sales capture (with its revenue) and an ongoing subscription sale (with its revenue).
Once this concept took root, there would be nothing to prevent UPs from creating packages of related books and ebooks that could include backlist titles and even forthcoming titles. For example, if the UP created a series on the history of the Tennessee Army in the Civil War, it could offer a subscription ebook series that included the first title in the series and the next 5 titles. By buying a subscription, the reader would be assured of getting the information and the UP would know sales in advance and revenues in advance. The subscriptions would encourage authors to continue their research and to share it with others via this model. The UP could even follow the Baen model of offering forthcoming manuscript in various stages and inviting readers to give the author feedback on everything from content to composition.
Perhaps not a perfect model, and really more just a collection of thoughts, but the UPs need to be forward thinking if for no other reason than we rely on UPs to preserve knowledge as nonprofit presses. The subscription concept could be a win-win-win — for readers, authors, and UPs.