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

14 Comments »

  1. I’m more likely to buy an ebook at a lower price and not buy the print book at all than go for the hardcover at full (or nearly full) price with a free ebook. We have no more room for print books, even though we cull our collection to donate to an annual nonprofit book sale every couple of years! The only print books I buy nowadays are craft or art books, or used books at the library, and most of the latter are quick reads that get donated back (it’s more like renting a book for a dollar).

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    Comment by Teresa Barensfeld — May 14, 2014 @ 10:43 am | Reply

  2. UMass Press has been offering an e-book option (with no requirement to purchase the hardcover version) for rather a while — “In partnership with Google, we have made more than 800 titles available for purchase by individuals in digital editions. These e-books are priced at least 20% lower than the paperback and hardcover editions. – See more at: http://www.umass.edu/umpress/authors/publishing-formats#sthash.3AbLOGcX.dpuf ” I think this is true, or becoming true, for many (not few) university presses.

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    Comment by domi — May 14, 2014 @ 12:34 pm | Reply

    • Many UPs offer an ebook option. I am not referring to an ebook option, however. If I buy a UP book, it is because I want it in hardcover for my library. What I would like is to be able to buy the hardcover for my library and have the ebook version to read. Personally, whereas I have little difficulty spending $60 on a hardcover, I find it hard to justify to myself spending more than $10 on an ebook, and even at that price, I am reluctant.

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      Comment by americaneditor — May 14, 2014 @ 12:46 pm | Reply

      • I’m sorry. I misunderstood. I have great difficulty spending $60 on anything and save up very carefully so I can buy hardcovers and read them as hardcovers (which I find much easier to read than e-readers).

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        Comment by domi — May 14, 2014 @ 1:05 pm | Reply

  3. I’m rather in Teresa Barensfeld’s situation regards space. Ebooks are the next best thing to unlimited storage space, given current storage media. So the free ebook probably wouldn’t change things much for anything that isn’t heavily dependent on large scale photographs and the like – what I’d want is an ebook that isn’t monstrously overpriced.

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    Comment by anansii — May 14, 2014 @ 6:17 pm | Reply

  4. […] 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 increas…  […]

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    Pingback by Are University Presses Missing Out on Sales? | ... — May 15, 2014 @ 8:29 am | Reply

  5. Many indie publishers offer a free e-book if you buy the printed book. I find this particularly valuable for craft books: I can easily print out a copy of the sweater pattern I want to knit, make notes all over it and then staple it into my notebook when I’m done, and do it all over again if I want to knit it again. But at the same time, I have the printed book to look over when I’m trying to figure out what to make, or lend to friends. I find myself resenting the traditional publishers of books NOT making the ebook version available, or having to choose whether to spend $20 to $25 or more for a printed book plus an additional $15 to $20 for the ebook. The net result is that I don’t buy many books from traditional publishers anymore, because I just can’t afford it!

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    Comment by Melissa — May 15, 2014 @ 9:48 am | Reply

  6. University presses are nothing if not experimenters and there have been–and doubtless will continue to be–some experiments by university presses in bundling print books and e-books. But I think there are a number of reasons why bundling has not typically been offered. First is that the cost of producing the e-book is not insubstantial, even when produced simultaneous with the print book. And there are ongoing costs of continuing to make an e-book edition available. So publishers expect an e-book edition to return income. Second, there is a substantial cost involved in building an infrastructure that efficiently bundles print and e-book purchases. That’s not trivial at all. Third, the perception is that most buyers choose between print and e-book formats when they purchase, just as they choose between cloth and paperback. That being the case, the e-book is expected to contribute not only to its production costs, but to the overhead costs (acquiring, editing, marketing) associated with the book. Your expecting the e-book to be free would then make no more financial sense than your expecting the paperback to cost you no more than its printing costs if you bought it together with the cloth edition. An interesting idea but not likely to gain traction with the accountants.

    Those are some of the reasons why bundling has not been embraced. But it has been tried. University Press of Kentucky had a brilliant experiment of sending a free e-book edition to anyone who provided proof-of-purchase buy taking a selfie with their copy of the print book. And there are others and will be others.

    University press books are frequently discounted when bought directly from the press. You could get Myth of Seneca Falls at a 40% discount direct from UNC Press http://www.uncpress.unc.edu/browse/search?promo_code=01DAH40Wom Some presses have “Friend of the Press” programs that offer a discount to financial supporters. At the University of Chicago Press, where I work, our customers will regularly get 20% discount http://www.press.uchicago.edu/books/subjectCatalogs.html If you have a local bookstore that stocks university press books, please please support them; if not, consider buying direct.

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    Comment by Dean — May 15, 2014 @ 10:50 am | Reply

    • Thank you for that shout-out, Dean! (In case you’re curious, check out our ebook loyalty program at http://upkebooks.tumblr.com/.)

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      Comment by University Press of Kentucky — May 15, 2014 @ 7:39 pm | Reply

    • Thanks for the response and view from a university press, Dean. I was unaware that I could have bought “Myth of Seneca Falls” directly at such a discount, but the lack of discount didn’t really matter; that was a priority book for me and so I bought it through my local store.

      The real issue is those books that I didn’t buy but thought about buying. They weren’t priority books but secondary buys, what marketers would classify as impulse buys. I needed to be incentivized to make the additional purchase, and my point is that I would have done so with the free ebook option.

      I was aware of the University of Kentucky Press’ experiment. At the time, I didn’t have any qualifying books that I was aware of (with all the books in my library, I rarely remember who the publisher is). I did not realize that it was an ongoing experiment. Which sort of raises another issue: How do university presses let people know of sales and other incentive experiments? There is a limit to how many things I can subscribe to and read, so I find that the way I discover many of the books I purchase is primarily through the reviews and ads in the New York Review of Books and a few other magazines. Occasionally someone will post that Oxford University Press or University of Chicago Press is having a sale, but if the University of Tennessee Press is having one, I don’t hear of it. Perhaps I should start offering to announce UP sales here on AAE.

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      Comment by americaneditor — May 16, 2014 @ 4:21 am | Reply

      • Thanks for buying through your local bookseller. You can sign up for Chicago’s monthly email of new releases, by subject area http://www.press.uchicago.edu/books/mailnotifier/subscribe.html That email will include books published by Chicago,as well as books from the dozens of other publishers for whom we do sales and marketing. Many other university presses have similar email notifications. Chicago has a Twitter feed dedicated to sales offers https://twitter.com/UCPbooks

        It is more difficult to keep track of new books of interest when there are fewer bookstores and less book review space in newspapers and general interest periodicals. The university presses have sought ways to collectively address the issue. In the meantime, long may the NYRB publish–it is the best single source for following new scholarship.

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        Comment by Dean — May 16, 2014 @ 1:28 pm | Reply

  7. […] 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.  […]

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    Pingback by Are University Presses Missing Out on Sales? | ... — May 15, 2014 @ 1:21 pm | Reply

  8. University of Kentucky Press has been experimenting with free ebook with printed book purchase and Georgetown University Press is beginning to go that route as well, through respective publisher websites.

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    Comment by John Warren — May 19, 2014 @ 11:09 pm | Reply

  9. I suspect that university presses will probably ultimately get around to bundling e-books with p-books. It hasn’t yet been that long since the e-book market started, so please allow for some settling down. I know it has been discussed. Offering a free e-book with the hardback edition at say $60 (while not offering the free e-book on paperback sales) would be a method of encouraging sales of the (more expensive) hardback edition and could thus make economic sense. But by and large publishers of all sorts are hesitant to give away something which they can ultimately sell. Such a bundle would be regarded as a promotional cost.

    One thing you say makes me wonder though. Did you really mean “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.”? Even if you are thinking dollars rather than unit sales, these numbers are immense. Very few university press books can expect to sell 10,000 copies of a book. I don’t of course know, but I bet the two books you mention printed less than 1000 copies — many monographs published simultaneously in hardback and paperback will print maybe 1500 paperbacks and 300 hardbacks. It is VERY hard to make money doing this!

    I agree with you that “University presses serve a very important function in publishing”. I am now retired, but I worked for university presses for most of my career. When you say “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” this is a noble sentiment, but unfortunately no university press nowadays can do anything other than regard finance as a primary consideration.

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    Comment by Richard Hollick — May 22, 2014 @ 7:10 pm | Reply


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