An American Editor

May 14, 2014

Are University Presses Missing Out on Sales?

I recently bought a half-dozen hardcover books published by university presses, such as The Myth of Seneca Falls: Memory and the Women’s Suffrage Movement, 1848-1898 by Lisa Tetrault (University of North Carolina Press) and Confronting the Good Death: Nazi Euthanasia on Trial, 1945-1953 by Michael S. Bryant (University Press of Colorado). I considered buying several more books published by university presses but didn’t, and it is the reason why I didn’t and the reason why I didn’t buy the books I did buy directly from the presses that is the topic of this article.

(On the off-chance someone from a university press is reading this essay, let me say that the way I found some of the books — both those bought and those I thought about buying — is from ads in the New York Review of Books or their being reviewed or mentioned in a review in the NYRB.)

What would have induced me to buy the additional books even though the cost was high?

As is typically the case with university press books, they are expensive and only slightly discounted (usually 5% to 10%) by booksellers. Consequently, I think carefully about whether to buy a book. The other problem is that although I want to buy the hardcover for my library, I would prefer, in many cases, to read the book as an ebook. Some of the books, like the two I identified above, are not available in ebook form; others that I did consider buying but didn’t buy are available in both print and ebook formats.

And that is where the university presses are failing in their sales pitch. Why not make their books more attractive by including a free ebook version to anyone who pays list price? I know that rather than save 5% on a book, I would rather have a free ebook version, and I am confident that there is a group of consumers who think the same.

I grant that many of the books published by university presses are of interest only to academics. I own several that I would be surprised even if fellow academics found comprehensible, but which I bought because I am interested in the topic. (Alas, these books are so dense that years later they are still unfinished, although they do look nice on my library shelves.)

I understand that an ebook is not cheap to produce. However, if properly planned for during the production stages of the print book, the cost is significantly less than if the job had to be tackled from the beginning. If done simultaneously with the print version, the cost is very minimal today.

The idea of buying the hardcover version and getting a free ebook version is not new but it is an idea that has yet to be implemented fully by university presses.

The logistics are not all that difficult. More difficult is getting people to part with $60 for a book, even with a free ebook. University presses charge such high prices because sales are expected to be very limited, in some instances at most a few hundred books. But I suspect that their books would have increased sales with the ebook sweetener. Perhaps not lifting a book into six-figure sales, but perhaps into five-figure sales.

Yet it is not enough to have such a program in place; it has to be advertised. If I were running the university press, I would start by advertising that for a limited time, if a reader buys the book directly from the press, the reader will also receive the free ebook. Eventually I would expand the program so that booksellers could also offer the free ebook.

Once I started advertising the buy-with-free-ebook scheme, I would be certain that I did at least two things: First, I would be sure to add purchaser names and addresses to my mailing list so I could notify them of new releases and deals. Second, I would track sales carefully to try to determine whether the bonus ebook increases nonacademic sales.

University presses serve a very important function in publishing. The question is for how much longer will they be able to survive and fulfill that function in the absence of increased sales. Because their function is to publish academically worthy books rather than “bestsellers,” profits and sales numbers — although important — are secondary considerations. But at some point, as some university presses have already discovered, they become primary considerations.

Few university presses are prepared for that moment when profits and sales numbers become primary considerations; it goes against the primary purpose of the press. But thinking about how to increase sales, making plans to do so, and implementing those plans is something every university press should do. For buyers of university press books like me, one answer to how to increase sales is to include a free ebook version of the hardcover book. I know that had at least several, if not all, of the books I considered buying but decided not to buy had included the free ebook, I would have bought the books.

Would a free ebook version induce you to buy a book?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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